Monday, June 28, 2010

Eleven, Pittsburgh PA

Ideally I tend to avoid restaurants owned by a “restaurant group,” especially the groups that seem intent to cover every corner of the culinary globe. Its not that I’m against large conglomerates owning restaurants, it is that they often feel contrived or “put-on” – as if they’re trying to hard to be everything to everyone. With that noted, I must say that there are certainly exceptions like Danny Meyer’s Union Square Restaurant Group in NYC and the LettuceEntertainYou Group in Chicago that have put on outstanding meals – great enough that I felt it requisite to visit at least one of the Big Burrito family during my visit to Pittsburgh.

With most of the collection open for both lunch and dinner I scoured the reviews and the menus – it was honestly a toss-up between Umi, Eleven, and Casbah from the start. In the end it turned out that Umi was closed and I actually preferred Casbah’s lunch menu to dinner...and Eleven apparently had a Chef’s Table Tasting Menu that was largely unadvertised. Calling the restaurant I was informed that the Chef’s Table was generally for groups of 4-6, but if no one had booked it for a given night they’d be willing to seat a solo for the standard price of $100 for 9 courses – placing my reservation a couple weeks in advance I was glad to find out that Mondays were generally quiet and I’d have the table all to myself.

Arriving at the attractive restaurant – high ceilings, glass, and sleek woods galore – just before my 6:30 reservation I was greeted by a pair of smiling hostesses and led immediately to the Chef’s Table – a long wooden booth adjacent to the kitchen. Somewhat disappointed as my only vantage point of the action in the kitchen was through a small slit in the tiles, I was promptly greeted one of two servers who provided the cocktail list and filled my water. Professional and courteous I will note that service throughout the evening was mostly competent, albeit not overwhelming – a course was delivered without silverware, water reached empty twice, plate clearing was a touch slow. Fortunately, as part of the Chef’s Table experience I had the honor of receiving all of my dishes (and excellent descriptions of preparation and ingredient sourcing) from Chef Chad himself.

Drink order placed (a potent yet subtly sweet Effed Up Tom Collins featuring Effen Black Cherry Vodka, Lemon, and Soda,) I sat and chatted with the young chef for a bit – a pleasant and down to earth man it was great to see how excited he was about his menu and sourcing, especially his house cured charcuterie. Asking me about likes and dislikes our dialogue lasted approximately 5 minutes before I was wished “Bon Appetite” and the Chef disappeared to the kitchen.

Shortly after the chef’s departure the bread-lady arrived with a woven basket featuring three house-made breads. Browsing the online list and realizing Eleven takes orders for breads and confections all I can say is that the bread basket gives me a good idea why – all three of the options were excellent. From a sweet yet toothsome Currant Semolina Sourdough, to a rustic and aromatic Carraway Wheat, to a heavenly moist Sea Salt Focaccia each of the options was excellent...and while my primary server wasn’t always on the ball, I was never for want when it came to bread.

Kicking off the tasting menu was a pairing not unlike many amuses bouche – to the left a Beau Soleil Oyster Wrapped in Zucchini and topped with a yuzu gelee, and to the right a foie gras mousse topped with pink peppercorn and strawberry. While somewhat predictable I have to say that the Oyster was one of the better raw preparations I’ve ever had – the briny mollusk tempered nicely by the crisp zucchini and sour cube. The foie gras – it was good, but nothing I hadn’t experienced before, and much smaller.

Dish two would up the ante in terms of size, flavor, and technique. Entitled Salmon with Lemon Miso, Cucumber, and Radish the course paired an excellent slice of sashimi grade line caught King Salmon with crisp cucumber, bitter radish, and a texturally compelling lemon accented miso paste. Drizzled with a spicy sauce highlighted bold accents of jalapeno the overall flavor harkened to a spicy salmon roll.

The third course of the evening would provide the first “wow” of the tasting – an impressive accomplishment given the simplicity of the dish. Served proudly and with great description by Chad the House Cured Prosciutto with Three Sisters Mesclun, Vin Cotto, Olive Oil was sublime – the nutty notes of the silky pork only enhanced by the slightly bitter greens, acidic yet sweet vin cotto, and smooth olive oil. A new passion of the young chef I was even given the opportunity to see the curing area after my meal – a small section of the wine vault with meats aged anywhere from a week to nearly a year – a return visit for charcuterie at the bar would certainly be on my agenda if I lived locally.

Course four would return to fish yet also continue the savory tones of the previous course. Alaska Halibut with Red Pepper, Bacon, Tarragon, Asparagus, and Carrots proved to be a rather straight forward dish – familiar yet well done. Anchored by a nicely seasoned pan seared slice of halibut the addition of fresh vegetables, salty bacon, and spicy red pepper simply served as a reminder that chefs need not always use esoteric ingredients to make a fresh piece of fish taste great.

