When word began to spread last year that a chef who had worked with culinary giants Grant Achatz and Rick Bayless was planning to open a restaurant in Cranberry, the news was greeted with part anticipation and part suspicion.
Why would a chef with such a promising resume move to the outskirts of Pittsburgh to open his first restaurant? What did this Chicago chef know about the Pittsburgh food scene, or the needs and desires of its northern suburbs?
But Brian Hammond, who opened Restaurant Echo in December, is quite familiar with the local restaurant scene. He moved to Western Pennsylvania with his family as a teenager, graduating from Seneca High School in Erie. Later, he married a Pittsburgher, Terri, who serves as Restaurant Echo's office manager.
3 stars = Excellent
1740 Route 228
- Hours: Lunch, Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner, Tuesday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m.; late night, Tuesday-Saturday, 10 p.m.-midnight.
- Basics: Modern design and ingredient-focused food shine at this substantial new addition to the Pittsburgh-area restaurant scene.
- Recommended dishes: Romaine salad, mushroom cigars, charcuterie plate, pappardelle with lamb, golden trout, pork shank, Meyer lemon pudding cake, sticky toffee date cake.
- Prices: Small plates, $7-$12; large plates, $18-$26; desserts, $7-$12.
- Drink: Full bar, including a cocktail list; wines loosely organized by region; 3 sparkling, 9 white and 10 red wines by the glass, starting at $7; 5 sparkling wines by the bottle, starting at $39; 24 whites by the bottle, 6 bottles for $40 or less; 47 reds by the bottle, 11 bottles for $50 or less. The ample beer list should be a tremendous draw, including three rotating draft selections ($6-$7) augmented by 50 bottle selections including a diverse selection of local, regional, national and international brewers, $4-$9.
- Summary: Wheelchair accessible; credit cards accepted; reservations encouraged; corkage, $15.
- Noise level: medium loud to very loud.
His culinary ambitions initially took him elsewhere, but he's repeatedly returned to the area, each time building on his accomplishments. After attending culinary school and kick-starting his career in San Diego, he came to cook at the Hyeholde in Moon, eventually becoming sous chef under executive chef Christopher O'Brien. From Hyeholde, Mr. Hammond went to Chicago. He worked at Alinea -- one of the nation's most famous restaurants -- for "a season," but found a better fit at Mr. Bayless' Topolobampo and Frontera Grill, where he spent three years, ultimately serving as the head of private dining.
Mr. Hammond returned to Pittsburgh last year to open his own restaurant, and in Cranberry, he found a space suitable to his ambition. His former boss, Mr. O'Brien, came along to act as chef de cuisine, second-in-command to Mr. Hammond. This is an unusual role reversal, but one that speaks well of the project.
The expansive restaurant space, previously occupied by Hereford & Hops Steakhouse and Brewpub, is conveniently located on Route 228, just off Interstate 79. It also came with some land that Mr. Hammond and Mr. O'Brien will begin to farm this summer, with grander plans for future seasons.
The large building has been extensively renovated, carved up into smaller, more intimate rooms including several dining rooms, an ample bar, and a large entryway, all of it sleek and modern. It's a lovely space, bright whites contrasting with natural wood, silver vases in nooks and real art on the walls.
The food at Restaurant Echo only hints at Mr. Hammond's background. The most significant influences appear to be traditional French and a focus on local ingredients and purveyors.
The food is skillfully prepared and thoughtfully conceived, and if it feels a little bit safe at times, that's likely because Mr. Hammond is still working out his own culinary point of view.
Already there's lots of good eating here. Late winter salads are robust and flavorful. Tiny, jewel-like hearts of romaine were lavished with slow-roasted tomatoes, a creamy chive dressing and thin brown-bread croutons for extra crunch. Chicory and radicchio's bite was tamed with a petite poached pear, shards of stinky blue Stilton and a perfectly circular pancetta crisp. Each fork full was a little bitter, a little sweet, a little salty, a perfect triumvirate of flavors.
Forays into Asian dishes read oddly on the menu, but make sense on the plate. Mushroom cigars were constructed with rice paper wrappers, as crispy as phyllo-dough but less oily. Umami-rich miso enhanced the earthy flavors of grilled mushrooms. Ahi tuna pad thai deconstructed the dish into squares of seared fish, a heap of crispy-crunchy rice noodles and a swipe of sesame dressing. Nothing like pad thai, really, but an effective mix of flavors and textures.
Some dishes were rustic, like a pureed soup of roasted vegetables -- tomatoes, peppers, turnips and potato -- lightly sweet with hints of smoke and spice. Others were more elaborate. A plate of house-made charcuterie was a veritable smorgasbord of preserved meat and fish.
