Dining Review: or, The Whale still getting its sea legs

Walking to the Distrikt Hotel from the North Shore offers a journey of the city’s revitalization. Start among the chain bars and breweries near the stadium, travel over the Fort Duquesne bridge — a walkway with a great view of Point State Park at peak foliage. Hit the ground at Boulevard of the Allies, pass the former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette building that awaits its future, then near booming Market Square, followed by the vibrant Point Park University and Smithfield Street with its immigrant-run mom and pops. 

Toward the end of the street, there’s the Distrikt Hotel, a sibling to its Times Square New York flagship, housed in what used to be the headquarters for the Salvation Army. Walk through the revolving doors to or,The Whale, an obscure reference to the alternate name for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

It’s not an airtight concept but it is a compelling Downtown restaurant option with a dual focus on brunch and seafood. And don’t skip the drinks, a mix of international and local brews, brunch and dinner cocktails, plus an ambitious wine list.

Seafood is a passion for chef and partner Dennis Marron. The Jersey Shore native landed in Pittsburgh by way of the Kimpton properties, first in Washington, D.C. then to the Hotel Monaco Downtown. There, he opened The Commoner a couple years ago — and met Jessica Lewis, his future life and work partner.

A few months after he opened The Commoner, he left Kimpton to move toward opening what was to become Merchant Oyster Co. in Lawrenceville, a restaurant inspired by his oceanside upbringing. In the midst of his planning, he was approached by Scott Schroeder of Greenway Realty Holdings to direct this hotel restaurant. When Mr. Schroeder learned about Merchant he offered to fund both.

Fast-forward to the September opening of or,The Whale, which shows the exuberance of a chef-owner fueled by creative freedom after years of opening restaurants for other people.

You can see this in the attention to design details like the leather-bound, book-like menu and its woodcut illustrations. You can see it in the mural of a tall ship, the wood-paneling that echoes a hull, and ropes that hang from the ceiling like mooring lines. Some table flourishes also show fine-tuning, from the mini Coke bottles to the striped straws made of paper rather than plastic.

But meticulousness frays when it comes to the menu and cooking. It’s a bold move to tailor a weekday lunch menu to mostly brunch offerings — and understandable, as brunch is becoming Pittsburgh’s most popular restaurant meal. In many restaurants, it’s outperforming dinners, especially in the city’s newly opened hotels. But at or,The Whale, the food menus are confusing and the dishes can be hit or miss. Still, there’s a lot to like. 

The daytime menu includes categories such as “Loomings,” from oatmeal to a very good shrimp and crab cocktail. It’s followed by “Chowder,” with dishes that start with the chef’s breakfast — straightforward fair-priced eggs, ham, cheddar, dried fruit and grilled bread for $13 — to Hong Kong-style bubble waffles with bacon, fried egg, sausage, potatoes, Hollandaise and maple syrup. Less straightforward there’s shakshuka (a Northern African/Middle Eastern dish of poached egg in spicy tomato sauce), but it would be great to have a chowder on the chowder section of the menu.

or, The Whale in the Distrikt Hotel
463 Blvd. of the Allies

Overall: 2stars

    • Hours: 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily brunch; 5 to 10 p.m. dinner, Sunday to Thursday and until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
    • Prices: Brunch: Loomings $6 to $21, Chowder $12 to $25, Nantucket $12 to $22; Dinner: Loomings $11 to market price, Chowder $9 to $15, Nantucket $28 to $35, The Ship $80 to $180; Dessert $9 to $25.
    • Sound level: Lively
    • Details: Wheelchair accessible. Parking on street and valet for $8. Reservations via OpenTable.
    • Wild Card: Brunch all day, every day leads to an impressive menu of brunch cocktails. Also, don’t miss the terrific wine list from sommeliers Eric Moorer and Kelly Bates.

Post-Gazette restaurant key

Zero stars: poor, unsatisfactory

One star: satisfactory, good

Two stars: very good

Three stars: excellent

Four stars: extraordinary, superlative

For those lunchtime seafood cravings — there’s not much during the day — consider a wood-fired whole trout special ($30) that’s majestic in its simplicity, but a commitment, bones and all. I ordered this with a crowd-pleaser, the chicken chop salad with kale, corn, chickpeas, cherry tomato, cucumber and farmer cheese. Some ingredients were a little mealy, but it’s a generous portion for $15.

At dinner, Mr. Marron opens up the seafood offerings among “Loomings,” like roast octopus with chimichurri, smaller-than-fingerling potatoes and a daily selection of oysters and clams. Cod chowder makes the chowder section of the menu at night, a classic version dressed up with leeks and sunchokes (I miss clam chowder, but that’s up the road at the newly opened Merchant Oyster Co.).

Now is the time to peruse the drinks, with drafts from Denmark-born Evil Twin to the low-ABV hefeweizen from Weihenstephaner ($5 to $10). Brunch drinks represent as you’d expect, from a bellini to a house gin and tonic. During dinner, segue to the list of unfussy dinner cocktails like the tuxedo or the Queen’s Park swizzle ($11 to $30). I’m partial to the interesting selection of wines by the glass, which include selections from Crete, the Jura region in eastern France and Calabria ($10 to $16).

Four of seven of the mains labeled “Nantucket” celebrate seafood, including Mr. Marron’s take on bouillabaisse or West Coast cioppino, linguine with cockles and of-the-moment sea beans, and a scallop dish with butternut squash caponata and fingerling chips for a pleasing assembly of textures. Pass “Nantucket” for the brawny chophouse section of menu called “The Ship”, with $80 to $180 seafood towers, small to gargantuan cuts appropriate for sharing, whole lobster and whole fish.This section of the menu is right in Pittsburgh’s wheelhouse, with steaks that start with a reasonably priced modest cut, to a rib-eye that’s nearly double the size and cost — $125 for 35 ounces — compared to a similar listing at newly opened Red the Steakhouse, Downtown. The entry-level-sized, 10-ounce bavette ($30) was perfectly cooked as I’d asked, closer to rare than medium rare, with salty fries that fall among the city’s best. All beef on the menu is dry-aged to various degrees.

My biggest issue with the cooking is that it tended to be uneven during my visits when Mr. Marron or Ms. Lewis weren’t in house, The smoked salmon ($13), for example, looked like it had seen better days, served with an overcooked soft-boiled egg, pickled red onion and a heap of well-dressed farm greens. Yet, there are few chefs in town with Mr. Marron’s experience training a vast staff in a big hotel kitchen, so I expect that service and plating will dial in as they go.

It has to. Pittsburgh is awash with restaurants and competition is tighter than it was just a few years ago, especially Downtown. Mr. Marron and Ms. Lewis know this and have prepared for it, having hired a new pastry chef mid-October, in between my visits to the restaurant. This has allowed Ms. Lewis to come out from the pastry station where she started, to oversee the floor with the opening of Merchant Oyster Co. last month.

While Merchant is Mr. Marron’s original concept that he hatched long ago, or, The Whale is the more ambitious of the two, a higher-profile project he says he’s grown to love. As the place finds an even keel, it may grow on locals, too.

Melissa McCart: mmccart@post-gazette.com; Instagram @postgazettefood; Facebook @postgazettefood


First Published November 8, 2017 11:05 AM


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