Dining Review: Mount Washington's Shiloh Inn pleases the regulars

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What would you say to dinner in a haunted house? And I don't mean the kind you find at Disney World. You can dine amid ghosts right here in Pittsburgh.

Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette
Chefs Max Smith, left, and Milton Sloan display the Shiloh Inn's Veal Oscar.
Click photo for larger image.

The Shiloh Inn

123 Shiloh Ave.
Mount Washington

Hours: Dinner: Tuesdays and Thursdays, 4:30-10 p.m.; Wednesdays, 4:30-11 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 4:30-midnight; bar open until 2 a.m.; Sunday brunch 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Basics: An old house with a long history of serving hearty meals in the dining room and tender care and generous drinks at the bar. Customers seem to be primarily regulars who appreciate the warm and friendly atmosphere.
Prices: Appetizers, $7-$12; entrees, $9-$33; desserts, $4-$6; wines: $6-$12 for what could be as much as 8 ounces.
Summary: Smoking in bar area; not wheelchair-accessible; major credit cards accepted. Free parking in adjacent lot.

The Shiloh Inn on Mount Washington has been a popular Pittsburgh dining destination since 1980. It is located in a Victorian home built in the late 1800s for the Soffel family. In 1901, Allegheny County prison warden Peter Soffel and his bride, Kate, were living in the house when Kate Soffel fell in love with Edward Biddle, a prisoner. Biddle and his brother John were sentenced to hang for murder. In 1902, Kate Soffel helped the two brothers to escape. They made it as far as Butler County before being gunned down. Mrs. Soffel survived, and it is her ghost that is believed to appear in the dining room mirror wearing a white flowing dress. The same ghostly image has appeared in windows in the house.

The Shiloh Inn was sold last year to new owners. The totally refurbished old house has handsome new furnishings and a state-of-the-art kitchen, but the ambience, mellow wood paneling and menu of the original Shiloh remain. Executive chef Milton Sloan, who ruled the Shiloh kitchen for many years, has come out of retirement to oversee operations in the new kitchen.

The Shiloh is justifiably famous for its crab cakes, which are made from jumbo lump meat and not much else. The appetizer portion ($12) consists of 4 ounces of crab formed into three miniature cakes. It can be ordered as an entree with 3 larger cakes made from 8 ounces of meat. The menu offers them with beurre blanc sauce, but I suggest that you ask your waiter to substitute a tangy and delicious lime-cilantro aioli instead. The cakes are crisp on the outside with a moist and sweet interior. The aioli provides a wonderful citrus and contemporary note to this old standby.

Beef Carpaccio ($11) is an appetizer that I frequently order as an entree in summer months. The paper-thin slices of raw beef tenderloin are fanned out over a bed of baby spinach and drizzled with olive oil. Although the menu mentions Parmesan cheese and cracked pepper, an essential part of this dish, neither was offered by our waitress. Eventually we managed to flag her to ask for cracked pepper but we never did get the cheese.

Stuffed Mushrooms ($10) are another Shiloh signature dish. Four mushroom caps are stuffed with lump crabmeat and topped with sherry cream sauce. Oysters Rockefeller ($12) were a disappointment. Five fresh oysters in their shells, each serving as the base for a mound of creamed spinach with bacon and Pernod. Unfortunately the creamed spinach was frozen rather than fresh, making the taste, texture and appearance thoroughly unappealing.

Entrees are served with a generously sized house salad and toasted garlic bread made from a fluffy, sliced white bread. The salad is a mixture of romaine and some spring greens and comes in a large bowl artistically decorated with a ring of picture-perfect slices of cucumber. I suggest ordering the lemon oregano dressing, which is made in-house. Many of the other dressings are bottled.

Entree choices are numerous and fall into seafood, veal, chicken, beef, lamb and pasta categories with prices from $10 for a plain Fettuccine Alfredo to $28 for a whole pound of lamb chops (four chops) with rosemary-apricot glaze. Veal Oscar ($27) is a rich and satisfying combination of 4 ounces of thin veal medallions and 4 ounces of jumbo lump crab meat topped with a proper hollandaise sauce. It is served with roasted new potatoes and assorted sauteed fresh vegetables. Shiloh loves to combine crab with other elements. There is Stuffed Salmon ($27), which adds crab, spinach and goat cheese to a fillet of Norwegian salmon and tops it with Grand Marnier cream sauce and toasted pine nuts.

About the only things on the menu that come without rich and heavy sauces are the steaks. The beef is tender and flavorful and came grilled to the proper doneness. Prices range from $26 for a 12-ounce New York Strip to $33 for a 24-ounce bone-in Porterhouse. All plates are decorated with colorful garnishes made from fruits: an apple fan, an orange or lemon chicken and a carrot flower.

Chef Max Smith honed his knife-art skills during many years of preparing sushi at Kiku Restaurant in Station Square. I hope that he will eventually use those skills to pare down the Shiloh menu and make it more up-to-date and healthful. I found myself longing for a simple grilled fish with nothing more than olive oil, high-quality salt and half a lemon on the side.

I find that I have become a finicky dessert eater. There is not a tiramisu or cheesecake or cr?me brulee in all of Allegheny County that can excite me. I long to open a dessert menu that has none of the above. Unfortunately, Shiloh has all of them plus some that are brought in from outside, probably frozen. All are $6.

Shiloh seems to be more popular as a bar destination than as a restaurant. It tends to be a place where locals stop en route home to have a brew and visit with the neighbors. There is a bar menu with soups, sandwiches and salads that caters to this crowd. On Wednesdays, there is live entertainment in the lounge from 9 p.m. to midnight. Friday and Saturday nights, the entertainment begins at 9:30 and continues until 12:30 a.m.

The bar is known for very generous portions when pouring drinks. The same is true when pouring wine. Wines by the glass appear to be more than the normal 6-ounce pour. I do have a problem, however, with the prices. A glass of Walnut Crest Merlot from Chile is $6. This is close to what a 25-ounce bottle of the same wine costs at the store. The $9 you will pay for a glass of Fat Bastard Merlot is again almost the price of a full bottle. The prices of wines in the bottle are also inflated. And none of the wines are listed with their vintage, which is a major turn-off for any wine lover.

Even if you don't encounter the ghost of Mrs. Soffel, dinner at the Shiloh Inn is a Pittsburgh experience not to be missed. It is especially so on a night when local musicians inject the old house with new life.

Elizabeth Downer can be reached at edowner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1454.


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