Location: 444 Liberty Ave., Gateway Center, Downtown. 412-251-0168. www.elementscuisine.com
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sat. 5 p.m.-11 p.m.
Prices: Soups, salads and small plates $6-9; entrees $20-39
Fare: Locally sourced, contemporary cuisine
Atmosphere: Dimly formal
Liquor: Full bar
We ask two questions of every restaurant we patronize. The first, of course, is, "Is it any good?" The second is, "What sets it apart?"
Among Pittsburgh fine-dining establishments, the answer to the first question is, quite often, yes. But the answer to the second can be harder to tease out, given the increasing number of places offering "creative contemporary" cuisine, local/seasonal ingredients, and swank interiors. We're not cynical; we just need a reason to choose one restaurant over another.
Elements, recently installed in the elegant space formerly occupied by Palomino in Four Gateway Center, hits all of the fine-dining high notes. "Contemporary cuisine" is right there in its name. The kitchen is dedicated to using fresh, local ingredients. And with a dimly-lit interior of neutral colors, the effect is a little like dining a very formal forest glen.
With just enough light to read our menus, we keyed in immediately on Elements' extraordinary charcuterie list. A veteran of his own charcuterie business in Santa Cruz, Calif., executive chef Justin Severino has brought his passion with him to Pittsburgh. At Elements, he has built an impressive menu of locally produced cheeses, house-cured meats, and little single-ingredient salads, from classic olives to tea-soaked prunes.
From this, we ordered a selection of items, including hard, soft and blue cheeses, duck speck (prosciutto), lomo (dry-cured pork tenderloin), and vegetables. The grilled radicchio was literally a bittersweet dish, the vegetable's earthiness offset by the tender, mellow juices coaxed out by the heat of the grill. We also loved the marinated chickpeas, which were firm and tart, yet warm with northern African spices. These vegetables rounded out the creamy, nutty notes of the cheeses and the hearty ones of the meats, intensified by smoke and spices.
Elements' in-house curing operation doesn't stop at salamis, either. There's duck prosciutto, bresaola, even lard. That's right: You can order a ramekin full of meat-studded pork fat, just right for spreading on crusty bread. It's a Central European classic, inexplicably scarce in our cholesterol-loving city.
Charcuterie plates can be ordered in themed tastings (Spanish, Italian and Mediterranean) or a la carte with the help of a "glossary" card detailing each item; our knowledgeable server helped us make suitable selections, too. Or, for $99, you can sample every item on the menu, making an entire meal from Elements' superb charcuterie. We would love to return and do just that.
This time, however, we wanted to take in the rest of Elements' menu. Somewhat surprisingly, one of its stars was decidedly un-upscale pizza. No preciously wafer-thin "flatbread" crust here; Elements' crust was traditional, with superb crunch, good yeasty flavor and plenty of heft to support its excellent toppings. The Bolognese featured a medley of meats in a tomato sauce that hinted of cream. While most diners don't go to fancy restaurants for pizza, Elements' pizza was among the best we've ever had.
The same could be said of the pumpkin soup, poured from a silver pitcher over a little mound of crab in the bowl. This charming serving method had the culinary effect of keeping the crab light and sweet, with no risk of overcooking in the broth, which was lightly seasoned with curry spices and accentuated with mint and scallion.
Given the kitchen's prowess with meat, we ordered a ribeye steak. It was well-crusted on the outside yet pink within. Intrigued by the name, we tried veal cheeks, too. These were fork-tender, combining the velvety mouthfeel of short ribs with the mild flavor of veal, which shone beneath a glistening apple-cider glaze. Braised lamb over bucatini pasta was so tender as to be almost mushy, but in a sauce with earthy chanterelle mushrooms and creamy mascarpone cheese, it worked. We were impressed by the portions as well as the flavors of our entrees: It is a rare treat to get full-size portions of such well-prepared food.
There were two distinctly disappointing side dishes. "Pommes frites" turned out to be halved fingerlings that offered the virtues of neither crispy fries nor creamy roast potatoes. And the root vegetables served with Jason's veal were more raw than roasted, offering a distracting crunch and too-strong flavor that threatened to overwhelm the veal.
This aside, Elements offers traditional American recipes inflected with contemporary flourishes and the fine, fresh flavors of locally sourced ingredients. But it's the phenomenal charcuterie that truly sets Elements apart.