On the Table: Butcher and the Rye still coming of age
The food takes a back seat to the drinks and the scene
December 26, 2013 12:00 AM
Kale salad with roasted tomatoes and parmesan.
Ground duck with strozzapretti and Grana Padano cheese is called "dirty pasta" at Butcher and the Rye.
By Melissa McCart / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"Comin' Thro the Rye" written by Scottish Romantic poet Robert Burns in 1782 was penned as a children's song but morphed into several lewd variations. It's also the namesake for J.D. Salinger's celebrated coming-of-age novel, "Catcher in the Rye." Both are inspiration for Butcher and the Rye, Downtown, the new Meat & Potatoes sibling from chef Richard DeShantz and Tolga Sevdik that opened in October.
From the mural of Holden Caulfield to the graffiti-tagged chairs, the design and drinks are causing a stir, even if the riff doesn't quite work.
By the entrance where waiting customers would huddle, a window displays vintage knives and cleavers clipped to chicken wire. Rabbit footprints on the slate floor lead to its death-by-cleaver painted near the kitchen.
On a Saturday by the host stand, men in suits with ear pieces vet customers as they enter. They're directed to the downstairs whiskey bar, a table in the dining room or the craft cocktail den upstairs, where "RYE" is spelled out in lights.
Beyond the entrance, an unseasonably tan man in a blue blazer drinks brown liquor on ice, his hand on the knee of a woman wearing a leopard print dress. An American flag serves as backdrop for hockey player Sidney Crosby, as he and his entourage sit at a table that's more gothic than farmhouse. Twitter is atwitter.
On the ground floor, oil lamps on tables complement a chandelier of white antlers. Mounted animal heads overlook the dining room.
For its detailed decor and the ambition of the cocktail program, Butcher and the Rye adds depth to Downtown dining. It's a destination as stylish as drinking dens in food-focused cities twice the size of Pittsburgh. But the service and food here are far less thoughtful.
The two-story restaurant is the whiskey fan's destination, where nearly 400 choices beckon from the back-lit bar.
Getting a cocktail downstairs can be a jockey for a bartender's attention, as men sidle up to the wood slab bar carved by Urban Tree, or a woman in stilettos leans down to fetch her purse on the door knob installed as a purse hook.
Middle-range sipping bourbons such as Angel's Envy cost $13, but big spenders can go bigger with the coveted Pappy Van Winkle line and more frugal customers can drink beer.
Cocktails at the downstairs bar are streamlined, such as the carbonated, bottled Vieux Carre or the Americano with Campari and Cocchi. I like these, though it's unclear why such boozy cocktails need bubbles.
The upstairs is designed for more elaborate cocktails and apparently a more exclusive crowd. Cherub sconces from old hotels evoke a bygone era. Tattoo-inspired murals adorn tables and chairs. The requisite taxidermy is levity to the serious business of mixing drinks.
It's set up for bartenders such as Mike Mills, the beverage director who helped design the bar; Wes Shonk, former bartender at 1947 Tavern in Shadyside; Maggie Meskey and Erika Joyner, both formerly at Salt of the Earth. It includes stations with separate sinks, hot plates and drawers to hold ice in various sizes.
There are stylish amenities, too, such as vintage mismatched glasses and punch bowls that share shelves with Japanese ice crushers.
The cocktails up here are great. This is where one can sip the most balanced drinks in town, whether it's a punch, a whiskey daisy or a boulevardier.
Still, the upstairs bar has to work out kinks. Some diners don't know whether to wait for the check or to ask a bartender. Between the upstairs and downstairs, it's unclear what kinds of drinks customers can order where and when. It's also confusing that some nights the space is for VIPs, cordoned off by a bouncer and his velvet rope, while other nights it's open.
Service up here has been stronger than it has been in the dining room, which ranges from perfectly fine, in the genre of overexplaining the menu, to an intrusive swarm of servers intent on turning tables.
On a weeknight at a table of friends, I start with a pig wing. It's a glistening shank on a colorful plate of spicy mango salad. Unfortunately, the meat is dry. So too is the pig candy, which has potential with its miso-caramel sauce and apple kimchi. But the pork is as desiccated as a mushroom from last spring. The rabbit saddle was also overcooked but edible thanks to pickled greens and pureed onions.
These are three of a handful of meat dishes on a menu that includes pastas, seafood, veggies and desserts. On a good night, this menu showcases big flavors. They're also reasonably priced and easy to share. But on my visits, the plating was sloppy and the dishes weren't finessed. In short, I wish they were better.
That said, it's a refreshing change for a Pittsburgh restaurant that vegetables ($10) are the most satiating dishes on the menu. The roasted shishito peppers are resonant bar food, dressed with olive oil and coarse salt. The beet salad is more memorable than how it's plated at similar restaurants, with whipped goat cheese, beet greens, pickled fennel and orange. A kale caesar with roasted tomatoes is also quite good.
Skip the mac and cheese for the dirty pasta, a best-seller because it's quite good, despite that it's a homely plate of ground duck, duck livers, sage and bourbon over strozzapreti.
Specials are listed on butcher paper rolls mounted by the bar downstairs. They range from liver pate and burgers, to the seafood tower with oysters, clams, stone crab and lobster for $49. With the meat section of the menu so inconsistent, I'd wait on the commitment until the kitchen gets its legs.
In a place home to so many talented bartenders, what's lost on the food speaks to the fact that for now, the butcher is less a priority than the rye.
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