Mount Washington's Isabela offers more than just a good view
June 11, 2009 4:00 AM
Isabela on Grandview chef Dan Leiphart displays a pan-roasted swordfish and rhubarb-cucumber salad in a lime-mint vinaigrette.
On the menu at Isabela on Grandview on Mount Washington is this cured-salmon spring roll.
By China Millman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For years Mount Washington was synonymous with Pittsburgh fine dining. But times change, and these days many food-loving Pittsburghers often give this advice: Get a drink on Mount Washington, admire the view and eat dinner somewhere else.
While the view from Mount Washington dining rooms is stunning, the food is not as exciting or awe-inspiring.
Basics: Fine-dining with a view; multi-course meals with international influences and a seasonal bent.
Recommended dishes: Chilled asparagus soup, cured salmon spring roll, pan-roasted swordfish with rhubarb-cucumber salad, Jamison Farm's lamb stew.
Prices: Seven-course prix fixe, $70; a la carte, appetizers, $7-$11.50; entrees, $28-$42; desserts, $9.
Wine: Organized by country of origin, then by varietal; medium-sized list of more than 50 bottles, one sparkling, four whites and four reds by the glass ($10). One sparkling, 14 whites and seven reds at $40 or less. Emphasis on the United States (California) and France with a small selection from Spain, Italy, Australia and South America. For the most part, mark-up hovers between 200 percent and 300 percent.
Summary: First floor lounge wheelchair accessible; valet parking, $6; credit cards accepted; reservations encouraged; corkage, $15, waived on Tuesdays.
Noise level: Low to medium-loud.
That's where Isabela on Grandview stands out. At Isabela, the view may be the central attraction of the room, but the food always has been the focal point of the experience. Chef Daniel Leiphart, who started working at Isabela in 2005 then took over the top spot in 2006, has kept the menu up to date with his international culinary influences and mixed bag of cooking techniques. Although the seven-course prix fixe ($70) is still described as the ideal way to experience the restaurant, an a la carte menu is now available Monday through Thursday. With entrees starting at $28, the menu is designed to offer more flexibility in terms of size or pacing of the meal rather than an option of cheaper fare.
The menu changes seasonally, and while it's certainly not the most innovative or up-to-date restaurant in Pittsburgh, in the context of the uber-traditional Mount Washington restaurants, Isabela is downright trendy.
You certainly won't find an upscale play on pork and beans at any of Isabela's neighbors. An appetizer of seared pork belly with cannelloni beans and maple roasted root vegetables was rich and comforting. Unfortunately, the pork belly centerpiece was on the tough side. Similarly, beef short ribs braised in Erie Railbender ale would have benefited from an hour or two more braising time, although the sauce was decadently meaty and perfectly seasoned. These dishes from the winter menu, still being served in mid-April, were a little tired, as if the kitchen were as sick of cooking heavy dishes as most diners were of eating them.
While Pittsburgh farms weren't yet producing spring ingredients, at a restaurant that gives even lip service to seasonality the menu should be substantially changed more than four times a year. Fortunately, the spring menu introduced soon after proved far more vibrant.
A compact, artfully arranged fresh spring roll was filled with cured salmon, rice noodles and thin batons of cucumber and carrot, a scrumptious combination of tart and sweet flavors and a wonderful contrast between smooth and crunchy textures. A spicy micro cilantro garnish was the rare example of an excellent use of microgreens, which are too often a modern replacement for the once ubiquitous parsley sprinkled to the rim of the plate.
Chilled asparagus soup was a distillation of the early spring season, with a hint of spiciness from fresh horseradish and an inventive garnish of firm, lemony tofu.
The rich, almost meaty flavors of golden-crusted swordfish were matched with an exuberantly tart rhubarb-cucumber salad in a lime-mint vinaigrette -- as glorious a fish dish as any I've tasted in our landlocked city.
A sweet and sour apple sorbet was a tantalizing and refreshing intermezzo, beautifully setting off a delicate yet rich lamb stew and a dramatic plate of juicy hangar steak with a potent white truffle veal jus.
Leiphart's dishes tend to be relatively simple, which makes execution and well-thought-out flavors all the more important. When these components were in order, dishes were memorable. But occasionally supporting elements or even whole dishes suffered either in design, execution or both. The succulent hangar steak was accompanied by a dried-out baked potato stuffed with grainy chevre.
The salad course consisted of tough, dark green romaine lettuce coated in an English pea-yogurt emulsion that lacked the lubricating effect of a proper salad dressing. Garnished with toasted pine nuts, inessential roasted garlic and relatively thick slices of red onion, its flavors were heavy and acerbic -- a bad combination, especially in a salad.
I was thrilled to see head-on, poached prawns, but the white-wine ramp broth was delicate to the point of dullness, and roasted leeks, a few ramps and a piece of toasted bread didn't add much flavor. Additionally, in the context of fine dining, such a messy dish should have been followed by a moist towel.
While changing the menu more often would create more challenges, it would also force Leiphart to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of dishes more often, usually a good thing. Already he does a good job of mixing braised dishes with those that must be cooked to order and using other menu tricks to help a small kitchen accomplish a lot. But it sometimes seems as if his ambitions are outstripping what he can accomplish with such a small staff.
Restaurants should only bake their own bread if they can do it as well as a bakery. The bread -- a roll and a daily quick bread -- was unimpressive. The butter cut with honey was unnecessarily sweet and had a strange, almost greasy texture, as if the emulsion of fat and water had broken.
Desserts also could be simplified. Right now they seem like creations of substantial effort, which tend to fizzle on the plate. A brown butter-almond milk panna cotta was grainy, and orange creme anglaise and a wafer cookie all tasted fine, but didn't do much to add excitement to the dish. A credible, if un-special, dark chocolate tarte was garnished with oddly tasteless mascarpone foam and banana chips.
My favorite dessert was a pineapple custard topped with a thin layer of bruleed house-made marshmallow. A deft use of sea salt and lime zest balanced out the intense sweetness of the marshmallow. This dessert was not only delicious -- almost an edible pina colada -- it also had a sense of humor.
The service staff has its own obstacles to overcome. Because the restaurant is small and on several levels, it's difficult to ensure that guests are greeted upon arrival. Once seated, I found servers who were well-trained, enthusiastic and attentive. It's easy to see why so many people choose to celebrate special moments at this intimate, lovely restaurant.
While the wine list is solid and pairings added positively to the tasting menu, Leiphart agrees that a new cocktail list is in order. They're replacing the first-floor dining room with a cocktail lounge, so there will be a greater focus on cocktails.
Despite having been open for just under a decade, Isabela on Grandview might occasionally seem like it's still a work in progress. But it's rare for a restaurant to stay relevant for such a long time, and Isabela has certainly done that. Under Mr. Leiphart's leadership, Isabela has the potential to progress from a very good restaurant to a great one.