Rich and funky chicken liver pate set off the sweetness of a second, foie gras version. A sprinkling of salt on the latter made the flavors pop. Most daring was a slice of pork head cheese, the moist, flaky meat encircled in a thin aspic jelly. This preparation would win over anyone who took a bite. A thin slice of gravlax was a touch out of place, and it tasted saline against the sweet flavors of the meat. The abundance of offerings is wonderful, but it's a little unwieldy without a few more slices of toast. Some mustard and cornichons (traditional for a reason) also would be good additions.
The menu is littered with references to farms and purveyors, and Mr. O'Brien has undoubtedly been instrumental in creating these relationships so quickly. The quality of the raw ingredients stands out, as does the restaurant's determination to stick to reasonable portion sizes.
It's hard to know whether it was the quality of the meat, or the precision of the cooking method (partly sous vide) that gave a pork shank its incredibly velvety mouthfeel. Nestled in a bed of white beans cooked with pork fat, with wilted spinach to cut the richness, this contemporary restaurant take on cassoulet allowed each element to shine, from the flavor of the pork to the creaminess of the beans.
Slightly smaller portions and flavorful accompaniments make rich cuts of meat more interesting, A grilled ribeye, served sliced as the French often do, came with mustard and olive oil mashed potatoes, crisp haricot verts and (the piece de resistance) authentic Bordelaise sauce, a gorgeous amalgamation of red wine, demiglace and bone marrow.
Sauces, and ingredients treated like sauce, had been tweaked and tasted until just right. A light fennel cream sauce tasted remarkably light, a silky pool coating each bite of pan-roasted Laurel Hill trout.
A fillet of salmon shone pink against an orange squash puree, layered with a sprinkling of farro and pumpkin seeds and a heap of sauteed spinach. The grains and seeds added texture to the dish, without making it heavier.
Handmade pastas showed real promise, tender and well cooked, though not yet as silky as the most practiced versions. Tagliatelle heaped with a half-dozen plump, pink shrimp was bathed in lemon, garlic and white wine, a hint of parmesan, and a fine shower of parsley that imparted flavor, not just color.
Wider, slightly thicker pappardelle, moistened with brown butter and sage demiglace, stood up nicely to tender chunks of lamb shoulder, braised in red wine and infused with sweet spices. A profusion of vegetables added lightness and freshness, included diced squash, slices of white asparagus, slow roasted tomato halves and tangles of spinach.
There were a handful of dishes that stumbled, failures partly of execution and partly of concept. Bone marrow, served with a wonderfully bracing parsley salad, had been roasted down to almost nothing, deeply caramelized and almost chewy. Pulled from the bone and served in small chunks on slices of toasted baguette, it was far less fun to eat than when it must be excavated with a miniature spoon.
A lovely round of steak tartare, good enough alone, was served with slightly precious arrangements of pickled white vegetables barely distinguishable beneath their brine (turnip? radish? fennel?). The salty liquor sapped the beef of its flavor, and an underpoached egg, which broke up into watery fragments on the plate, didn't help matters.
A roasted chicken breast was as pretty a specimen as one could imagine -- beautifully browned skin giving way to moist, white flesh; but underseasoning resulted in lack of flavor.
No matter what, meals end well. Pastry chefs Erin Ribo and Heather Deraway are producing boldly flavored, deeply pleasurable desserts. A dark chocolate brownie was dressed up with passion fruit caramel and mango passion fruit sorbet, the tart tropical flavors enhancing the rich flavor of the chocolate.
Meyer lemon pudding cake is almost white and so delicate it dissolves with each bite while a sticky toffee date cake is gooey and rich, impossibly moist and served with the most delectable coconut-lime sorbet.
This restaurant aims high and occasionally falters. But even where it fails, success doesn't seem far out of reach. Mr. Hammond's ambitions are of the kind that elevate, rather than undermine, a dining experience.
Restaurant Echo has already made a substantial impact, and there is still more to come. In the next few months, Restaurant Echo will open two private event spaces, large enough to hold up to 160 people when combined. Mr. Hammond is also planning a formal dining room to showcase tasting menus, paired with both wine and beer.
Mr. Hammond's "one step at a time" plan for building a restaurant has paid off. On Saturday nights, they often serve 300-plus covers (restaurant-speak for customers), yet service felt attentive and personal. Weekdays end earlier, but can feel equally busy.
Training such a large staff is challenging, but by the time a more formal dining room does open, Echo's cooks, servers and managers will doubtlessly be ready to tackle a more elaborate menu.
In the meantime, there is much to enjoy and a whole summer season to inspire this talented team.