Cornerstone Restaurant and Bar in Aspinwall doesn't instantly set itself apart from other affordable neighborhood places where you can bring along the kids or meet friends for a Pens game over a couple of beers. While the space is clean and pleasant, it lacks much character; its primary distinguishing feature is a lovely red-brick wall that divides the bar and dining areas. The booths are a bit hard, the setbacks a bit too straight, not as cozy as you'd expect.
But when the menus hit the tables, Cornerstone stands out. Many local restaurants of this type rely too much on just a few cooking techniques, offering half a dozen iterations on each expected protein. Here there was an impressive variety of meat, fish and poultry dishes, flavor profiles, cooking techniques and garnishes. The decor may suffer from a plain-Jane complex, but the menu has plenty of personality.
Of course, creating a good menu is one thing, but the proof is really on the plate. A delicious house salad ($8) is often a sign of good things to come. Mesclun greens were garnished with dried cherries, spiced pecans, pickled red onions and crumbles of a fairly sedate blue cheese. The flavors married well, and the garnish was just plentiful enough to liven up the greens without taking too much of an edge off one's appetite.
2 1/2 stars = Very good+
301 Freeport Road, Aspinwall
- Hours: Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun. brunch, 10 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner from 3-10 p.m.
- Basics: This casual but comfortable restaurant stands out for the quality of its classic American cuisine and its diverse menu, which changes seasonally.
- Recommended dishes: House salad, pierogies, seafood stew, braised lamb shank, meatloaf stack, ice cream sandwich.
- Prices: Appetizers, $7-$12; soups, salads and sandwiches, $3-$15; entrees, $14-$24; desserts, $7.
- Beer, wine and cocktails: Specialty cocktails don't live up to the classic ingredient-driven food menu. The usual beers are on tap, supplemented by a few more interesting microbrews, with a wider variety available by the bottle. Check for seasonal selections. The wine list, which is still a work in progress, comprises about two dozen bottles of white and a few more of red, both starting at $25. About half the wines are available by the glass, starting at $7. The list is international but consists mostly of the usual varietals from the usual regions. The markup ranges from 200 percent or less for the most expensive bottles to 400 percent for the cheapest. Misspellings and a lack of consistent vintage dates will irk some, but there are good bargains to be found.
- Summary: Wheelchair accessible; credit cards accepted; reservations encouraged during weekend prime times; corkage, $10.
- Noise level: Low to loud.
Pierogies ($7) can do triple-duty as a bar snack, an appetizer or a main course. Cornerstone is one of a few Pittsburgh restaurants that go to the trouble of making their own, but someone on the kitchen staff clearly has a deft hand with pasta dough. Tender, silky sheets of pasta encase chive-flavored whipped potatoes, the plate of dumplings topped with a small heap of well-caramelized onions.
This restaurant isn't trying to be the most creative spot in town (though it has its moments). This is classic American food, comforting in its familiarity, executed with impressive care and attention to detail.
The meatloaf stack ($16) was about as perfect a plate of comfort as any carnivore could desire. The loaf was perfectly seasoned and surprisingly light. I wondered how it could taste so deliciously rich, until I noticed the secret ingredient -- slices of bacon wrapped around the edge. The top was spread with a layer of creamy whipped potatoes, melted asiago cheese, sauteed onions and slices of sauteed portobellas. The loaf rested on a raft of bright green broccolini, a pleasant way to take away a little of the guilt from the super-rich meatloaf.
Braised lamb shank ($22) is one of the most visually arresting dishes, displayed against the pale yellow backdrop of creamy parmesan polenta and encircled by a lovely frame of roasted Brussels sprouts and red pearl onions.
The indulgence of a dish that essentially inverts current dietary advice -- lots of meat with a vegetable garnish -- adds a sort of wicked pleasure to it, but the vegetables were so delicious that I couldn't help but wish for a larger helping of the perfectly roasted sprouts.
The seafood stew ($21), perfect for a chilly night, was the best dish of this style I've had all year. A heaping bowl of spicy tomato broth was loaded with chunks of perfectly cooked salmon and halibut, scallops, shrimp and mussels, along with thin slices of carrot and bobbing bits of fingerling potato. Cornerstone got extra points for choosing the least pretentious moniker (it doesn't need to be called bouillabaisse to be delicious).
The best dessert was the ice cream sandwich ($7), in flavors such as White House cherry with chocolate cookies or dulce de leche with gingersnap. It inspired child-like glee at the whole table. They are large enough to share (and conveniently cut into four perfect chunks), but I certainly wouldn't regret keeping one to myself.
Some dishes still need work, including a few that are holdovers from the summer menu, and thus should have had their kinks worked out by now. Wild mushroom ravioli with duck confit ($18) has the same lovely pasta as the pierogies, but the mushroom filling was terribly underseasoned. The duck confit, which should be moist and quite rich, somehow managed to taste both oily and watery, with little actual flavor. Meanwhile, the lamb burger ($13) had too much going on. The moist, flavorful burger was topped with goat cheese and arugula dressed in a truffle vinaigrette. The truffle oil (a dangerously trendy ingredient) over-emphasized the gaminess of the lamb and added to the slight sogginess of the bun.
Apart from a couple of dishes, the appetizer section seems like it belongs on the menu of a different restaurant. There are some classic dishes, but they're bar classics, like pulled pork nachos ($10), sliders ($9) and wings (6, $5). A bowl of mussels in coconut curry sauce was a good addition to the menu, but the sauce tasted mostly of coconut milk with little of the addictive perfume of a good curry. The mussels were seriously overcooked, shriveled to almost nothing in their shells. The wings and nachos were adequate, but this kitchen is clearly capable of better.
So in place of an appetizer, order an extra side dish or two for the table. At only $3 a pop who can resist gorgeous creamed kale (capable of converting any kale-hater) or a steaming hot dish of tangy-sweet, bourbon-baked white beans?
Service was casual, but extremely attentive, sometimes too much so. It probably wasn't necessary to have a server, the manager and the chef come ask how the food was all within five minutes of each other, a chorus they repeated at every occupied table one Saturday night. But their hearts were clearly in the right place, and at Cornerstone, that passion seemed to make a difference. While the menu was uneven, after each meal I found myself thinking about dishes I still wanted to try. Cornerstone may have played a familiar song, and it wasn't always in tune, but it lured me in all the same.