Dish five would mark the midpoint of the meal and continue to display Chad’s skill with traditional “American” food done right. Again featuring ingredients that were neither unfamiliar nor exotic, Tagliatelle with Lobster, Mascarpone, Asparagus, and Lobster Coral featured snappy and sweet Atlantic lobster, approximately one claw and half a tail, served over nicely prepared hand torn Tagliatelle. Mellowing the sweet protein salty lobster eggs and crisp asparagus added texture and flavor, though I must admit I was a tad confused by why the chef would opt to use the same vegetable in back to back dishes.

A short break followed the pasta and the chef emerged to chat a bit between courses. Largely content although certainly not overwhelmed I was told that the next two courses were two of his favorites. The first, course six, would be another familiar flavor – but also one of the most stunning pieces of poultry I’ve tasted in some time. Described as Heritage Farms Chicken – Salt Roasted with Chanterelles and Savory the dish could not have been more simple or American…it also couldn’t have been much more delicious. Succulent and moist with a crispy skin the chicken itself was flawless. Pairing the fantastic bird with pan crisped woodsy mushrooms and an aromatic sauce – everything felt very “down home” yet at the same time very upscale.

The final savory of the evening would be my favorite, as well. Large in portion and bold in flavor, Elysian Field Farms Lamb – Sous Vide with Crispy Lamb Neck, Anson Mills Polenta, Golden Artichoke, and Mint was marvelous. Nearly raw yet sizzling hot, the lamb itself was not as gamey as would be expected and the crispy wrapping of neck lent plenty of texture and savory flavor. Acting as a bed to the butter-knife soft lamb was a chive laden and creamy polenta with the slightest hints of mint and mace. Flanking the protein along with a savory lamb jus were crispy artichoke hearts – pan seared and creamy within, a vegetal composition not unlike the lamb in terms of presentation.

Following the lamb, course 9 would serve as my cheese course. Browsing the cheeses offered I have to admit I was hoping for Red Hawk as my composed course and I was delighted when the washed, triple cream cow’s milk cheese from Cowgirl Creamery arrived. Entitled Red Hawk, Brioche, Membrillo, Honey, Walnuts this was one of the better single offering composed cheese courses I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy…mostly because the buttery velvet texture of the Red Hawk is just so good on its own and the slightly sweetened brioche was (like everything from Eleven’s bakery) fantastic…and really, quince never fails either.

A long delay followed the cheese course – it was then that I took a tour of the wine/charcuterie room, was treated to a view of the kitchen, and chatted with Chad some more. Returning to my seat I was next greeted by the pastry chef who presented me a trifecta of her favorite desserts from the menu. Titled on the menu as “Tasting” the trio contained miniature versions of Eleven’s Famous Peanut Butter Pretzel Candy Bar, Banana Cream Pie with Tapioca, and Brioche Bread Pudding with Cinnamon and Strawberries. While I will note I’d have preferred received all three as separate courses (time and temperature reasons only) I will also note that the lady has talent – each option was stunning. Creamy peanut butter with chocolate ganache and salty pretzels, caramelized bananas with hand whipped cream and graham crackers…and oh the Bread Pudding. With finger-thick slices of buttery brioche caramelized and doused in a salty cinnamon caramel reduction, the only thing that made it better was the ice cream, a smooth dollop of spicy cinnamon that melted slowly over the hot pudding.

Full but not stuffed I awaited my check while chatting again with the chef – in all honesty I really do think Chad spent a good 30 minutes (of my somewhat expedited 115 minute tasting) either at my table or showing me the facilities. Bidding the chef farewell and congratulating him on a largely successful meal my bill arrived with a small plate of mignardises - Apricot Pate a Fruit, Strawberry Balsamic Pate a Fruit, and a Cocoa rolled Dark Chocolate. Settling the bill and collecting my belongings I made my way to the bar for a short time while awaiting my ride – a nice space, lively, and much more filled than the restaurant proper.

Looking back on dinner at Eleven the word the two words that come to mind are “American” and “Competent.” To be fair, in my experience I’ve never really had a tasting menu that I would call “American” without pronounced flourishes of French or Mediterranean – the Chef’s table at Eleven was almost like going to CUT or a similar high end steak house and getting a tasting…the food varied from very good to excellent, but certainly did not re-invent the wheel. For $100 the quality, presentation, and ingredients were certainly worth the price – but at the same time, I can’t say I would rush back. That said, Chad is an excellent Chef with a lot of potential and the space at Eleven is beautiful – I’d certainly go back for some a la carte selections and dessert anytime.

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