Review: Entrees fail to measure up to the grandeur of the Grand Concourse
February 28, 2013 10:00 AM
Sunday brunch at the Grand Concourse in Station Square is always a spectacle.
By Melissa McCart Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The bustle of travelers in Pittsburgh airport terminals and railroad hubs has receded over the past decade. Yet transportation structures remain, often empty or underutilized. Occasionally, they're repurposed like a burnished memory.
Take the Grand Concourse, the restaurant in Station Square that was once the home of the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie terminals during the Progressive Era. Such a stunning room as this glamorized Pittsburgh train travel.
Sunday brunch 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Monday through Saturday lunch 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Monday through Thursday dinner 4 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday dinner 4 to 11 p.m.; Sunday dinner 3 to 9 p.m.
Grand Concourse is a beautiful space for a special occasion, although the cuisine does not match the ambiance or service. Best bets are Sunday brunch, lunch service or the distinctive dining menu that includes three courses for just under $30.
Raw oysters; mussels pommes frites; New England clam chowder; bouillabaisse; diver scallops; prime steak au poivre.
Brunch: $25.99 for adults and $13.99 for children; lunch $14-$16; dinner appetizers $11-$15, soups and salads $7-$9, seafood $20-$40, beef and chicken $30-$45.
Bar; dining room; valet parking; credit cards accepted; handicapped accessible.
Quiet to moderately loud.
Renovated in 1978 by the late restaurateur Chuck Muer, the cavernous space maintains grandeur with faux marble columns, vaulted ceilings and a march of stained glass that draws the eye skyward. Hand-cut tile floors are testament to skillful immigrants who crafted them. Clocks watch above doorways in this temple to transportation, a reminder of travel's moments of beauty and possibility.
Since then, Grand Concourse has been the place to bring mom on Mother's Day, to entertain out-of-town friends, hold rehearsal dinners or to celebrate a graduation. It's mobbed on Thanksgiving, and Sunday brunches regularly attract throngs from all over the region, where parties -- even with reservations -- often have to wait for a table.
But it's a different story on a quiet weeknight. A host led diners through the opulent main room to the River Room, an intimately lit space with drop-ceilings and carpeting, framed by plate glass and a view of Pittsburgh's bridges. The main hall was not available for guests, the host said.
Why not allow diners to enjoy the restaurant's draw rather than pass through it like travelers? And why isn't this grand space bustling seven days a week like restaurants in Market Square, Lawrenceville or the Strip District?
Perhaps addressing what locals want is less of a priority for Houston-based Landry's Inc., the company that purchased the Grand Concourse and its casual sibling Gandy Dancer Saloon in the early 2000s. Landry's runs a fleet of eateries in tourist-dense areas, such as Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., the chain inspired by the 1994 movie "Forrest Gump," with more than 30 locations around the world. It also operates Rainforest Cafe, Morton's the Steakhouse and McCormick & Schmick's. Their prices reflect prime real estate.
Such is the case at Grand Concourse. What's on dinner plates does not warrant the high prices. This is unfortunate. For a special-occasion restaurant, the food is not terribly special for any occasion.
For a price break, diners may opt for the very limited Distinctive Dining menu, a three-course discount for just under $30. Entrees include rainbow trout, shrimp or chicken, salad and dessert.
On the regular dinner menu, appetizers are a strength. A half dozen Blue Point oysters ($13) arrive on a bed of shaved ice with lemon, horseradish and cocktail sauce. Connecticut Blue Points are entry level compared with Fishers Island, Kusshi and Olde Salts. Variety would be nice, especially at a seafood restaurant with a raw bar.
To be fair, Malpeques, Fanny Bays, Fire River and others are sold at Gandy Dancer Saloon. At Grand Concourse tables, diners in the know must ask for them.
Most pleasing among appetizers are the mussels pommes frites ($10.50), nestled in tomato broth and garnished with addictive matchstick fries. Sicilian calamari ($10.50) wears a heavy breading doused in sweet and spicy pepper sauce. The plate is so noisy, it's easy to forget seafood is under the trappings.
Main dishes are a problem. A lobster tail ($35) arrives rubbery alongside coconut ginger rice. "This is exactly what I expected it to taste like," said a diner who wished he ordered a whole lobster, but declined as he considered dealing with the mess.
"At least I would have known it was recently alive."
Vegetables are decimated. A side of brussels sprouts is gray. Reedy asparagus spears taste like buttered neglect.
Bouillabaisse ($26) is the only version I've seen that comes with a plastic bib. A saffron-laced broth is harmonious, dappled with scallops, white fish and mussels. But it's hard to ignore the halved West Coast Dungeness crab that claws out of the bowl, a presentation fitting for a seaside fish camp with papered tables.
"Should I ask for a mallet?" said a diner. She made do with a cracking tool and a crab fork.
Meat and potatoes are the safest bet, whether it's a New York Strip ($31) with Cabernet demi-glace or a 6- or 8-ounce filet mignon ($27, $33). Potatoes are lackluster, whether mashed or formed into croquettes.
Even the Chicken Pinot Grigio ($20) is merely serviceable. A wine-marinated, parmesan-encrusted breast sits atop angel hair pasta mozzarella and spinach like an afterthought.
Speaking of wine, servers are attentive, particularly when it comes to ensuring glasses are full. Wines by the bottle and the glass read like a varied list at a neighborhood tavern, such as a fruity Mirassou Pinot Noir ($12/glass; this retails for about $7 a bottle) or drinkable Luccio Moscato ($10/glass).
It is the Sunday brunch ($25.99) that's the favorite meal here, when the main hall is abuzz and bedecked children compete with food stations for diners' attention. Expect an array of smoked and cured fish, an omelet bar and entrees with ham, eggs, chicken and sausages. Desserts are the draw for those with a weakness for sweets. Behold a bakery's worth of breads, muffins, cookies, buns, cakes and pies.
"Grand Concourse is the place we go for nostalgia," said a Pittsburgher when I told him I was visiting the restaurant. Clearly. Diners who budget for such a special occasion place should be incensed by what they're served for a $30 entree.
Judging Grand Concourse by the cuisine may be missing the point. Although the food isn't remarkable, the restaurant can be a way station for Pittsburgh memories.