It is one of Pittsburgh's many pleasures to dine at Eleven.
The first time I visited, I didn't think it would be. I was just getting my bearings a month after moving to Pittsburgh when a visiting New York journalist suggested we meet at the bar for happy hour. She ordered a warm pretzel ($9) latticed with Manchego, and a dozen Fishers Island oysters ($24) that were quite lovely.
But on that visit, I thought that a bar menu of pretzels, pierogies, oysters and edamame seemed all over the place for what looked like a steakhouse, with its neutral walls, oversized banquettes and masculine aesthetic. And I wasn't drawn to the night's dinner menu of tuna tartare ($14), squash soup ($8) and a scroll of entrees such as tenderloin ($38), ribeye ($48) and strip steak ($45).
Judging Eleven by that first glance is like critiquing a classic by reading just the first chapter. I needed some time to familiarize myself with the place, admittedly a luxury when scores of restaurants debut each season, as new may surpass good in the public's imagination lately.
Eleven remains relevant, nearly 10 years after it opened in the Strip District. Meticulous sourcing, skillful cooking and elegant presentation are what strengthen the restaurant's stronghold on the city's dining culture. Flawless service in a city where it's often a shortcoming certainly helps.
But the main reason Eleven resonates is because of Derek Stevens, executive chef since 2006, who has overwhelming support of Big Burrito Restaurant Group.
Mr. Stevens has the freedom to use an impressive range of luxurious ingredients. He steers a range of culinary specialists from the pastry chef, the baker and the pierogi maker: a rarity in an era of the pared-down restaurant.
- 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 brunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., dinner 5-9 p.m.
- Basics: This elegant new American restaurant is a Pittsburgh stalwart for special occasions and seasonal cuisine.
- Dishes: Fishers Island oysters, fingerling potatoes, lobster roll, crab cake, Eleven burger, sea scallops, cavatelli, ribeye.
- Prices: Lunch: first course $11-$24, soup and salad $8-$10, sandwich $12-$18, entrees $18-$21; Dinner: appetizer $11-$24, soup and salad $8-$10, entrees $22-$35; Tasting menu: $45, $65 and an additional $25 for wine pairing; Tavern menu: $4-$18; Sunday brunch: prix fixe $25.
- Summary: Wheelchair-accessible; valet parking $5; credit cards; corkage $20.
- Noise level: Moderate.
And he runs a tight ship with fluid communication between the front and back of the house. The result of these factors translates to a captivating experience for just about any visit.
Look to the bread basket for attention to detail. The server folds back the linen with tongs, revealing rows of sliced onion poppy, olive focaccia and peasant bread. Make a brunch reservation to feast on croissants, mini-muffins or beignets. Or place an order for a novelty such as the grilled sticky ($9), wedges of brioche with a swirl of butterscotch and bacon.
The seafood can be exquisite. And while it may not be a dish as surprising as glazed eel with figs and unagi custard, those oysters from Connecticut are subtle beauties. And the lobster roll ($18) nearly transports a diner to New England. A split-buttered roll, still warm, cradles succulent knuckle and claw meat lightly dressed in aioli, riddled with diced celery and finished with lemon.
Jumbo-lump crab cake ($12) is more meat than filling. Flaky fronds are barely held together with egg-battered bread crumbs. Frozen butter is folded into the mix, which melts as it cooks. The dish arrives with a bowl of fingerlings that give pause, a variation on the Spanish tapas dish of patatas bravas: it's half-smashed then deep-fried potatoes tossed with a lemony aioli, garnished with smoked paprika and a rustic chimichurri. How terrific they'd be for breakfast topped with herbs and perfectly poached eggs.
Mr. Stevens shows reverence to vegetables such as foraged mushrooms, from spring's morels to winter's truffles. They make an appearance in that beef tenderloin, transforming the dish from conservative to contemporary with meaty hen of the woods, roasted cipollini onions, and radishes in a foie gras jus. Vegetables play supporting roles as pea shoots in cavatelli ($9) or as Sea Island red peas in a Southern inspired scallop dish ($14) served with tasso ham and smoked onions.
It's hard to not be seduced by details on the dinner menu, such as the saffron-cider beurre blanc that butters the walleye ($28), a molasses gastrique that sugars a pork chop ($28) and the squash and raisin mostarda that makes the salmon ($28) more lively. These accoutrements nod to cuisine of the past without smothering the dishes.
When a diner is looking for something less serious, there are always pierogies stuffed with pastrami and served with the stylish Brussels sprout salad as sides to that ribeye. And they make an appearance on the tavern menu with sauerkraut and swiss ($11).
And the burger ($16). Oh, the burger. Provided you're not a minimalist, this one will become a favorite. It starts with braised veal, then it's layered with black pepper bacon. If you'd like, it's smothered with white cheddar, Maytag Blue, Capriole goat cheese or Emmenthaler Swiss. And it's served with crispy onions and fries. This thing looks like a burger, but with ingredients such as these, it transcends the name.
Sometimes it seems the dining room and even the bar is a bit buttoned up to accommodate such a messy plate, as decadent as it may be. No matter, as staff will take care and flutter around diners, near-invisible, replacing silver, refilling water glasses and refolding napkins with grace.
But servers really show their colors when a diner needs guidance, such as one evening when a server suggested a pairing of Gewurztraminer with a lemon ice cream sandwich made with little gingersnaps. Or another visit when a bartender led diners through a tasting menu with succinct explanations of wine pairings and why each was chosen.
That tasting menu, by the way, is a value for $45 or $65 (for the vegetarian and meat tasting, respectively. Wine pairings are an additional $25). What better way to get to know a chef than to make such a commitment? It's less expensive than fewer dishes ordered a la carte. And it shows the repertoire of one of the city's finest chefs.
Had I only known this during that first visit. Now I do.