Location: 530 William Penn Place, Downtown. 412-281-7100 (hotel switchboard)
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 6:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-10 p.m.; Sun. 6:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Prices: Starters $8-13; entrees $18-32
Fare: Traditional Continental, updated
Atmosphere: Grand hotel
Liquor: Full bar
While most of our fair city lurches into the 21st century – more tortoise than hare, but we all know who wins in the end, right? – there are still a couple of places where you can experience Pittsburgh much as it was in its Gilded Age. Most impressive among these is the William Penn Hotel, whose formal dining room, The Terrace Room, is one of the last local bastions of old-school restaurateur-ship. While most upscale restaurants today aspire to a certain brand of polished urban chic, The Terrace Room still offers a high, coffered ceiling, grandiose historical murals, sweating silver water pitchers and a menu rooted in the classical culinary tradition of your parents' (if not Frick and Carnegie's) generation.
But, although The Terrace Room is an anomaly, it is not quite an anachronism. The drinks list offers fruity martinis to make James Bond blush, and the table settings include cobalt-blue water goblets and oversized, asymmetrical bowls. While the dining room is largely unchanged from the hotel's heyday in the 1920s and '30s, it bears no hint of mustiness.
The menu, meanwhile, performs its own balancing act. On the one hand are venerable dishes like shrimp cocktail – hold the irony – and coq au vin, whose height of sophistication dates roughly to the Eisenhower administration. On the other hand are de rigueur postmodern updates such as duck confit spring rolls. At the moment, the guiding principle of the menu is a French theme. Omni, the William Penn's parent corporation, oversees three-month rotations of particular foreign cuisines, generally tied to promotions on the wine list; other recent themes have included Italian and Argentine. The current theme blends so well with the classically French dishes on the regular menu that we might not have even identified the special entrees but for the symbol denoting them.
Amidst these mixed messages, we pressed forward, testing to see where the kitchen's true strengths lay. The duck spring roll was a good start. The crisp yet substantial wrapper provided a sound base for duck that was rich yet moist, as it should be. Alongside, lightly dressed baby-spinach leaves and orange sections added light, bright flavor notes while evoking both Asian cuisine and classic duck a l'orange.
Salads in general were extraordinary. All that we ordered were well balanced, thoughtfully conceived and gorgeously presented. Jason's "whole leaf" Caesar salad consisted of the better part of a romaine heart trimmed, loosened to allow dressing to penetrate, and served nearly intact, a preparation that demanded use of a knife to eat, but was charming nonetheless. Ingredient-wise, it didn't break any new ground, but the proportions of romaine to croutons, anchovies, parmesan and dressing were excellent and the flavors light and full.
Angelique's Aveline salad eschewed the usual heap of spring greens, wrapping them instead in ribbons of thinly sliced cucumber and daikon. Inside this festive-looking package, toasted pine nuts, tangy gorgonzola and a brown-sugar vinaigrette created a suite of flavors that was bitter, nutty, earthy and sweet.
Angelique also had the aforementioned coq au vin and gumbo, a chef's signature dish that stood out among this and The Terrace Room's other classically continental dishes. The gumbo was mildly seasoned, more creamy than briny, but with a complex spiciness that compounded with every spoonful, and lots of rice, sausage and tiny shrimp. Her other dish, the chicken, was beautifully braised and stewed in a savory sauce. It was served with the most marvelous puree of celery root, its flavor not unlike mashed potatoes but its texture lighter than whipped cream.
Jason felt obliged to sample from the menu section labeled "Aged Pittsburgh Cuts." As part of the international theme, a rib-eye steak was prepared frites style, but with a haute touch: The steak was heavily peppered, with a Robert sauce alongside, and the frites were sprinkled with tiny snips of chives and shallot salt. Shallot salt? Neither can we imagine how this is made, but it was superb on fries, intensifying the savoriness by increasing the salt's, well, saltiness. The steak was medium rare as requested, but not quite juicy enough, despite sufficient marbling. The red wine-based Robert sauce, richly flavored, helped to compensate.
One note about service: Our waiter, who was congenial and professional, was nearly unassisted, which made elaborate set-pieces like the wine service take far too long, as he himself fetched the bottles, polished the glasses and then performed the ritual pours. The dining room was mostly empty, but this excuse hardly suffices for a hotel that should be prepared to serve its guests in fine fashion at virtually any hour.