A Tale of Two Steakhouses: Capital Grille pleases; Coal Hill needs work
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COAL HILL STEAKHOUSE AT THE GRANDVIEW SALOON
2 stars=very good
1212 Grandview Ave.
• Basics: Friendly service won't make up for a confused, overpriced and poorly executed menu that will leave you fuming over your meal and your bill.
• Recommended dishes: Crab Cake with Sun-dried Tomato Pesto; Caramelized Three-Onion Soup; Porterhouse (ask them to hold the steak sauce).
• Prices: Appetizers, $10-$18; main dishes, $23-$49; desserts, $5.50; wine, glasses start at $7.50, bottles start at $24.
• Summary: Nonsmoking (including decks); park on a side street or in a pay lot across the street; credit cards accepted; reservations for parties of eight or more; Coal Hill does not allow outside wine.
• Noise level: Quiet.
Mount Washington restaurants are known for their views, and Coal Hill is no exception. If you haven't looked at Pittsburgh from on high, you may find the city lights so distracting that you don't notice anything else. That would be fortunate, because very little stands up to close inspection.
Executive chef Christopher Clark, originally from St. Louis, has worked at the Grandview Saloon since he graduated from the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute in 2004. The restaurant reopened as the Coal Hill Steakhouse in January of this year, but while the name and menu have changed, the gloomy, unattractive dining room is desperate for a face lift. A dingy carpet, uncomfortable chairs and the coffeemaker at a service station in full view of the dining room are just a few contributors to the depressing atmosphere.
Few customers seemed to order wine, perhaps because of a short list with an even smaller by-the-glass selection. Additionally, the servers lack more than the most basic wine knowledge and were unable to describe any of the wines or explain suggestions. The service is friendly and efficient but not very elegant.
Coal Hill offers a generic steakhouse menu, with a few Pittsburgh touches thrown in, such as a Grandview Classic salad ($17) heaped with steak fries. While Clark tries to make as much as possible from scratch and uses local or regional rather than national purveyors when possible, most of the food tasted pre-made. The Smoked Cedar Lobster and Crab Bisque ($7) was practically inedible. When the bowl was placed before me, I was struck first by the unnatural orange hue, then by the skin that had formed across the top. It tasted thick, cloying and slightly fishy. I searched for a sensation of lobster or sherry, but all I could really taste was the harsh, almost medicinal, flavor of smoked cedar.
The Crab Cake ($18) was quite good, and I enjoyed the sun-dried tomato pesto, which was a nice change from the typical aioli. For that price, it ought to have been the best crab cake I've ever eaten. It wasn't. But it was the Caribbean Prawns ($18) that stood out as the most overpriced appetizer. Four medium-sized shrimp were drenched in a coconut batter, then fried until the shrimp were overcooked and the coating became a dark brown. The Mai Thai sauce served only to add a pink, sweet, sticky layer to an already unappetizing dish.
Coal Hill advertises that its steaks are served on a 550-degree cast-iron plate in order to retain the heat of the steak as well as to additionally caramelize the meat. I cannot evaluate whether this method adds any benefit, because our steaks were served on platters only slightly warmer than room temperature.
The Prime Rib Bordelaise ($28, Queen Cut; $33, King Cut) demonstrated that not all prime beef is created equal. While marbling -- threads of fat distributed throughout the meat -- is desirable, this steak had large kernels of fat, rather than fat that was dispersed throughout the meat. The sauce, fortified by the addition of mushrooms and onions, was pleasant but lacked the richness that is essential to a true bordelaise.
It was difficult to judge the flavor of the Porterhouse steak ($38), because it was smothered in a house steak sauce that was excessively salty and totally overpowered the taste of the meat. High-quality beef cooked properly needs no adornment, and I was surprised that the restaurant would cover such an expensive cut of meat with an unattractive sauce. The steak wasn't as tender as I expected, and it lacked the dramatic contrast between the sirloin and the filet, which is usually the best part of eating a Porterhouse.
