Nine on Nine was an elegant, interesting restaurant when I dined there in 2007. But in the past three years, something changed.
Perhaps it was owner Richard DeShantz's decision to sell Cafe Richard in the Strip District, allowing him to focus on his Cultural District fine dining establishment. Perhaps it was a cross-pollination of ideas from the other talented chefs that have passed through the kitchen, including Kevin Sousa of soon-to-open Salt of the Earth and Chet Garland of Toast! Kitchen and Wine Bar.
It may be simply the continued professional maturation of a talented chef. Whatever the cause, Nine on Nine has become one of the most exciting, impressive restaurants in the region.
3 stars = Excellent+
3 stars = Excellent+
4 stars = Outstanding
4 stars = Outstanding
900 Penn Avenue
Hours: Lunch, Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner, Tuesday-Saturday 5-10 p.m.
Basics: This elegant Cultural District destination offers up food that is classic and cutting edge in a luxurious environment with gracious, practiced service.
Recommended dishes: Chicken liver pate, charcuterie, mushroom salad, carrot soup, bolognese, risotto, prime strip steak, ricotta fritters, carrot cake.
Prices: Starters, $8-16; entrees, $24-36; desserts, $8-12; three-course theatre menu, $35, 5-6:30 p.m. (entire table only); six-course chef???s tasting menu, $72, 5-9 p.m. (entire table only).
Drinks: An interesting international list, supported by a knowledgeable staff with experience suggesting food and wine pairs; 6 sparkling, 9 whites and 12 reds by the glass, starting at $9; 11 bottles of sparkling, starting at $45; 17 bottles of white, 10 for $50 or less; 36 bottles of red, 11 for $60 or less. Mark-ups appear to range from as high as 300 percent for the least expensive bottles to less than 200 percent for bottles that cost $100 or more. Beer list includes a nice smattering of microbrews, but very few local breweries. Cocktails ($12) are generally interesting and well made, although occasionally a less than perfect garnish slipped by.
Summary: Wheelchair accessible; credit cards accepted; reservations recommended; corkage, $20.
Noise level: Low to medium loud.
The intimate dining room feels sophisticated and warm, contrasting blues and grays with expanses of woodwork. The food is forward-thinking, but the atmosphere is pleasantly old-fashioned, tables dressed in unwrinkled white linens with gleaming silver and sparkling glassware. Coats are taken at the door, purses hang from special hooks and bar tabs can be transferred to your table. Nine on Nine truly knows the meaning of hospitality.
Diners may order a la carte, choosing from cold and warm starters (some of which might also function as light entrees) and a more traditional entree section. Alternatively, the chef's tasting menu, typically eight courses for $72, can be ordered for the entire table.
A recent tasting menu began with the chicken liver pate, miniaturized portions served in small square ramekins. The gloriously rich spread was balanced with an array of tart, crisp bites: A slice of cornichon, a single baton of pickled carrot, a pristine salad of lightly dressed frisee lettuce ($10 as appetizer).
Next came a halibut ceviche in a tart-sweet mix of lemon, lime and orange juice, bites of fish mingling with sweet mango and spicy minced jalapeno. Two crisp triangles garnished the plate -- one tortilla, one plantain.
The aroma of black truffle oil floated above a lobster risotto, creating a captivating sensory experience before I'd even taken a bite. Each grain of carnaroli rice (which some prefer to arborio) had just enough bite, suspended in a creamy broth studded with fresh peas and chunks of sweet lobster meat, and perfumed with garden-fresh tarragon.
These contrasting courses continued at a steady, but never rushed, pace, drawing on ingredients and inspiration from across the globe. Savory courses culminated in a strip steak ($36 as entree), beautifully, deliciously adorned. The meat had been marinated in miso, then cooked sous vide (vacuum sealed in plastic then cooked in a water bath until the meat reaches the temperature of the water), so it was a warm pink right up to the seared edge, almost as tender as a filet mignon, but with far more flavor.
A mushroom pot sticker, sauteed baby bok choy and a sprinkling of tiny beech mushrooms were pleasant variations on the standard steak side dishes, but the most memorable accompaniment was a thick drizzle of miso caramel sauce, a stunning variation on a salty caramel and a perfect pairing with the rich, juicy meat.
