Location: 1600 Stone Mansion Drive, Franklin Park. 724-934-3000. www.stonemansion.com
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 11:45 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Mon.-Thu. 4:30-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 4:30-11 p.m.
Prices: Soups, salads and appetizers $6-13; entrees $16-45
Fare: Continental and American
Atmosphere: Manorial splendor
Liquor: Full bar
Robert Frost wrote that "nothing gold can stay"; something merely gilded is more ephemeral still. By the 1920s, the Gilded Age, that era of millionaire industrialists and their extravagant excess, was already over, leaving Pittsburgh with (among other things) an inheritance of grandiose city estates whose upkeep demanded a domestic staff beyond the means of most moderns. With the Great Depression came the first big round of demolition -- and one new mansion pieced together, Frankenstein-like, from the salvage of its predecessors.
As county sheriff in 1934, Robert Woodside had the inside scoop on impending demolitions. He bought 80 acres of former farmland (which now sits between a housing development and an office park), and there he outfitted a new stone mansion with woodwork, stained glass and fireplaces saved from doomed city estates. Sixty years later, Woodside's grand pastiche was rescued from the very same fate by Don Mervis, who put up his own additions to accommodate the mansion's conversion to a restaurant. The result is a faux English manor which offers formal dining in a blend of intimate, residential-scaled dining rooms, larger party rooms and al fresco seating on the former parking court.
Which is where we found ourselves on a lovely late-spring evening. With the sun setting over the faux Tudor townhouses across the road, and shots ringing from the nearby Millvale Sportsmen's Club, we perused the menu of the restaurant now known simply as The Stone Mansion. Like the building itself, the menu is formal and traditional, but not untouched by modern trends: In addition to the obligatory seared tuna, we found duck strudel, mako shark and a Jamaican-style pork chop, jerk-rubbed and served with an island-inspired marmalade.
We began our meal in the most traditional way possible, with shrimp cocktail. The shrimp were big, firm and meaty, but the sauce was too sweet for our taste, too sparing with the zesty horseradish. Another shrimp starter -- prepared as ceviche and served with a colorful confetti of diced bell peppers -- was also more sweet than tartly citrusy. But a third starter of baked artichoke hearts stuffed with goat cheese and wrapped in prosciutto was beautifully balanced. The ham was salty and savory, the cheese mild and creamy, and the artichoke freshly vegetal; a "red onion balsamico" provided a sweet base to round out the felicitous combination of flavors.
The Stone Mansion's house salad is served with a port dressing that combines the lush syrup of port with a rich, almost musty intensity that we found unusual and delicious. A crusty loaf of bread was served with a trio of spreads: minced roasted red peppers, red-pepper butter and a tapenade. The tapenade, especially, was superb, savory and rich, but without the brininess that often wearies the palate with this spread.
We love fish, but find it troublesome to order in a restaurant, because we can never keep track of the current recommendations for environmentally friendly and healthy selections. Angelique threw caution to the wind and had the Chilean sea bass, however, because the preparation -- pan-seared and served on a bed of julienned prosciutto, spinach and tomato, and topped with feta cheese -- sounded so good. And it was. The fish itself practically fell onto her fork in succulent flakes and had a savory seasoning that came just short of forming a crust on top. The salty, smoky prosciutto, earthy spinach, sweet tomato and tangy feta added up to a complex symphony of notes that was more than the sum of their parts.
Jason was tempted by the homey-sounding manicotti alla mama, made with a rolled crepe instead of tubular pasta, but went the opposite direction to order the classic lamb. This was a pair of beautifully pink double chops rubbed with rosemary and grainy mustard, breaded and roasted. The crisp breadcrumbs conveyed the seasonings well, while the rich, juicy meat was simply delicious, browned at the edges and immaculate at the center. There was, however, far too much of it. One double chop, although more challenging to cook, would have amply sufficed. In terms of quality, Jason expected far more from the side of vegetables, a tired mélange of indifferently cut, randomly selected produce cooked to a limp gray. Its presence detracted from a lovely roast.
The dessert menu offered two versions of Maryland Smith Island nine-layer cake, which was new to us but obviously a specialty of the house. We tried the devil's food, and were pleased with its blend of sophisticated chocolate flavor and dense, almost dry texture. In this respect, it was more like a European torte than the typical moist and fluffy American cake.
The Stone Mansion offers fine food in an atmosphere of history and romance that few local establishments can match. Like a house museum with a menu, it offers a way to partake in the Gilded Age at its best.