On the Table: The Carlton's menu is little changed, but the wine selection impresses
At The Carlton, Downtown, the wine library, where diners can browse and select a bottle, is at left.
Share with others:
The Carlton Restaurant in BNY Mellon Center, Downtown, is undoubtedly a landmark of Pittsburgh's culinary scene. It has served the region's movers and shakers for almost 26 years, with Kevin Joyce as its proprietor since 1995. Its proximity to the Civic Arena made it a popular choice for pre-hockey dining, and the new Consol Energy Center is similarly well-positioned. The restaurant also has long provided complimentary limousine service to Cultural District theaters and concert halls.
This past summer, Mr. Joyce closed the restaurant for expensive but mostly behind-the-scenes renovations. Although he planned to update the menu to better reflect current dining trends, he ultimately decided to make more gradual changes. The restaurant re-opened in August, just in time, in Mr. Joyce's words, for the Paul McCartney concert at the Consol Energy Center and three weeks of "Phantom of the Opera" at the Benedum Center.
1 1/2 stars = Good+
1 1/2 stars = Good+
2 1/2 stars = Very good+
2 stars = Very good
500 Grant St.,
- Hours: Lunch, Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Monday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday, 5-11 p.m.
- Basics: An American menu of pastas, meat and seafood dishes served in a handsome, wood-paneled and heavy-draperied dining room; don't miss the interesting wine list, well-priced for exploration.
- Prices: $4.95-$13.95; entrees, $23.95-$39.95; sides, $4.95-$5.95; desserts, $5-$8.
- Wine: The extensive wine list is now stored on iPads, which breaks the list down into varietals and regions. 24 whites and 23 reds by the glass, starting at $7. Hundreds of bottles, with extensive offerings at every price range, including more than 100 cellar-aged selections. Many listings include helpful tasting notes, and the forthcoming iPad application will provide even more information from a variety of sources.
- Summary: Wheelchair accessible; credit cards accepted; reservations recommended; parking validated for building's below-ground garage; corkage, $10.
- Noise level: Low to loud.
The Carlton is a handsome establishment, with generally professional service and an impressive wine program. Unfortunately, the food has not kept pace with what's offered at Pittsburgh's better restaurants. It might be satisfying enough to precede an event, but it's not sufficiently interesting or well-executed to be an event unto itself.
As a pre-show destination, the Carlton kitchen often serves 200 diners in 45 minutes. The unfortunate result is that many dishes appear assembled, rather than cooked to order. One such appetizer consisted of multicolored tortilla chips, spread with a bit of gaucamole then topped with shrimp glazed in barbeque sauce. Attempts are made to disguise the simplicity of the dish by drizzling on sauces and sprinkling on garnishes, but ultimately this is shrimp on chips ($10.95). They're tasty, but unimpressive. A pulled chicken flat bread was even less successful, as the bread had grown soggy beneath slices of underipe Roma tomatoes, sliced black olives, dry shreds of chicken and chunks of slightly oily chorizo ($10.95).
For a lighter, fresher beginning, try the vegetable-stuffed portabello ($9.95). Though really just a salad, the flavorful mushroom, served at just above room temperature, was tender and overflowing with sauteed squash and onions. Its flavors melded well without wilting its bed of mixed lettuces, lightly coated in a sweet tomato-based dressing.
A tender buffalo pot roast was appealing in its flavorful simplicity, though it was accompanied by roasted potatoes that tasted of either the steam table or too much time in a low oven ($25.95).
Blue cheese and a Jack Daniels glaze added appealing richness to strip steak ($39.95), while late-summer tomatoes and thick-cut bacon were lovely complements to scallops, both as an appetizer ($10.95) and entree ($29.95).
A lamb meatball and short rib pasta was one of the most successful dishes ($23.95). Long, curled tubes of casarecce pasta were a quiet backdrop for rich lamb meatballs and tender, shredded beef short ribs, each bite moistened by some of the jus from the braised short ribs. Slow-roasted tomatoes and caramelized pearl onions, like little sugar bombs, added a succulent sweetness to every bite.