Nine on Nine is one of few Pittsburgh restaurants to experiment with the ultra-modern boundary of cuisine, but Mr. DeShantz is relatively cautious in his use of such techniques. On recent menus he has cooked sous vide and incorporated powders, dehydrated ingredients and foams into dishes. Just a few weeks ago, he invested in a pacojet, a sort of high-tech ice cream maker that slices frozen ingredients into creamy, frozen purees. But just as many dishes are free of such "aha moments." Cutting-edge inspirations are more often apparent in super-saturated flavors, intense enough to make you spend several minutes contemplating whether or not you're enjoying a particular dish.
A filet of halibut (slightly overcooked) was almost buried beneath a tumble of confit fennel, tomato, chickpeas, olives, grapefruit, capers and sea beans, the variety of briny and sour flavors walking a line between cacophonous and harmonious, but leaning a little too close to the former ($29).
A variation on lobster mac'n cheese strays far from comfort food territory ($14). The crispy topping looked weirdly green and tasted mostly of bread crumbs. Plenty of green foods are delicious, but in this case the color was a little too reminiscent of mold. Curly shells were cooked perfectly al dente and gently coated with a pungent taleggio cheese sauce that combined with black truffles into a taste more easily described as thought-provoking than delicious.
Mr. DeShantz is well aware that many diners prefer their dinners unambiguously pleasurable, and the food here also can be soulful and simple.
Gnudi -- ricotta dumplings similar to ravioli filling without the pasta -- were tender and mild, tossed in a bright wild boar bolognese ($14). A silky smooth bowl of carrot soup was garnished with a crispy mix of thinly sliced fennel and cardamom-and-ginger-scented granola ($8).
Mushroom salad had more traditional French roots, consisting of a mix of frisee, a few types of roasted mushrooms and lot of black pepper. The dish looked a touch bare when it arrived, but a moment later the server returned with the forgotten component -- a poached egg dusted in crispy onions ($10).
This server also was a little cavalier about answering questions. Later that same evening, when one of my guests ordered a glass of red wine to go with his steak (yet to arrive), the server took so long to return that the last bite had already been eaten. He apologized, but dropped the wine and departed without checking to see whether perhaps it was no longer necessary. This experience was an outlier, the one odd note out of a dozen other interactions. In general, the Nine on Nine staff beautifully balanced professionalism, warmth and attention to detail, a testament, no doubt, to general manager Tolga Sevdik.
From beginning to end, meals are worth lingering over. The excellent cocktail list includes a twist on a gin and tonic with top-notch Q tonic water and saffron infused gin ($12), and a classic mint julep, a strong, sweet slushy of a drink served in a beautiful silver cup, a bouquet of mint perfuming every sip ($9).
Dessert, currently supervised by Mr. DeShantz, is a seamless continuation of the meal. Ricotta fritters are soft and sweet, enlivened by a number of accompaniments, including a bright lemon curd, a rich coffee custard, and a bracing lemon-sambuca sorbet.
A deconstructed carrot cake was superior to the original, slices of moist spice cake topped with pineapple and candied carrot, with streaks of orange caramel, cream cheese frosting and a scoop of brown butter ice cream rolled in cornflakes and cinnamon-sugar and briefly fried.
"Chocolate," was a dessert landscape of flavors and textures, some chocolate, some traditional pairings. A number of components were delicious -- black sesame ice cream, caramelized banana, a swath of sticky, salty peanut butter -- others seemed merely novel, like a dehydrated chocolate mousse with the texture of Styrofoam, and powdered caramel which became too sticky as it dissolved into a sauce.
The coffee program needs work. Weak coffee and bitter espresso were noticeable, if fairly typical, defects. The wine program, on the other hand, is a real asset. It's a pleasure to see so many options by the glass. Diners can select any number of pairings for the tasting menu, depending on their tolerance and inclinations.
Nine on Nine's consistency has helped it develop quite a following over the past four years, but it is the restaurant's flexibility that deserves the most recognition. Mr. DeShantz's commitment to improvement and evolution have served him well and, no doubt, will continue to do so in the years to come.
China Millman: 412-263-1198 or email@example.com. Follow her at http://twitter.com/chinamillman.