Pittsburgh dining was pretty grim for a very long time, comprised of tried and true Italian-American restaurants, average Chinese, and Eat 'N Parks. Even the well-off were limited to the stuffy, predictable charms of Christopher's on Mt. Washington, Top of the Triangle downtown, or the Park Schenley (where I worked as a waiter one summer in 1984, just before it wheezed its last gasp and expired) in Oakland.
But slowly appearing where real dining gems: Le Petit Cafe in Shadyside; the Carlton downtown; and Cafe Allegro and Le Pommier in the South Side, restaurants that offered items that were unlike any many of us had seen before. The grilled octopus at Cafe Allegro was a particular standout.
After reading that Chi-Chi's had been voted "Best Mexican Restaurant" in Pittsburgh Magazine, a couple of local entrepreneurs decided they could do better and opened Mad Mex. It was loud, crowded, colorful, and it had personality-- a funny, unique identity created by marketing geniuses Bernard Uy and James Nesbitt of Wall-to-Wall Studios (where I eventually also worked, in business development).
Mad Mex flourished and eventually led to Kaya, Vertigo (since closed), Soba, Casbah, and Eleven, the restaurants that comprise the big Burrito Restaurant Group. Suddenly, Pittsburgh was a viable dining town-- or at least leaning towards becoming one.
Pittsburgh's always been a good eating town: bacon cheeseburgers at Squirrel Hill Cafe; Lucy's banh mi in the Strip; Aiello's pizza in Squirrel Hill... but I would argue that until the arrival of this second wave group of restaurants in the late 1980s and early 1990s it was not a good dining town-- a place where you could relax over a meal you'd be unlikely to recreate at home, courses properly coursed, unrushed, delicious, a temporary reprieve from life's stresses... a small vacation that left you refreshed.
Now, the third wave of great dining opportunities has arrived: Salt of the Earth; Legume; Stagioni; Sienna; Cure; Root 174-- and the greatly missed Bona Terra.
But at the top of the list, for my money, is Eleven, where wifey and I enjoyed a superb meal last Saturday. Everything about the meal was perfect, from the greeting to the good-bye.
Our oysters were small yet plump, sweet yet briny, perfect with a glass of Carneros blanc de noir. Each were delicious on their own or dressed with the classic mignonette sauce or the habanero-based cocktail sauce (of which a little goes a long way).
Susan started with lamb Carpaccio, delicate, scented with coriander, dressed with miso-- it was toothsome but light, the earthy richness an easy foil for our Roussillon white wine. My tuna tartar was cool and refreshing, with hints of preserved lemon and occasional shards of shallot which added a bright line of treble to the finely diced flesh; a bass note came courtesy of briny white anchovies that formed an "X" on top of the perfect circle of tartar.
Susan's halibut swam in a sea of roasted seasonal vegetables: peas, grilled radicchio, beets and radishes... my two lamb loin chops were a perfect medium rare, served atop buttery polenta with roasted Brussel sprouts, dark olives, and a rich, deep demi-glace.
The sorbets refreshed, the cannoli comforted.
Our table was dimly lit and romantic. The service was gracious, attentive without being intrusive, the server informed and possessed of perfect timing.
Eleven may not be the newest, but it is a place where everything comes together with perfect execution.
And did I mention the dollar oysters in the bar during happy hour?