Eleven Contemporary Kitchen has most of the trappings of a fine-dining restaurant -- amuse-bouche, elegant service, multicourse menus, even a bread basket of delicious house-made breads -- without much of the hushed, haute reverence that usually accompanies fine dining.
Multiple dining spaces each have slightly different moods. Regular customers certainly have their favorite spots, whether in the downstairs dining room with a view of the open kitchen or the second story's opera-box table for four overlooking the bar area. A mix of exposed brick, polished woods and black leather lends the space a certain coherence.
It's elegant, but definitely not ostentatious; so much so that a number of diners were comfortable in jeans and sneakers, even on a Saturday night. This combination of casual ambience with upscale food and drink is a trend of the moment, one that Eleven has had for several years.
But the lack of glitter sometimes feels a little sad. After all, if anyone's food deserves a bit of worshipful appreciation, a moment of pure sensual enjoyment, it's Derek Stevens'. Since he became executive chef in October 2006, Stevens has taken a restaurant that already had a reputation for greatness and elevated the dining experience to new heights.
3 stars = Excellent
1150 Smallman St.
- Hours: Lunch, Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; tavern menu, daily 2 p.m.-close; dinner, Monday-Thursday 5-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5-11 p.m., Sunday 5-9 p.m.
- Basics: Casual atmosphere with upscale service and food; new American menu with an emphasis on seasonality, house-made products, powerful flavors and elegant presentation.
- Recommended dishes: Roasted squash ravioli, smoked lamb taco, sea scallops, beet salad, wild striped bass, seminola gnocchi, Elysian Fields Farm lamb, pear pain perdu, s'more.
- Prices: Appetizers, $4-$20; entrees, $19-$43; desserts, $4-$8.
- Wine: A lengthy, varied, impressive list that represents both old and new world wines. While there are a number of affordable bottles, the list emphasizes a higher price point than many restaurants. Two sparkling wines, more than two dozen bottles each of red and white for $60 or less. More than two dozen wines by the glass, $8-$19. A dozen half-bottles. Mark-up of lower-cost bottles is extremely high, sometimes reaching 400 percent of PLCB price, but decreases as absolute cost increases. Wine pairing packages offer good value.
- Summary: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking $4; credit cards accepted; reservations strongly encouraged; corkage $20.
- Noise level: Low to medium-loud.
The menu, which changes daily, manages to stay true to the spirit of seasonality even in February and March, when it is impossible for any Pittsburgh restaurant to be strictly seasonal. Though the kitchen often starts with the same basic ingredients as many other local restaurants, the dishes that result are more complex and harmonious.
You can eat a dozen beet salads in Pittsburgh right now, but Eleven's was particularly memorable ($8). Roasted red and gold beets are merely the base note upon which so many other flavors play. There's richness from brioche toasted in butter; bits of capriole Mt. St. Francis goat cheese lend a grassy intensity in small doses; toasted pepitas add crunch and nuttiness; and the pungent, spicy sweetness of blackstrap molasses vinaigrette brings the components together.
Elysian Fields Farm lamb is a sophisticated play on meat and potatoes. Intensely flavorful slices of roasted tenderloin are accompanied by a lightly tart, silky smooth creme fraiche potato puree, a swipe of rich jus and another of sweet vin cotto. A tangle of cipollini onions, amazingly fluffy roasted squash, brussels sprouts leaves and sweet, plump golden raisins is redolent with sage -- one whiff took me straight back to Thanksgiving.
Stephens and his staff handle proteins incredibly well, not just the meat and fish at the center of the plate, whether fork-tender short ribs or crispy-skinned Scottish salmon, but also in a dozen more subtle ways. The superb charcuterie is all done in house, and the Eleven larder includes everything from bacon and Italian sausage to prosciutto, coppa and duck tasso.
Elements of charcuterie show up in many dishes, intensifying and building flavors. Perfectly cooked wild striped bass ($29) is alive with the flavors of the Mediterranean, sitting atop an Israeli couscous rich with hot Italian sausage, fennel, sun-dried tomatoes, and caperberries.A handful of tiny, tender calamari adds wonderful briny notes.
Chunks of duck tasso enliven black-eyed peas and wilted spinach, a base for two sea scallops with crispy potato crusts ($14). The potato strands for the crust are cut to order to prevent oxidation.
While meat does have a way of sneaking into a few seafood dishes, the menu also demonstrates a healthy respect for vegetables and vegetarians.Pastas and risottos are exquisite, especially seminola gnocchi with chanterelle mushrooms, rapini and squash, a combination that results in a wonderful array of flavors and textures. Telford Tomme, a semisoft, earthy, cow's milk cheese, melts into the black truffle butter to form a simple, rich sauce ($19). Roasted squash ravioli ($9) with sage-walnut pesto, caramelized onions, apple and pecorino-romano is an outstanding version of an often bastardized dish.
The daily vegetarian tasting menu -- four courses, $45 -- is always an exciting option for everyone. There's also a daily chef's tasting menu -- four courses, $45 -- as well as a six-person chef's table in the kitchen. Stevens himself prepares the approximately eight-course menu, which starts at $85 per person.
Whether it's a special menu or a substitution, this restaurant aims to please, a goal exemplified by the well-trained, attentive, passionate service staff. They wax eloquent about house-cured prosciutto, define unusual ingredients, recommend pairings with confidence and make diners feel attended to and left alone.
The savory dishes were consistently well executed, interesting and absolutely delicious. Occasionally, other aspects of the restaurant seem to be playing catch up. Desserts showcase excellent technique and delicious flavors, but a few choices made the sweet menu seem a bit unhinged from the restaurant as a whole. While February and March are exceptionally difficult months for Pittsburgh restaurants inspired by the seasons, it isn't necessary to have fresh berries accompany sorbet and ice cream, or to serve strawberry tiramisu. Desserts such as the s'more ($8) with its house-made marshmallow, and the pear pain perdu ($8) accompanied by mind-blowing lemon-creme fraiche ice cream, were both more seasonal and flavorful.
Just recently the cocktail list has gotten a lot more exciting, with new drinks such as the Sin-a-rita ($12) cinnamon-infused tequila, Meyer lemon juice and agave nectar. It's sweet but well-balanced, and the salt and cinnamon rim is a fantastic touch.Occasionally, execution is still a little spotty behind the bar. Drinks aren't always as cold as they should be, salt rims were unevenly applied and garnishes could have been cut into tidier shapes.
Such small flaws are only worth mentioning because Eleven is the kind of restaurant driven by a constant desire to accomplish more, put out an even better product and find new ways to get people excited about dining out.
In these tough times, many people are forgoing expensive restaurants, even when their financial circumstances haven't changed. A meal at Eleven is a delicious, memorable reminder that great dining remains well worth the price.