When Sage Hospitality Group, which owns the Renaissance Hotel Downtown, took over the restaurant space occupied by Opus, signs suggested it was aiming above a typical hotel restaurant experience.
For the new Braddock's American Brasserie, the group improved the interior by replacing dated upholstery and a garishly colored mural with wood paneling and elegant blue and gray fabrics. Long and low, with no windows, the room feels both cozy and spacious.
1 star = Good
1/2 star = Promising
2 stars = Very good
1 star = Good
107 Sixth St.
Hours: Breakfast, Monday-Friday, 7-11 a.m.; brunch, Saturday-Sunday, 7 a.m.-2 p.m.; lunch, Monday-Saturday, noon-4 p.m.; dinner, Monday-Saturday, 5-11 p.m.
Basics: French-influenced comfort food served in an elegant, comfortable dining room; don't forget about the bar's extensive selection of whiskeys.
Recommended dishes: Mussels, tagliatelle with littleneck clams, roast chicken with caponata and carrots, seared scallops with fork-mashed fingerling potatoes and pea puree.
Prices: Small plates and platters to share, $5-$24; soup and salad, $5-$10; entrees, $8-$26; sandwiches, $7.50-$12.50; sides, $5-$6; desserts, $6.50-$10.
Drinks: Wine list organized in a non-traditional manner, putting reds before whites, and grouping some wines by varietal, some by varietal and origin. The wine mark-up is unusually difficult to determine, but there are a large number of inexpensive wines in most categories, even a half dozen bottles of cabernet sauvignon for $20 or less. There is an emphasis on fuller-bodied reds such as zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon. Eight white and sparkling wines by the glass, starting at $8; 11 reds by the glass, starting at $8. Seven beers on tap from regional and local brewers such as Victory, Troegs, Stoudt, and East End, $6-10. Braddock's has an extensive whiskey selection, with more than fifty types available to taste.
Summary: Wheelchair accessible; credit cards accepted; reservations encouraged; corkage, $10.
Noise level: Low.
The menu was thoughtfully designed as well, with dishes intended to honor the Pittsburgh location such as pierogies ($7); and Strip District mussels with kielbasa, tomato, beer and herbs ($17); along with more-or-less French-inspired comfort food such as brandade de baccala ($8) -- whipped salt cod and potato with crostini -- and fresh trenne pasta with wild boar ragu ($8, half portion; $16 full portion).
Some dishes were extremely tasty. Herb butter-basted Gerber Farms Amish Chicken ($15) had gorgeously browned skin and flavorful meat. The portion included a small breast and leg, a boon for a dark meat lover. Eggplant and red bell pepper had melted together into a savory sauce.
Seared scallops with fork-mashed fingerling potatoes and pea puree ($21) didn't necessarily sound like a brilliant combination, but it proved to be one on the plate. Fork mashing ensured the potatoes were perfectly cooked and seasoned, while allowing them to retain a thicker, firmer texture that contrasted with the candy-sweet pea puree and the silky texture of the scallops.
Fresh pastas were a fairly strong category. Tagliatelle, littleneck clams, saffron, lemon and basil ($9, half portion; $18, full portion) was a nice, light choice with very tasty clams, but it was served a little cold.
Trenne pasta with wild boar bolognese also had good flavor, carefully balancing the flavor of the ground meat and the acidity from the tomato. Unfortunately, the kitchen had made the strange choice of serving the pasta piled on top of the sauce. This pasta was also cold by the time it reached the table, and because the bowl was so full, it was impossible to toss it with the ragu.
The treatment of the trenne, however, paled in comparison to the poor execution of a number of other dishes, all of which could have been successful. The meat filling in short rib pierogies was fairly tasty, but the pasta dough was thick and dry. They were also dark brown, as if they had been cooked in dirty oil.
Braddock's take on that classic salad, frisee au lardons, was a huge disappointment. The beauty of that salad is the temperature contrast between the cold frisee and the warm bacon and poached egg, which gently wilt the sturdy lettuce. Here all the ingredients, including the poached egg, tasted as if they came straight from the refrigerator ($8).
The vegetable chop-chop ($10), a healthy mix of lettuce, broccolini, asparagus, cherry tomatoes and chickpeas, was also ice cold. Each bite was flavorless, and the lackluster Green Goddess dressing didn't help matters.
In other dishes, including the French onion soup ($6.50), crab cakes ($10) and a side of garlic spinach ($5.50), salt was the only discernible flavor.
Presentation is one of the kitchen's strengths. If anything, the staff seemed too focused on presentation, and not enough on tasting food before it left the kitchen. The charcuterie selection arrived on a wooden cutting board, with a cute crock of mustard and a little pile of pickles. Unfortunately, the salumi (which our server was unable to clearly identify because she'd forgotten to get the information from the kitchen) looked and tasted as if it had been cut hours before service, while the pickled zucchini and summer squash tasted slightly fermented, without any of the crisp sourness of a proper pickle. Slices of good baguette were served in white paper bags. A vast array of dishes were served in miniature cast iron skillets, whether or not they were cooked in them.
These cast iron skillets caused some problems for our server, who tended to set them down a bit too heavily and to have trouble clearing them due to her tendinitis. We sympathized, but it was hard not to be frustrated, since her difficulty managing these essential tasks sucked much of the remaining enjoyment out of our meal.
In general our server needed more training on everything from opening a bottle of wine and pouring water to addressing customers ("hon" and "love" are not appropriate.) She also needed a reminder that it was not necessary to verbally detail every single move she made, from going to fetch another spoon to putting our dessert order in to the kitchen, which resulted in a constant stream of chatter whenever she approached the table.
Sage Restaurant Group chose the name Braddock's American Brasserie to emphasize both the region's connection to the Whiskey Rebellion -- Braddock's Field was the site of one of the most famous uprisings of the rebellion -- and the restaurant's extensive whiskey and cocktail program. Unfortunately, most people in Pittsburgh have more immediate associations with the name Braddock. It's hard to ignore the irony of naming a new, fine dining establishment after a town where the only sit-down dining option is UPMC Braddock's hospital cafeteria, which faces closure with the rest of the hospital next month.
As for the cocktails list, in the months since the restaurant opened, the list has been noticeably dumbed down. The Homestead Apple ($11) went from bonded applejack, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, Chartreuse, simple syrup and lime to a much sweeter, less interesting mix of Laird's Applejack, St. Germain and fresh sours. Gone is the Oliver Miller with pisco, lemon, egg white, simple syrup and angostura bitters.
The concept is solid, but it seems that more attention was paid to creating the Braddock's American Bistro concept than to actually executing it. Until that changes, this restaurant is likely to remain a dining room people turn to for convenience, rather than one they seek out for pleasure.