gi-Jin opened last April after four years of buzz and a bunch of minor concept changes along the way. The intimate downtown establishment, with a menu focused on raw fish preparations, offers delicious nigiri, sometimes great small plates, attentive service, tasty drinks and an escapist vibe.
Rough wooden beams straddle the dining area like the bones of a whale, while small touches throughout — like pops of pink flowers and colorful knick-knacks on the back bar shelves — break up the minimalist feel for the dining room. space feels inhabited. Likewise, the downtempo music is more soothing than higher-octane concepts from the Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group, such as the adjacent täkō and (temporarily closed) Butcher and the Rye.
RDRG owners Richard DeShantz and Tolga Sevdik are the builders of Pittsburgh’s contemporary restaurant empire. Over the past decade, they’ve opened a string of establishments that still feel well suited to the times. The duo – DeShantz is the creative and culinary visionary and Sevdik handles the cogs of the operational logistics – have a rare talent for catering to large audiences while paying enough attention to small details to rise above them. from their mundane mass-market counterparts.
One of the secrets of the DeShantz Group’s success is hiring, developing and retaining talent, and the engaging and forward-thinking front desk and bar staff are mostly long-time company employees. RDRG recruited Michael Taylor, formerly of Umami, to guide Gi Jin forward as a chef. It was a smart move. Taylor is one of Pittsburgh’s rising stars and he shows strong technique while continuing to improve his craft. At Gi-Jin, he brings in quality fish and carves it on the spot with skillful knife work that brings out the right texture for each fish.
At the top of the menu is a selection of hot and cold small plates, and it’s where Gi-Jin currently cooks up some of the most exciting dishes in town. Take the hamachi appetizer, which features tender slices of hamachi on a vibrant palette of winter-sweet yellow, pink and orange yuzu emulsion, compressed kumquat, red-veined sorrel, pickled fennel, horseradish fresh and yuzu salt. These toppings showcase the sweetness of the fish with sweet, tart, and tart notes, enhance its velvety texture, and finish with a crisp zing from the salt.
Equally delicious is the beef tataki, one of the few non-fish dishes on the menu. Taylor takes inspiration from Korean influences with white kimchi, gochujang (fermented red chili paste), homemade bulgogi sauce, sesame puffed rice and sun-side Jidori egg dressing, lightly seared steak wafers. It’s dramatically plated and ridiculously delicious, one of those dishes you think of the next day. (Plus, it’s a good idea to include a menu item that appeals to people less inclined to eat raw fish.)
Sometimes the mixed dishes miss the mark, looking more like a work in progress or a practical but under-delivered way to use fish trimmings. The toro tartare with paddlefish caviar, whipped tofu, plum ponzu, pickled daikon, mayu oil and nori wasn’t bad on its own; there was just too much to do, as all the other components took the toro away. I would have preferred a leaner, more assertive section of tuna here (which would have helped make the texture less gummy), and I’m not sure why the whipped tofu was used as a side dish with such a fatty cut of fish. The accompanying plate-sized cracker was hard to break, and it did so unevenly; worse, it did not enhance the enjoyment of the dish.
Beneath the entrees on the menu is a selection of nigiri, the seemingly simple but often alluring combination of sliced raw fish and seasoned rice. That’s the only reason to visit Gi-Jin, because what they offer is at the very limited upper end of Pittsburgh. As for what to order, there are menu standards such as tuna and salmon variations and ever-changing seasonal items, so find out what’s on offer and discuss your preferences with your server. As a general rule, try to balance your meal with lighter options such as sea bream and bolder selections such as uni (which on a recent visit was beautifully rich and brackish).
I enjoy how Taylor dresses up individual pieces, like topping Spanish mackerel with wasabi chimichurri that cuts the intensity of flavorful fish, livening up sweet scallops with lime zest, and topping hamachi with ponzu, preserved lemon and green onion. He works with a light but specific touch, although I think he could go all the way with wasabi on most of his pieces.
On that note, I wondered why I was given soy sauce and wasabi on my visits, but was never told that the bites were seasoned, meaning we would have to enjoy them as is . This was a rare, but repeated, service fault for an otherwise very knowledgeable reception staff. The flow is also cut off. Two luxurious bites – silky, A5 Miyazaki wagyu umami bomb and lusty, luscious o-toro – are usually a grand finale at sushi restaurants; it gets rid of the rush of the meal when these are served before the rest of the lighter nigiri pieces, as they were on my visits.
Sushi connoisseurs know that the rice is as important as the fish in an exceptional bite of nigiri. At Gi-Jin it’s cooked plump and firm as it should be and is usually seasoned appropriately with the right amount of vinegar, although in one visit it could have been a bit drier. It was served just below body temperature in most cases, but that’s more the result of sending several bites together (rather than piece by piece) than inattention to detail. I’d love an omakase option, but as things stand, I’d suggest asking your server to limit each round of nigiri to a maximum of four bites.
The section of the menu that needs the most work is the rather long selection of hand rolls, which is a little disappointing given that the establishment advertises itself as a “hand and gin bar”. A few of them, in particular the toro and the eel, have a harmonious composition. Unfortunately the rest of the group are overloaded burdens blowing over the fish with a confusion of flavors. Some, like a miso-flambéed salmon roll with too much sauce, behaved like a tube of toothpaste, with toppings sticking out of the edges and the nori reduced to dampness.
The large portions of the hand rolls – and, to a lesser extent, the nigiri – meant that I felt queasy before the meal was over, which shouldn’t happen in a well-thought-out raw fish restaurant (well sure, you can order fewer items, but part of the point of the experience is to be able to enjoy a variety of selections). It also meant that I didn’t order dessert when visiting in February, which was a shame as RDRG Pastry Chef James D. Wroblewski II is one of the best in town. Her small dessert menu at Gi-Jin is terrific, especially the matcha misu (tiramisu cream, matcha honey tea and ladyfingers) – which, with hints of Twix green tea, was far better than any what a traditional tiramisu I had in Pittsburgh.
I’m not in the idea of having Gi-Jin’s menu accessible only by QR code. There’s plenty to take in here, especially with the extensive drink list, which is terrific and leans heavily on sake and gin selections you won’t find anywhere else in Pittsburgh.
Why not make better use of technology? If I’m ever forced to look at my phone to figure out what to order, it would be helpful to have access to flavor notes to help understand the nuances of a drink like sake that’s largely unknown to Pittsburgh diners. I would also like RDRG to offer a digital waiting list; The 34-seat restaurant is one of the hardest tables to get in town, with reservations filling up weeks in advance, and the only way to get a last-minute table is to follow the establishment on the social networks and to call when you see these tables are available.
Gi-Jin may not be “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”, but that doesn’t matter because he does exactly what he’s supposed to do: provide a friendly and often delicious diversion from the hectic mess of the beginning. of the 2020s.
From my first visit the week the restaurant opened to my most recent last month, Gi-Jin’s trajectory has intensified. DeShantz seems to give Taylor the freedom to experiment and move forward, and he has access to quality ingredients. With a little more small plate recipe testing and streamlined rolls, Gi-Jin will be a feather in the hat for downtown restaurants.
For now, choose a few small plates to share with your table (one for two people), select four to six bites of nigiri, and stick to the toro and eel rolls. Split a dessert and a bottle or two of sake, and you’re off to a wonderful night.
208 Sixth Street, Downtown