On the Table: Isabela on Grandview shines on Mount Washington
Skillful cooking and fine service match the great view
August 22, 2013 4:00 AM
Smoked duck breast comes with chanterelle mushrooms, bicolored corn, black pepper cavatelli and micro cilantro.
Baby kale salad with mini heirloom tomatoes, Riverview Farms goat cheese, petite basil and sherry vinaigrette.
By Melissa McCart Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Like a row of Greek houses on a university campus, seven restaurants align Mount Washington. Joining Isabela on Grandview, there's Grandview Saloon & Coal Hill Steakhouse, Bella Vista Ristorante Italiano, Tin Angel, Monterey Bay Fish Grotto and LeMont. In Pittsburgh's heyday, these restaurants with a view were destination dining, where the food was fine and occasionally great, if overpriced.
A tough economy was hard on the neighborhood, as business dining and special occasion celebrations took a hit and restaurants struggled to fill dining rooms.
As the city bounces back, bustling casual restaurants are revitalizing neighborhoods from Lawrenceville to East Liberty. Yet those on the Mount have not regained luster. Some of them are placeholders of Pittsburgh's past, with reliable menus and dated dining rooms. Such was the case with the Georgetowne Inn, which closed in July after a 40-year run.
For some natives, the association with the past is part of the charm.
Isabela on Grandview is better than that. The restaurant that opened in 2000 remains relevant with a seasonal menu, strong service and competitive prices for the location. Consider Bailli de Provence on the wine list, a round rose with a hint of fruit, or a jammy Montoya Pinot Noir, both of which are $10 by the glass or $40 by the bottle. They're among more than 20 bottles at this price, with even more below $50. Although it's not a diverse wine list, it's a value for a fine-dining restaurant.
As striking is the fact that a five-course tasting menu has held at $70 since the Post-Gazette last reviewed the restaurant in 2009. And the average price of an entree at $30 has dropped since it opened in 2000. This is not cheap, but it's on par with some of the strongest restaurants in Pittsburgh.
The food is accessible, too, which is a positive and a negative. Steering the dining room is executive chef Alan Peet, formerly of Big Burrito until 2012, where he served as head of catering for the group before his departure. Before that he was executive chef at Casbah in Shadyside and chef de cuisine at Eleven in the Strip. After a stint at Marty's Market when it opened in the Strip District, Mr. Peet joined Isabela on Grandview to fill the gap when Dan and Sherri Leiphart left in 2012 to open Thin Man Sandwich Shop in the Strip.
"This is a dream job," said Mr. Peet. "Every chef wants to work in a small restaurant with a tasting menu."
For this, diners have three choices for each course. While the selections aren't challenging, they are often satisfying. Mr. Peet nods to the Middle East in the first-course scallops with baba ghanoush seasoned with earthy sumac. A sweet scallop is perfectly caramelized. House-made ricotta ravioli is another choice, an interplay of silky pasta, creamy curd and savory mushrooms of the season, whether they're morels, chanterelles or porcinis.
Pass on the Skuna Bay salmon for the second course, since the farmed variety should be swapped for far superior King or Coho salmon. A better choice is the swordfish fillet served with gloriously sweet heirloom tomatoes and big flavors of capers, olives and assertive anchovies. The dish is layered with braised octopus, perfectly prepared. The octopus outshines the fillet, but I appreciate this dish inspired by the Mediterranean.
A server delivers a tart intermezzo of goat's milk yogurt in strawberry for one visit, peach for another. It's less a palate cleanser for the meat course than a chance to order more wine, stretch and take a break from a marathon meal.
The intermezzo joins the amuse bouche first bite as an '80s tasting menu relic. While the amuse is still embraced in fine dining restaurants everywhere, the intermezzo is dated, along with a salad served at the end, before dessert. This doesn't make these courses any less flavorful, especially with more modern ingredients, with goat's milk instead of sorbet; kale instead of greens; and sherry vinaigrette instead of balsamic, the cloying ingredient that, in Pittsburgh, will not go away.
Diners often lose momentum by the meat course but it's the most interesting course here, such as a beautiful pork tenderloin served with scallion pancake, a mushroom medley, eggplant and hoisin. Another choice, the duck breast displays perfectly rare medallions with smoked corn and chanterelles atop house-made cavatelli. This is a dish to savor.
Desserts are conservative. It's here I wish for a daring pastry chef to go beyond panna cotta, chocolate cake or fruit and mascarpone, regardless of a dress-up with marshmallow, peanut butter mousse or local honey. These standard choices found in many restaurants may be the caving to diners' fading appetite for dessert, which likely would not be the case if more compelling options were resurrected. How delicious would it be to sample a berry pavlova or ginger ice cream with a warm stone fruit crumble. These suggestions are simple and rustic compared with complicated, ambitious pastries inspired by the French.
For those who'd rather pass on a multicourse meal, diners can order a la carte, a breakdown of the tasting menu priced accordingly. For a shared first course there's the addition of a Western Pennsylvania cheese plate, which includes creamy cow's milk, fresh goat's milk and aged cheddar. A sublime side is the chanterelle risotto. Dress things down even more by grabbing a seat on the first level bar and lounge.
Though it's not a groundbreaking dining experience, Mr. Peet's skillful cooking, polished service and a terrific view would please a gourmand or a grandmother. For those who have not been there in a while, add Isabela on Grandview to the list of places to revisit.