Hours: Dinner, Mon.-Fri. 5-10 p.m.; Sat. 5-11 p.m. Call for breakfast and lunch hours.
Prices: Starters/small plates, $7-15; entrées, $20-35
Fare: Seafood with chops
Atmosphere: Upscale hotel restaurant
Liquor: Full bar
Smoking: Designated sections
When Steelhead Grill opened about 10 years ago in a hotel across from the then-Civic Arena, it garnered something unheard of in the Pittsburgh dining scene: national acclaim. An upscale, inland seafood restaurant with an innovative menu, it suddenly launched Pittsburgh dining into the red-hot pages of Esquire magazine. Since then, extraordinary establishments have become, if not common, then certainly no longer unique here in the 'Burgh. In the meantime, Steelhead Grill's personnel and, eventually, its name changed. So by the time we finally got there, a decade after the initial accolades, we were no longer sure what to expect.
The décor of Steelhead Brasserie and Wine Bar did little to suggest there was a special experience in store. The studiedly inoffensive mélange of modern paneling and classical crown moldings, black-and-white pictures of Pittsburgh, and watercolors of fruit is familiar to anyone who's been in the lobby of a hotel in the last 20 years.
But the service was friendly and professional, and the straightforward menu promised that the aquatic name held more than brand value. While entrées include seafood and other meat in almost equal proportion, the soups and starters are dominated by the former. We instantly agreed that crabmeat gratin would be our first foray into Steelhead's seafood offerings. A loosely packed patty of the sweetest, most succulent jumbo lump, browned and drizzled with a fresh citrusy lemon beurre blanc, this dish exceeded our highest expectations.
Jumbo-shrimp cocktail was served in a segmented glass platter holding shrimp in one section, cocktail and tartar sauces in two others, and a big mound of greens in the middle. The delicately dressed greens were a thoughtful counterpoint to the horseradish-infused cocktail sauce, but the shrimp themselves were a jumbo disappointment, inexplicably mealy.
Our shaken faith was restored in part by a superlative spinach salad with hot bacon dressing. This salad has become a bit of a standby in the kinds of family restaurants where servers wear stripes and suspenders with buttons, but Steelhead's version was both refined and original. Garlic chips, artichoke hearts and gorgonzola offered piquant counterpoint to the mild but not greasy vinaigrette. The smokehouse bacon was carefully cooked to be neither too crispy nor too meaty.
Thus appetized, we partook exclusively of the seafood side of the entree list. Jason has never entirely bought into the idea of salmon cooked on a cedar plank. The fish is already richly flavored, he reasons, and how long is it on the plank anyway? Well, you learn something new every day, and rarely is the lesson so savory and delicious. (Truth be told, though, the ancho beurre blanc sauce lent as much taste as the cedar, and the wood's flavor contribution was more subtle than spicy.) The side dishes, stringy grilled asparagus and somewhat gummy mashed sweet potatoes, were a comparative letdown: Their flavors were well matched, but their textures all wrong.
Angelique had no such reservations about her sea scallops in a roasted garlic-bean ragout and tomato-basil sauce. Six plump scallops, browned to bring out their peak of briny sweetness, anchored a small sea of white beans in a pesto beautifully seasoned with garlic and herbs. A peppery secret ingredient enlivened the dish with a spicy warmth that built with every bite, and tomatoes rounded out the taste with their astringent tang.
Our meal ended on another high note with chocolate bread pudding in bourbon crème Anglaise. Two cake-like wedges had a flavor darker than that of milk chocolate, but creamier than that of dark, and their texture was dense, sticky and rich a chocolate triumph.
When it opened, Steelhead Grill set the standard for contemporary elegance in Pittsburgh dining. Now, all these years and changes later, Steelhead Brasserie remains true to that original reputation with fine dining that is not content to merely tantalize. On the whole, Steelhead Brasserie really satisfies.
Jason: 3 stars
Angelique: 3.5 stars