Whether it's in Nashville, Tenn., Boston or Pittsburgh, hotel dining in a strained economy may not be ornate these days, but it is usually refined. War horses on the dining scene, most restaurants in this genre offer few surprises and, with hope, some delights.
This refinement and predictability attract an interesting mix of patrons to Habitat, the fine-dining restaurant on the second floor of the Fairmont Pittsburgh. Special occasions, pre-theater dining and a central location also are draws.
In the dining room, a blue-blazered gentleman sipped whiskey at his table, remarking to his son and daughter-in-law about the last time he visited Vice President Joe Biden's home.
2 1/2 stars = Recommended+
3 stars = Excellent
2 stars = Recommended
2 1/2 stars = Recommended+
Fairmont Pittsburgh Hotel
510 Market. St., Downtown
- Hours: Breakfast daily, 6:30-10 a.m.; lunch daily, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner, Sunday-Thursday, 5:30-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday, 5:30-10:30 p.m.
- Basics: Habitat's eclectic, international menu balances seasonally driven dishes with refined interpretations of take-out classics.
- Recommended dishes: Naan, butternut squash soup, aged Carnaroli risotto, Alaskan black cod, honey-glazed duck, roasted Brussel sprouts.
- Drink: Interesting craft cocktails including two nonalcoholic options, $7-$18. Twenty beers by the bottle; about a third regional microbrews.
- Prices: Small plates, $5-$16; entrees, $28-$42; sides, $6-$9; dessert, $9.
- Summary: Wheelchair accessible; credit cards accepted; reservations encouraged; corkage, $20.
- Noise level: Medium.
At a booth, a vivacious woman in a purple silk wrap dress captivated her company with storytelling.
A man at the bar drank beer from a pilsner glass, reading the menu as he waited for a companion.
Aside from an empty space next to him, all 82 seats were filled at 7 p.m. on a Wednesday. This is not the place to waltz in without a reservation. Despite modern decor, things are fairly traditional here.
Glass walls display views of the evening streetscape. Brown and green accents, its pewter frog-shaped water pitchers and abstract images of nature reinforce the restaurant's name.
Seasonal cuisine that highlights mindfully sourced ingredients mark the menu, most of which new executive chef Jason Dalling inherited from Andrew Morrison, the Brit who steered the restaurant's 2010 debut. He departed this fall.
Mr. Dalling relocated to Pittsburgh from Washington, D.C., where he was hired as sous chef of the Fairmont Washington in 2004 and was promoted to run the kitchen in 2007. He has worked for the hotel in locations around the country for more than 20 years.
Habitat's open kitchen houses a tandoor oven and a wok. Such tools open international possibilities for the menu, yet it maintains an American focus. A crowd pleaser remains naan ($5), pillowy bread corners served with mango-ginger, tomato-onion and banana chutneys.
"We borrow and utilize other cultures' culinary techniques," Mr. Dalling said.
Mr. Dalling said he has the freedom to change the menu as he sees fit once he gets his bearings here, having arrived about a month ago.
A first course of smoked trout ($14) references Scandinavia. While the trout is fresh with just a hint of smoke, the presentation is stilted by a chopped egg salad accompaniment, too colloquial for a polished plate.
A butternut soup ($8) speaks to the season, comprising roasted squash, vegetable stock and a tinge of maple syrup. Mr. Dalling does not add flour or cream nor does he overdo spices, allowing a soup that's nearly dessert elsewhere to nourish with an elegant simplicity.
The Alaskan black cod entree ($28) is an evergreen that's quite beautiful. Marinated in mirin, brown sugar and soy, the fish is pan-seared, finished in the oven and presented in a light dashi broth with jalapeno and ginger.
Served with bok choy and a shrimp dumpling, this dish and its variations became part of the fine-dining canon in the early 2000s, driven by Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, a celebrity chef known for merging traditional Japanese with South American flavors. After he befriended actor Robert De Niro at his Matsuhisa restaurant in Los Angeles, the two partnered to open Nobu in New York in the 1990s and then extended the empire around the world.
The glazed duck ($32) at Habitat is also popular. Sourced by local farm Peking Paradise, the breast is sous vide to medium rare. The leg is served confit, salt cured then poached in duck fat. Flanked by pureed carrots and wilted greens, the flavors and textures of this dish are terrific.
Desserts, however, are uneven. James Wroblewski, a Pittsburgh native who became pastry chef a year ago, creates a seasonal short list of compelling choices.
The Autumn Flame ($9) is a flamboyant presentation of a Guinness spice cake spiked with a red candied flame, served with pumpkin ice cream, coconut-infused tapioca and pumpkin seeds. Although flavors are complementary, the cake is dry.
The banana bread pudding ($9) is a better bet, a combination of croissant, bananas, milk, spices and chocolate sauce.
A simple pleasure is the trio of house-made ice creams ($8), customized to the season and made with local products.
Or perhaps a cocktail or a glass of wine for dessert is as pleasing.
Be sure to enlist assistance of the server for navigation on the extensive drink list, which includes the memorable bourbon meritage ($16), a delicious concoction of bourbon, ginger, egg white and bitters.
Organized by varietal, the wine list also offers compelling choices by the glass, half bottle and bottle, with dozens for $60 or less.
Service here is near impeccable. Mr. Dalling said it is among the most attentive to service of the Fairmont hotels in which he has worked.
Servers are trained to be present but not intrusive. It is rare to enjoy such graceful service.
With entrees ranging between $28 and $42, Habitat is pricey. Still, there are many high notes that sound the strengths of the genre.
Perhaps now is the time to consider such a pampering meal. 'Tis the season.
Melissa McCart: firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @melissamccart.