The Lobster Ravioli ($26), a house specialty, was a mediocre version of a standard dish. I'm not sure they should brag about making these leaden cheese ravioli, which are covered with a tomato-cream sauce and lobster claws that tasted overcooked and possibly previously frozen. The entire plate was sprinkled with chopped parsley -- a garnishing technique that was already out of date in the 1970s -- and the addition of powdery Parmesan cheese contributed nothing but an extra layer of salt.
Although I enjoyed the servers' recitations of the dessert list -- a long litany of pies with a few other additions -- they were a poor sort of indulgence. I never saw a properly cooked crust -- they looked and tasted incredibly underdone -- and the fillings were staid and tired. The most successful dessert was the panna cotta ($5.50), which was too sweet and had a gel-like consistency.
These unfortunate meals were also deeply frustrating, because despite so much evidence to the contrary, I believe that someone in the kitchen is capable of much better food. A Pot Roast special ($26) was better than anything we had on the regular menu. The meat was tender enough to forgo a knife, and mashed potatoes soaked up a pleasant sauce. Even more surprising, every vegetable I tried was perfectly cooked. On one visit I was stunned by the quality of the asparagus, each stalk thinner than a pencil, as well as the perfect texture of thin, bright green beans. It's a sad day when I go to a steak house and wish I had been served a plate of asparagus rather than a Porterhouse.
THE CAPITAL GRILLE
2 stars=very good
Piatt Place, 301 Fifth Ave.
• Basics: The Capital Grille's clubby atmosphere will make you want to wear a power suit and order your Scotch neat. Indulge yourself in well-executed classics and elegant service, although be prepared for a substantial check
• Recommended dishes: Lobster and Crab Cakes, Shrimp Cocktail, Pan-Fried Calamari, French Onion Soup, The "Wedge" with Blue Cheese and Crumbled Bacon; Dry Aged Porterhouse Steak; Signature Cheeseburger; Lobster Mac 'N' Cheese; Flourless Chocolate Espresso Cake.
• Prices: Appetizers, $6-$46; main dishes, $22-$42; sides, $6-$12; desserts, $6-$8; wine, glasses start at $14, bottles start at $28.
• Summary: Handicapped accessible; dining room, nonsmoking; lounge and bar, smoking; complimentary valet parking; all major credit cards accepted; reservations strongly recommended; corkage fee $25.
• Noise level: Medium to very loud.
Although attempts are made to personalize each Capital Grille restaurant with pictures of local luminaries and other unique touches, The Capital Grille Pittsburgh, at Piatt Place, still feels a bit like what it is -- an upscale chain. According to the restaurant rumor mill, The Capital Grille was inspired by the famed Boston Steak House, Grill 23. The Capital Grille is certainly redolent of Boston style, full of leather chairs, massive portraits of influential men and women, animal heads and secluded booths good for brokering deals.
The suits of Downtown Pittsburgh clearly have discovered The Capital Grille Bar, which is packed for weekday happy hours and weekend pre-dinner drinks. The house "classic cocktails" tend to be overly sweet and poorly balanced (though they are generally better than the current trend of vodka martinis that more closely resemble dessert than a good cocktail). Fortunately, bartenders are quite capable of mixing a variety of true classics, such as an Old Fashioned (rye or another type of whiskey, simple syrup, bitters) or a Negroni (gin, sweet vermouth, campari).
When you do head in for dinner, you might need a map of the massive dining room. Think twice before you check your coat, because the restaurant can get extremely cold no matter how far from the door you go. It can also get excessively loud, so make sure you ask for a quiet table if you actually want to talk to your companions. I recommend the Mister Rogers corner for a cozy tete-a-tete.
The glass-enclosed wine cellar transforms a storage facility into a still life, and its beauty speaks volumes for the excellence of the wine list. While the list is certainly on the expensive side, a fair number of bottles are offered for less than $30. Half-bottles and glasses also are good options, although here I wish the offerings were more extensive. If you don't know much about wine, or even just wish for some advice, don't necessarily expect any help from your server. While The Capital Grille is clearly trying to train servers to suggest and pair wines, some have rudimentary knowledge at best.
