Steelhead Grill has lost some of its luster

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When the Steelhead Grill opened in 1997, it brought to Pittsburgh the cutting-edge formula for the trendy California-style bar and grill.

Sous-chef Dustin Miller holds a plate of Seared Alaskan Halibut over Creamy Risotto and Broccoli Rabe with a Blood Orange Brown Butter at the Steelhead Grill, Uptown.(Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)

This meant a welcoming, casual space with an open kitchen, which allowed diners to watch the cooking crew as they did their professional dance around the saute pans and grill flames. The cuisine in such establishments is based on the freshest ingredients combined in unexpected partnerships by creative chefs. The result is an endless parade of palate-pleasing new tastes. This Americanization of what began in France as "cuisine nouvelle" was a refreshing casting off of the old European traditions of heavy sauces and complex preparation. Grill food is light. Grill food is fun. Grill food is original. All of this means that a grill food chef is above all an artist. This movement, begun in California in the late 1970s, catapulted talented chefs to stardom and American food to international recognition.

Greg Alauzen was the star that lit up the galaxy in the kitchen at the Steelhead Grill. The menu he created, focusing on seafood and house-baked breads and unusual desserts, shot the Steelhead onto the "A" list of Pittsburgh's best dining rooms. Alauzen has since left the Steelhead. Fortunately, his genius will still be appreciated by his many fans when the new restaurant Eleven opens in the Strip.

   

The Steelhead Grill

112 Washington Place (Marriott Hotel)

412-394-3474

Hours: Breakfast, 6:30-11 a.m. Mondays-Fridays; 6:30 a.m.-noon Saturdays and Sundays. Lunch, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. Dinner, 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 5-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 5-9 p.m. Sundays.

Basics: Upscale casual dining with white linens serving California-American cuisine. Emphasis on seafood. Appetizers, $6-$14; entrees, $18-$26; desserts, $4-$8. Competent service, comfortable noise level, wheelchair accessible. Reservations accepted. Diversified wine list with some wines available by the glass. Valet parking $14 (three hours) or in garage $8.75. Some parking available on Washington Place or on Fifth Avenue.

   

The new chef at the Steelhead is Donato Coluccio, who has moved there from the Ramada Inn just across Sixth Avenue. He has not changed the menu but there are many other changes. The bread basket is the first disappointment. Gone is the assortment of chewy, yeasty handmade breads, warm and tempting, and in its place is a basket with soft, tasteless white or wheat bread. When I asked the waiter about the bread I was told that it was from BreadWorks bakery. This is utterly impossible. Breadworks produces a quality product that bears no resemblance to the breads now served at the Steelhead. The desserts are the second big letdown. When pastry chef Georgina was at the Steelhead ovens, the desserts were unforgettable. Today, the dessert selection offers commercially produced standards such as "The Cheesecake Factory" cheesecake.

These changes are not the fault of chef Donato but are the result of a change in management and in direction. The present Steelhead goal seems to be to make the restaurant just another hotel eatery, feeding transients who do not expect an exceptional meal and will not fault the mediocre bread or the unevenness of the kitchen. Even the crispness of the service seems to be lacking with the new management.

Seafood still reigns at the Steelhead and some dishes are still winners. I lucked out with crabmeat gratin ($14) from the appetizer selections. This sublime dish was simplicity in its purest form. In the middle of a square, white plate was a mound of crabmeat lumps lightly tossed in beurre blanc and briefly passed under a broiler. There was nothing to mask the sweetness of the crab. It was the perfect example of the California cuisine mantra, "freshness in an almost unadulterated state." This is not crab buried under a cheesy sauce or crab embellished with onion, celery and mayonnaise and fried as a cake, but crab in its simplest form. It was memorable.

On the losing side was the calamari with lemon aioli ($8). The calamari dipped in batter and fried were crispy but lacking in flavor. The big disappointment was the aioli. Aioli is a French Provincial version of mayonnaise or an emulsion in which oil is suspended in egg yolks. The French version adds lemon juice and crushed garlic and is a delicious alternative to tartar sauce when eaten with fried seafood. The people of Provence in southern France also love to ladle it on tomatoes, potatoes, artichokes, roasted meats and poultry and rough, country breads. The Steelhead lemon aioli was flat and lacked the lemon/garlic punch required to give the calamari a special zing.

The entrees also produced both winners and losers. The broiled scallops with asparagus ($20) was a winner. Four fat sea scallops had been broiled just enough to give a cooked layer on the top, leaving the centers soft and creamy. This was another example of the quality and freshness of the shellfish in its almost natural state shining brightly without unnecessary seasonings and sauces. The presentation was appealing in its simplicity. The same was true of grilled halibut and asparagus ($20). The freshest fillets of halibut were arranged in a pyramid in the center of a square plate and doused with a light beurre blanc and surrounded by al dente asparagus spears.

The other entree sampled was less successful. Pappardelle with duck confit ($18) was wide noodles bathed in duck broth with large pieces of duck meat. The broth was thin and lacking complexity. The duck was duck but did not taste as though it had been treated to any confit process. The result was a bowl of noodles tossed with what was more like stewed duck.

The luncheon menu offers a number of tasty salads as well as sandwiches and hot entrees. I found the seared sesame tuna ($12) with cold soba noodles pleasing to the eye as well as to the palate. The spinach salad with bacon-wrapped scallops ($12) was not. The spinach leaves were larger than baby and rather tough, the dressing was too sweet and the scallops were overcooked.

The desserts still made in the kitchen are also a mixed bag. The creme brulee ($5) and panna cotta with raspberries, blueberries and honey ($6) were both faultless, but chocolate bread pudding ($5) was dry and tasted of inferior chocolate. The cheesecake ($5) and chocolate cake ($8) are similar to those available in the frozen food section of Sam's Club. There are 22 single malt whiskeys available on the dessert menu ranging in price from $7 to $47 per serving. Several ports are also available, a nice touch.

The wine list offers interesting selections in all price categories available by the glass or bottle. We chose two different wines by the glass ($7-$12) from the menu and were told that both were currently unavailable. We were served our third choice. The median price of bottles is in the $30 range.

The ambiance of the Steelhead is agreeable. The tables and banquettes are comfortable; white linens and good lighting add to the overall serenity of the room. Conversation is easy with a low noise factor. Under the old regime, the Steelhead was one of Pittsburgh's best bargains. Unfortunately, it now seems pricey. If the management decides to fix the unevenness in what is coming from the kitchen, upgrade the quality of accessories such as bread and see that wines on the list are in stock and available, the Steelhead could again appeal to discerning local restaurant-goers.


Elizabeth Downer can be reached at ldowner@post-gazette.com .


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