“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a saying that can be applied to restaurants, too. Or rather, don’t judge a restaurant by its prices, as was the recent lesson I learned.
The case: Biba, a new Latin/tapas restaurant in Beaver, PA, about 40 minutes north of Pittsburgh.
The menu: A variety of small and large plates, meant to be shared. The menu changes weekly to take advantage of foods that are fresh and in season (I know, right up my alley, right?). On the night I visited, small plates ranged from $4-$12 and large plates cost $16-$26.
The dilemma: I attended Biba’s soft opening night in late summer, at which small plates were $7 and large $14. I feel this is more in line with the prices people expect to pay for a dining experience in Beaver. So, I went into my more recent experience thinking that no matter how good the food was, expecting Beaver County residents (of which I am one) to pay $26 an entrée was setting the restaurant up for failure.
I was wrong.
My mistake: Expecting the prices to match the location, rather than the quality of the food and its preparation. Beaver County can never compete with Pittsburgh food-wise unless we cultivate restaurants like Biba. Just because it’s new and this type of dining and pricing hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean it won’t work. I will gladly travel to Pittsburgh, spending who knows how much in gas and parking fees, to pay these sorts of prices at a well-reviewed restaurant. Luckily, now that Biba is right around the corner from me, I don’t always have to anymore.
The lesson learned: Beaver County finally has a fine dining restaurant that can challenge almost anything you can find in Pittsburgh.
On my recent visit, upon sitting down and having our wine poured*, we were almost immediately treated with a generous amuse bouche, served tapas-style on a small plate for the three of us. Amuses, a complimentary “gift from the chef,” are supposed to awaken your taste buds and set the stage for your evening of dining, and this one certainly did. It consisted of sautéed Swiss chard, roasted cauliflower, capers, and hard-cooked egg, all in a light lemon vinaigrette—a surprising but delicious combination of flavors in the bitter greens, sweet caramelized cauliflower, acidic lemon and capers, and clean creaminess from the egg and its yolk.
Speaking of the chef, Biba’s executive chef is David Plankenhorn, who, along with general manager Jason Benegasi, formerly worked at Lidia’s Pittsburgh. Which may have something to do with Biba’s fine caliber. I’m just sayin’.
Anyway, for our small plates, we ordered jerk shrimp with pineapple sauce, crab and chorizo fondue, and an off the menu special: spaghetti squash with pumpkin sauce. I didn’t try the shrimp because shrimp is one of the few foods I won’t eat because I simply can’t stand the texture, but I was told it was delicious. The crab and chorizo fondue was full of beautiful lump crabmeat (well worth the $12 alone!), but I found the chorizo flavor a little too subdued. The fondue was served with fresh, handmade corn tortillas, which I thought were the star of the dish. The pinnacle among the small plates, however, was definitely the spaghetti squash (photo at the top of this post). Cooked to a moderate crisp tender, the squash was dressed with a deep orange pumpkin sauce accented with a creamy white sauce and topped with pepitas. The feast definitely started with our eyes. But after we stopped gawking and photographing and actually tasted it, the dish went to an even higher level. The pumpkin sauce, sweet from the roasted pumpkin, was balanced with a moderate amount of spice, which was cooled with the cream sauce. The salt and crunch from the pepitas rounded out the dish nicely.
For the large plates, we ordered the adobo-rubbed NY strip steak and the pan-roasted fish of the day, which happened to be tuna. The steak was perfectly cooked to our order (medium-rare) and fairly spicy from the adobo rub, so the side of roasted butternut squash was a welcome complement. The tuna was seared rather than roasted so that it, too, was rare to medium-rare, and it was served with a side of pickled butternut squash. I thought the tuna was also perfectly prepared, but I wasn’t a big fan of the acidic-sweet pickled squash. Please don’t get me wrong; it was very creative and well done, but it just wasn’t something I would try to make at home.
In the interest of full disclosure and to adhere to all FTC blogging requirements, we received a complimentary dessert. We were chatting up the manager who was also our waiter, and it came out that one of my dining companions single-handedly moved the restaurant up from #31 to #4 on TripAdvisor, so he thanked her with a free dessert, which she graciously shared with the rest of the table. We had the churros with chocolate chili ganache. The churros were very crispy and dusted with a generous coating of cinnamon-sugar, and the ganache. What can I say about the ganache. It was the richest, deepest, most chocolatey ganache I’ve ever tasted.
Unless you’re used to eating like this all the time, Biba is the kind of place you save for special occasions—birthdays, anniversaries, work parties, date nights. But be assured, those occasions will be all the more special at Beaver County’s newest, and in my opinion best, fine dining restaurant.
*Beaver is a dry town, so all restaurants are BYOB. Biba charges a very reasonable $1 per person corking fee.