The Capital Grille offers a good example of a well-selected and balanced menu. If you're in the mood for classics, you'll love a large wedge of crisp iceberg blanketed in a creamy dressing of blue cheese and bacon ($8). The plate is finished with a few tomato slices that seemed fine until I discovered the far superior tomatoes they had been hoarding for the Fresh Mozzarella, Tomato, Basil with 8-year Aged Balsamic ($12). Although this salad is commonplace, this version is superb. The smooth richness of the mozzarella contrasts with the bright acidity of the tomatoes, and the aged balsamic adds a surprising note of sweetness. Servers encourage sharing and are happy to serve dishes onto individual plates or split salads in the kitchen.
Other excellent appetizer choices include the shrimp cocktail ($14) -- six jewel-like shrimp set in a bed of crushed ice -- and the pan-fried calamari with hot cherry peppers ($13). The calamari is lightly breaded and fried very quickly, so the taste of the squid rather than breading dominates. Quite spicy from hot cherry peppers and possibly pepperoncini, this dish also is a fantastic bar snack. On one visit it hadn't been executed quite as well as it could have been: Bits of breading cluttered the plate, and a bit of excess grease could have been blotted up before plating.
I'm already craving the French Onion Soup ($8), equally suitable for a quick lunch on a cold fall day or the start to a decadent meal of filet mignon. Although I wish they had used Gruyere, rather than a mix of milder cheeses, I loved the contrasts between each layer of this soup -- gooey threads of cheese mixed with chunks of bread soaked in a rich beef and onion broth.
A disappointing mix-up marred what would otherwise have been a wonderfully memorable meal. Orders for a rare-plus Porterhouse ($40) and a medium-rare-plus Delmonico ($41) were flip-flopped in the kitchen. Some attempt was made to deal with the mistake, but our server stopped short of offering to recook the steaks, and no one from management came by to check on the situation. Despite less than ideal conditions, the steaks were both delicious, and the quality of the meat was extremely high. The Capital Grille's beef is dry-aged on the premises. Dry aging relaxes the muscles so that they become more tender. A steak that hasn't been aged will always be tough. Dry aging also removes some of the moisture from the meat, which actually means the cooked meat will be more moist and tender.
The lunch menu includes many dinner favorites, as well as a few sandwiches. The Capital Grille's oversized burger is made from a mix of chopped sirloin, smoked bacon and sweet onions. A smoky char from the grill and the mild sweetness of a thin, soft brioche-style roll augmented this wonderful combination of flavors. The Lobster and Crab Burger ($17) is thick with perfectly cooked shellfish, although it's dangerously messy for a business lunch.
The sides are the weakest section of the menu. Asparagus ($9) was practically raw, partially because thick stalks hadn't been peeled. Roasted mushrooms ($10) were too crowded when cooked, so the bottom layer had steamed in its own juices, and the resulting dish was wet and bland. But the Lobster Mac 'N' Cheese ($12) is superb; it balances a beautifully browned crust with a soft, creamy underbelly, and perfectly cooked lobster.
Desserts are a bit hodgepodge, so ask your server for clearer descriptions. A mediocre slice of chocolate hazelnut cake ($7.50) could easily serve a table of eight, but a more reasonable piece of Flourless Chocolate Espresso Cake ($7) has a delicate and creamy texture. While I might have preferred a more intense chocolate flavor, I was pacified by a dollop of real whipped cream and the scattered raspberries that accompanied it. The fresh berries in Vanilla Cream ($6) is a wonderful way to end a heavy meal, though it would have been even better if the cream had been a little less sweet.
The service was generally very attentive, practiced and discreet. Although one server was excessively chatty, constantly referring to her training and needlessly apologizing every few seconds, I was extremely impressed by how much the servers knew about the food and the restaurant. The level of service here is quite high and will probably only improve with more training. Even if you can't afford your own private wine locker or a bottle of the 2004 Opus One ($298), you'll feel welcome in this powerhouse where servers will greet you by name and you'll dine under the watchful eye of Pittsburgh society past.
First Published November 1, 2007 12:00 am