Fairmont Pittsburgh's Restaurant a welcome addition to downtown scene
June 3, 2010 4:00 AM
Pam Panchak / Post-Gazette
Among items on the menu at Habitat in the Fairmont Pittsburgh are lobster lo mein, front, tandoor chicken tacos, left, and marinated Elysian Fields lamb with tamarind and green chile glaze.
By China Millman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In cities with long, complex histories, there is special excitement generated by the new -- something that presents boundless possibility. As Downtown's 23-story Three PNC Plaza Tower has grown toward the sky, anticipation also has grown. Despite these elevated expectations, the Fairmont Pittsburgh hotel's restaurant in the new office tower did not disappoint.
Habitat's simple, modern design makes beautiful use of wood, fabric and glass. Rows of windows along the outside edge of the L-shaped dining room provide ample natural light and distinctive views of the Downtown landscape. The vibrantly colored striped carpet is a pleasant shock against the muted tones of the room.
Subtle details add interest: the elegant lines of low-necked cocktail and wine glasses; the gleaming red handle of a Laguiole steak knife; heavy pewter pitchers in the shape of frogs, water poured from their upturned mouths.
The open kitchen, still a powerful trend in new restaurant construction, was a small misstep. It gleams almost too brightly as the sun set, exaggerating the contrast between the low-lit dining room and the emergency room-intense white light of the kitchen.
Basics: Habitat's eclectic, international menu balances seasonally driven dishes with refined interpretations of take-out classics; well-crafted desserts ensure meals end on an impressive note.
Recommended dishes: Localized bee's knees cocktail, naan, tandoor chicken tacos, lobster lo mein, marinated Elysian Fields lamb, rib-eye steak, New York strip steak; Copper River salmon with fingerling potatoes, baby bok choy and yellow curry sauce; mashed Yukon Gold potatoes, stir-fried baby vegetables, citrus, peanut butter.
Prices: Small plates, $4-$16; entrees, $12-$42; sides, $6; dessert, $9.
Drinks: Interesting list of specialty cocktails that will change with the seasons, including two nonalcoholic options, $7-$18 (most around $12). The lengthy, international wine list is organized mostly by varietal: three sparkling, nine white, nine reds and one rose by the glass, $10-$22; a small selection of wines by the half-bottle; dozens of whites and reds by the bottle, 25 bottles of white and 18 bottles of red for $60 or less. Twenty beers by the bottle; about a third regional microbrews.
Noise level: Low to medium loud, especially near the open kitchen.
It was interesting to note the details of the kitchen that helped guide the creation of the menu. There's a tandoor oven and a wok station, each with a dedicated section of dishes, including two of the restaurant's best. A basket of naan arrived fresh from the tandoor oven with mango-ginger, tomato-onion and banana chutney ($4). A lobster lo mein was rich with chunks of sweet lobster meat, perfectly cooked baby bok choy, long beans and peppers, all coated in just the right amount of sweet soy based sauce ($20).
Chef Andrew Morrison, who was born in England but has been cooking in America for much of his career, subscribes to the gospel of farm to table. Although the lack of specific sourcing information makes it difficult to determine exactly how much of the food is local or organic, there is an impressive attentiveness to ingredients. It is pleasantly easy to eat light at this restaurant, not because portions are small (although they aren't enormous) but because the food is simpler and prepared with a lighter touch than most restaurant food.
An amuse-bouche of Copper River salmon carpaccio was an argument for the superiority of wild fish over farmed: leaner, yet richer -- like a steely chablis compared to an over-oaked chardonnay.
While the menu is a little short on vegetarian options, the kitchen treats vegetables with exquisite care. A side order of steamed asparagus (stems beautifully peeled) was dressed with a drizzle of olive oil, some lemon and creamy curds of fresh ricotta ($6). Stir-fried sugar snap peas, carrots and white and green asparagus swam in a pool of ginger and sesame broth ($6).
Habitat is one of very few restaurants to offer grass-fed beef, including a house burger ($12) and a cut of steak each night, alternating between rib-eye, New York Strip, filet and skirt, depending on availability. Not everyone will like grass-fed beef as much as they like corn-fed. A New York Strip steak was slightly grainy, and certainly leaner, but the flavor was excellent ($42).
Wild bass with braised baby artichokes, fingerling potatoes and spring peas was simultaneously impressive and a bit frustrating ($26). The fish was a marvel, each mouthful buttery sweet, echoing the delicate spring flavor of fresh peas. The artichokes, however, were seriously underseasoned, and each component had remained a little too distinct.
Spring menus are extraordinarily challenging for seasonally driven chefs, and Mr. Morrison did an impressive job of minimizing repetition. But it's a little too early to rely on heirloom tomatoes, which were more lovely than flavorful, paired with a luscious wedge of burrata cheese, oozing cream between folds of mozzarella ($11).
As the burrata hints, a few dishes do cross over into pure indulgence, like a simply presented square of braised pork belly with a good balance between tender meat and luscious fat, the crispy top glazed in something sweet and slightly spicy and topped with crushed hazelnuts ($12).
The quality of dishes was remarkably even, but there were some dishes that stood out, revealing a unique perspective. Three small squash blossoms were filled with sweet crab meat, dipped in a light batter and pan fried until crisp, then served in a small pool of bright red sauce with the consistency almost of water but all the vivid flavor of a perfect summer gazpacho ($20).
A Copper River salmon special came with steamed fingerling potatoes, sauteed baby bok choy and a yellow curry sauce ($42), an assertive combination of flavors that paired beautifully with the salmon while still allowing its impeccable flavor and texture to shine.
Pastry chef Naomi Gallego's dessert list, while short, is spectacular. The desserts have many components, each and every one unfailingly delicious ($9). "Citrus," with its lime frozen yogurt, blood orange gelee, citrus fennel salsa and more, was lively, refreshing and sophisticated. "Hazelnut" features a classical pairing of hazlenut and chocolate, layering a delicate slice of hazelnut cake with milk chocolate cream and hazelnut-chocolate ganache. Peanut butter and concord grape jelly were a playful pairing in another.
Consistency and quality are high, but they come at a price -- a very expensive one. Some entrees are in the low-to-mid $20s, while items such as the steak and some specials run as high as $42 and may even require additional side dishes (each $6) to make a complete meal. While a range of prices can make a restaurant more versatile, the limited size of this menu makes it too restrictive to feel equally appealing at both ends of the price spectrum.
A pre-theater prix fixe might be a way of filling up the restaurant early in the evening, and a welcoming gesture to Pittsburgh diners.
The desire to be welcoming is palpable. Servers were warm and enthusiastic, eager to praise the chefs, answer questions and make diners feel comfortable. The few service flaws were issues of overall organization rather than individual training. Calling to make a reservation seems to result in an almost humorous series of transferred calls, although each phone operator is unfailingly polite. A mix of white porcelain comes in a variety of shapes, often awkward and heavy, making it a bit challenging for servers to quickly clear a table.
Given the overall prices, it's no surprise that requests for wine recommendations result in suggestions around the $60 mark. But when asked for slightly less expensive suggestions, the servers were just as helpful and, most important, knew when to seek out Alan Uschrinscko's help. The indomitably enthusiastic sommelier has returned to Pittsburgh from the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Fayette County, and his forthright descriptions are an extremely welcome addition.
The building is done, hotel rooms are slept in, diners come and go. I will continue to watch with interest as the Fairmont Pittsburgh's Habitat figures out exactly what its place will be in ours.