Tucked away in the North Side’s Troy Hill neighborhood, near the summit of the terrifyingly steep Rialto Street, sits Scratch Food & Beverage.
In many ways, Scratch is a classic corner bar. A mismatched array of Pyrex coffee mugs hangs on a wall near the tiny kitchen. Quirky thrift store salt and pepper shakers dot the tables. A pile of board games occupies one corner; a pinball machine stands in another. Though just minutes from Downtown, Scratch is worlds away from the dizzying dining rooms across the river.
Scratch is sneaky, however. You won’t find baskets of fried food and cups of ranch dressing here. Under the direction of ambitious young chef Brandon Blumenfeld, Scratch is serving up a menu that rivals anything Downtown — or anywhere else in the city, for that matter. Blumenfeld and owner Don Mahaney describe their cuisine as “elevated accessible”: simple dishes executed with flair.
It’s taken Scratch the better part of two years to settle into their current groove. Since opening in late 2015, Mahaney struggled to find his footing in the booming Pittsburgh restaurant scene, with a revolving door of executive chefs making it challenging to develop an identity. That changed when Blumenfeld came on board. A native Pittsburgher, Blumenfeld returned to the city after training and working all over the country. Drawing on that education and experience, along with a passion for local produce, he rapidly turned the Scratch kitchen into a can’t-miss dining experience.
We were thrilled when Blumenfeld agreed to be the first chef in a new series for CraftPittsburgh. The guidelines are simple: create a three-course meal paired with three beers. Here’s what he came up with:
The first dish is more than an appetizer: it’s a mission statement.
“We try to make vegetables more of the star of things,” Blumenfeld explains. “There are a lot of people who take great care and respect for the products they grow, and that’s something I totally can appreciate.”
Paired with a Blackberry Farm saison (see the sidebar for more on the beers), the dish is built around delicata squash from Cherry Valley Organics in Burgettstown, Pa. The roasted squash is paired with fried Brussels sprouts, house-made ricotta and chestnuts cooked in brown butter and sage. It’s an explosion of fall flavors — no bacon necessary.
Blumenfeld’s appreciation for local, seasonal ingredients runs deep. After attending culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Miami, he headed to California to work on organic farms, developing an understanding of the amount of time and effort it takes to raise a chicken or grow a tomato from seed.
From there, Blumenfeld moved to New York and cooked at several acclaimed restaurants. Franny’s, a now-closed Brooklyn pizzeria lauded for their farm-to-table approach, had a particularly profound impact.
“The food was so different from anything I had ever thought could be done,” he recalls. “It wasn’t molecular or anything like that … it was a Southern Italian restaurant that was run like the most fine dining restaurant you’ve ever been in.”
That same ingredient-driven, casual-yet-serious approach is on display at Scratch, where care and respect is lavished on everything: even a humble plate of roasted veggies.
For the main dish, Blumenfeld created an unlikely spin on schnitzel.
“This was inspired by a dishwasher that used to work here,” he explains. “He was in the Army and was stationed in Germany. One day I asked a bunch of people what their favorite food was, and he was like ‘Dude, if you could make a schnitzel like I had in Germany, I would love you forever.’”
With a strong pork dish already on the menu and an appreciation for the city’s love of fried fish, Blumenfeld turned to skate wing for the base of his schnitzel. The skate is breaded and fried, then served with a cauliflower puree, roasted garlic and a watercress salad. Paired with an amber ale from Roundabout, the dish is a hearty meal fit for fall.
It’s a stunner of an entrée, clever without being fussy. There are no fancy tricks or showy garnishes to hide behind. Instead, Blumenfeld showcases great ingredients with classic techniques.
“It’s not like, foams and gels,” he says. “We’re not trying to throw any smoke and mirrors out there. We’re trying to just do really authentic, super delicious food.”
For dessert, Blumenfeld took inspiration from another fall favorite.
“I wanted to do something that was like a pumpkin pie, but not a pumpkin pie,” he says.
The base is a pumpkin panna cotta, a classic Italian custard. The panna cotta is topped with a Golden Graham streusel, a brittle made from pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds, and a big dollop of marshmallow fluff. The cereal and marshmallow recall childhood desserts, but the savory brittle and a hit of Maldon salt add refinement and balance. A toasty coffee porter from Hitchhiker Brewing Co. offsets the dessert’s sweetness, a decadent end to a lovely autumnal feast.
Like the restaurant itself, Blumenfeld’s dessert is playful yet sophisticated. It’s the perfect encapsulation of that “elevated accessible” vibe. It may look a bit fancy and have a few unfamiliar ingredients, but, in the end, it tastes like pumpkin pie. A damn good pumpkin pie.
From farming in California to working in top-notch restaurants in New York, Blumenfeld brings an array of experience to Scratch. But he is also a fourth generation Pittsburgher with an innate sense of the city, able to walk that line between neighborhood hangout and destination restaurant. Though the prices might be higher than other spots in the area, Blumenfeld is conscious of Pittsburghers’ low tolerance for BS.
“This is still in a neighborhood in Pittsburgh,” notes Blumenfeld. “We’re not in the heart of Downtown, we’re not in the heart of Lawrenceville. At the end of the day, these people that come in here, if we’re going to ask them to pay that much money for the food, I’m going to make sure they leave full and satisfied.”
SIDEBAR: The Beers
For his blowout meal, Blumenfeld turned to Mikey Orellano, a former Scratch employee and big-time beer lover, for help with the beverages. He told us more about picking the perfect pairings.
First Course: Blackberry Farm Barrel Series Brett Saison 18
For the first course, Orellano chose the Saison 18 from Tennessee’s Blackberry Farm Brewery, which is fermented with Brettanomyces and aged in red wine barrels. It’s light and citrusy, playing off the tang of the homemade ricotta, and the oak and Brett funk bring an earthiness that complements the fall veggies.
Second Course: Roundabout Rusted Route
Orellano grabbed the Rusted Route amber ale from Roundabout Brewery in Lawrenceville to pair with the main course. It’s a wonderfully food-friendly beer, with a clean bitterness that cuts through the rich skate and buttery cauliflower.
Third Course: Hitchhiker The Shakes
For dessert, Orellano brought The Shakes, a coffee porter from Hitchhiker Brewing in Sharpsburg. The beer delivers toasty, pie crust notes and a touch of smokiness that balances the sweetness of the panna cotta and marshmallow.