A parmesan crust added just the right amount of flavor to mild grouper filets, demonstrating that the Italians' ban on cheese with seafood should be loosened up. Unfortunately, the fish was accompanied by some of the most leaden pierogies I've ever tasted -- a terrible waste of lobster ($30.95).
Some good components were overwhelmed by unnecessary sauces or fussy accompaniments. Wood-grilled salmon, already a rich, moist fish, needed neither a Dijon aioli or a greasy handful of fried arugula, which overwhelmed the clean, sweet flavors of the warm chickpea and sun-dried tomato salad -- the tastiest component ($25.95). Panko bread crumbs added a pleasant crunch to seared Ahi tuna, but the one-dimensional sweetness of a coconut-curry orzo totally dominated the plate ($28.95).
The Ahi tuna may reference wasabi, curry, cococut and yuzu but none of those flavors is apparent. The Carlton skims the surface of cuisines without actually incorporating their flavors or techniques. A Southwest grilled chicken is served with risotto and spring rolls, the kind of cultural confusion that once ruined American food's reputation. These dishes are not as successful as, say, the Buffalo pot roast or the short rib and lamb meatball pasta because the ingredients don't add up to a cohesive set of flavors or a coherent dish.
The dessert list was long enough to contain some tasty options, some terrible ones and many in between. As if a dozen options were insufficient, an entry notes, "We also offer: New York Style Cheesecake, Sorbet, Vanilla Ice Cream and Seasonal Fruit." The best options were a moist bread pudding, studded with plump raisins and drizzled with a whiskey sauce ($7) and a classic vanilla creme brulee ($7). The worst included a Tollhouse cookie sundae, the thick slice of chocolate chip cookie dough cooked in a manner that scorched the chocolate chips while leaving the dough rather raw in the middle. Though soft when it arrived, within a few minutes it had become rock hard ($5/$8).
Service was sometimes a strength, at its best thorough and professional. On one occasion, servers spoke enthusiastically about new wine options, described extra offerings for the evenings and speedily responded to every request. But on a quieter evening we had to repeatedly ask for a cocktail list and no additional specials were described (though they were briefly referenced on the menu). The bright red, berry dressing on a beet salad had spilled over the rim of the plate, and a server barely apologized as she put it down, staining the tablecloth. The main server carefully set down wine glasses covered in water spots, their interiors wet from the dishwasher.
When a restaurant goes to the trouble and expense of using Riedel stemware, that kind of carelessness is especially noticeable. The length and breadth of The Carlton's wine list, along with its reasonable prices and extensive wine notes, is one of the restaurant's primary strengths. Two of the most visible post-renovation changes included placing the wine list on iPads (electronic tablets with touch screens) and creating a physical wine library in the center of the restaurant where diners can browse for a bottle of red wine, then take it directly back to their table.
The iPad makes a list of this length more manageable, and its usefulness will grow in a few months when The Carlton's wine list application is complete. At that point, the iPads will control the restaurant's wine inventory, so out-of-stock wines will disappear from the list. Each wine entry will include a picture of the label in full color, and the application will mine electronic data about a particular bottle to provide the user with more information about the wine.
Since the renovation, The Carlton quickly returned to its busy schedule of wine dinners, which Mr. Joyce considers the heart of the restaurant's offerings. It is possible that the wine dinners present a side of the restaurant not visible to a regular diner, but it is hard to imagine that the kitchen's offerings could be significantly different.
Despite a substantial reinvestment in the business, The Carlton's offerings appear calibrated to retain the clientele they have already won over, without considering changes in the regional or even Downtown dining scene. They're betting on the status quo -- not necessarily a risky bet, but, to me, a disappointing one.
First Published October 7, 2010 12:00 am