The Cultural District may be Downtown's crown jewel, but in our experience, the restaurants in this gleaming, twinkling part of Pittsburgh have largely not lived up to the world-class caliber of its performance venues. We've had some enjoyable meals within walking distance of the theaters, but perhaps the pressure of seating, feeding and then ushering out patrons in time for curtain call has simply been too much for Cultural District's venues to achieve while still serving up a top-notch feast.
With the opening of Six Penn, catty-corner from Heinz Hall, the people who brought you the smiley-face cookie have taken on this formidable challenge.
We were frankly skeptical when we learned that Eat'n Park would be opening a high-end restaurant in the heart of the Cultural District. After all, we asked ourselves, how can a menu built on midnight milkshakes and breakfast buffets satisfy Gold Circle donors, young professionals and theater buffs alike?
Let's just say that there's a lot more to Six Penn than mere parking and eating. The sophisticated menu betrayed not a hint of its provenance in the corporate headquarters of a family-friendly chain, but perhaps the seamless operation that we enjoyed indicates the professionalism that Eat'n Park brings to the table. Service was prompt and friendly, someone was always on hand with water or coffee, and, although we ate after the final bow was taken, the efficient -- but not hurried -- pace indicated that the kitchen can handle a crush.
Most importantly, the food earned our ovations for both appeal and satisfaction. Elsewhere empanadas are often heavy, doughy, and greasy, but those at Six Penn were everything these little Spanish treats should be: light yet substantial, like savory turnovers with crispy skins and chunky chorizo-and-potato filling. A second appetizer of sea scallops with short-rib and butternut-squash hash was even more exceptional. If you had said to us, "Imagine a pot roast, but made from seafood " we would have said, "No, thank you." But Six Penn's kitchen earned a "Yes, please" with colossal scallops which took on a hearty, meaty character without losing their marine essence. The accompanying roasted vegetables retained their freshness and flavor in a rosemary demiglaze, which was perfectly subtle, while shredded short-rib meat played the perfect supporting role, being indispensable without stealing the show.
From a salad menu which includes such adventurous ingredients as baby red oak, roasted pear and pomegranate seeds, Angelique selected the roasted beet salad: disks of sliced red and yellow sugar beets topped with finely shredded apples and pears, a little goat cheese, endive and "pea tendrils," a tender, juicy, slightly bitter green. The beets were an earthy basis for this fresh, sweet-tart salad, complemented by a mild, citrusy vinaigrette.
Angelique also could not resist ordering lobster mac 'n' cheese from the "Six Penn Comforts" section of the menu. It proved a seemingly impossible marriage of the simple and the sumptuous that turned out to be made in heaven. The blend of havarti, New York sharp cheddar, and Gruyere cheese was creamy, nutty and richly suited to the rosy lobster meat which raised this comfort dish well above its humble origins. Fresh green peas -- a little undercooked -- and halved ripe cherry tomatoes punctuated the bowl with an additional variety of flavors.
Unafraid of repetition, Jason tried the short ribs, which had appeared in our scallop appetizer, as an entrée. The molasses-braised meat was fork-tender within a flavorful seared crust. The main accompaniments -- chunky mashed potatoes and wilted spinach -- were well done, but the "tobacco onions" were over-crisp. The whole was held together with a light and sweet sauce which, while a bit skimpy in portion, provided a pleasantly sweet counterpoint to the hearty meat and potatoes.
In keeping with the principle of contrast, our dessert of pear and cranberry crisp topped with cinnamon ice cream was a harmonious arrangement of sweet and tart, crispy and creamy, hot and cold. It provided a delicious finish to a meal well balanced between familiar and original, trendy and venerable. Six Penn is, at last, the artful restaurant the Cultural District deserves.
Jason: 3.5 stars
Angelique: 3.5 stars