Location: 1318 Grandview Ave., Mount Washington. 412-431-5882 or www.isabelaongrandview.com
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 5-10 p.m.
Prices: $70 for seven-course prix fixe meal
Fare: Creative continental
Atmosphere: A room with a view
Liquor: Full bar
Has there ever been a street more appropriately named than Grandview Avenue? Funny, though, that the view is mostly grand from the inside looking out. Viewed from the street, Mount Washington's fancy restaurants present the humble aspect of former working-class houses that have been coaxed into commercial service. But of course, the curb appeal of a Grandview Avenue restaurant hardly matters. The façade functions as little more than a place to hang the sign; what matters is the view from within.
But wait, isn't there another thing that matters, too? Oh yes, the food! Grandview eateries have always aspired to offer upscale dining to complement the postcard-perfect panorama. But, as with the restaurants' facades, the menus have often taken a backseat to the main attraction.
Isabela on Grandview, by constrast, is one restaurant that has begun to put as much focus on the food as on the skyline. The entrance is through an unassuming door into a small, dim foyer. But this -- and the ascension of a narrow staircase to the second-floord dining room -- only accentuates the drama as the vista of the city is revealed. The owners have enlivened the small, dark spaces below with mosaics by Pittsburgh artist Stevo Sadvary, but as with every Grandview Avenue restaurant, the centerpiece of the decor is the picture windows.
As the view rewards the eyes, Chef Daniel Leiphart's menu entices the palate. (Our only sense that was not particularly engaged was that of hearing. The guitar-heavy rock 'n' roll on the sound system, while probably energizing to the hard-working cooks in the open kitchen, was at odds with the otherwise serene ambience of the dining room. Or maybe it was just us.)
Isabela has recently begun offering dishes a la carte, but the selections are all from the seven-course, prix fixe dinner that is the heart of the Isabela experience. Three items -- an amuse bouche, a sorbet intermezzo and a pre-dessert salad -- are selected by Chef Leiphart. For the other four courses -- appetizer, fish, meat and dessert -- diners are offered three options each. (Or, as we overheard one server put it, "It is your responsibility to choose.") The menu changes seasonally, with ongoing modifications as ingredients come into their peak.
The cuisine is contemporary and varies widely among European, American and Asian influences, with the key to Leiphart's approach being the tasting-menu concept. Each of the seven courses is, by itself, a small plate, allowing the kitchen to explore bolder flavors that might overwhelm the palate for an entire meal. Thus the steak is served with white truffle-veal jus, and dense, meaty swordfish over a crisp, tart bed of julienned cucumber and rhubarb. Even the dressing on the heart-of-romaine salad, an English pea-yogurt emulsion, has a creamy legume flavor that is excellent, but would probably be wearying on a whole platter of greens.
One course that should always feature fearless flavor, the amuse bouche, succeeded with a tangy-sweet passionfruit sauce over a slice of sea scallop "cooked" ceviche-style. Our appetizers, asparagus soup and roasted quail, were more conventional. The soup was served cold and featured tart-tangy notes complemented by firm, meaty slices of seared tofu, nutty sunflower seeds and a bracing dash of horseradish.
Jason's semi-boneless quail was succulent, richly flavored by a lemon-sage brine. This was accompanied by a triangle of creamy polenta that was just barely seared over high heat, creating a thin, brittle crust reminiscent of crème brulee. Jason's only quibble was that the crisp prosciutto chip was too meaty and salty, putting it out of balance with the rest of the dish.
Jason's prawns came with a caution from our server, who explained that the way to eat them was to break off their heads and suck out the juices. Too primal? Not for Jason, who enjoyed the prawns' briny flavor against the light broth of white wine and ramps. However, the second prawn had a bitter flavor that was absent in the first, upsetting the dish's balance.
A spoonful of mango-yuzu sorbet reset our palates for the meat course. Angelique's lamb stew nimbly balanced the distinctive, almost gamey flavor of lamb with the delicate notes of spring vegetables in a mild yet savory white-wine sauce. Jason's pork tenderloin was beautifully cooked to a rosy pink in the center, and the sweet-and-sour shallots alongside provided the bright contrast that fruit often lends to pork.
During a post-prandial promenade along the avenue after our seven courses, we agreed: Isabela provides a window on what Grandview dining ought to be.