Location: 500 Grant St., Downtown. 412-391-4152
Hours: Mon.-Thu. lunch 11:30 a.m.- 2:30 p.m., dinner 5-10 p.m.; Fri. lunch 11:30 a.m.- 2:30 p.m., dinner 5-11 p.m.; Sat. dinner 5-11 p.m.
Prices: Starters $10-14, entrees $28-40, sides $5
Fare: Updated Continental
Atmosphere: Business formal
Liquor: Full bar
Smoking: None permitted
Like any experience paired with high expectations, fine dining walks a narrow line between transcendence and disappointment. All it takes are a few minor missteps to undermine the lofty promise of elegant surroundings, solicitous service and marvelous food. We've been let down enough times by dated décor, stuffy service and sub-par preparations that the exceptions truly surprise us.
The most recent eye-opener was The Carlton, a mainstay of Downtown dining for two decades. This is a restaurant that delivers all the hallmarks of fine dining in an atmosphere refreshingly free of attitude or affectation. The result is a winning formula for an exceptional meal: polished, but brimming with personal touches worthy of a family-run neighborhood café.
The interior is warm and welcoming, with faintly Mission-style accents lending elegance without opulence. The layout, which follows the angled corners of One Mellon Center, creates intimate dining rooms within a fairly large overall space. Meanwhile, the service was friendly, professional and without a hint of overbearing; we were reminded of the career servers who populate European restaurants, whose effortless expertise permit them to skip the hauteur.
Even more remarkable was the approach to children. At this price point, we have been to many restaurants which actively discourage their presence by not offering such amenities as high chairs or a children's menu. At The Carlton, not only is the children's menu delivered in a leather sleeve (at first we mistook it for the restaurant's renowned wine list), but it also includes a paragraph fairly gushing about the management's love for children and the hope that diners will feel free to bring the whole family. The sincerity of the sentiment was brought home when two different staffers came by to offer our preschooler tours of the kitchen.
All of which was pleasant and promising, but would the food suit a modern palate? Like the décor, The Carlton's menu is neither stodgy nor cutting-edge, and while dishes may verge on the decadent -- risotto with lobster and brie? -- the flavor and ingredient combinations offer a sort of classic Continental cuisine with contemporary inflections.
In our appetizer course, we tried crab in two guises, both vaguely Italian. Gnocchi is a challenge for any kitchen, but The Carlton proved its mettle by serving big, soft dumplings without a hint of gumminess. They maintained a slight potatoey sweetness in a tomato-Ketel One cream sauce that was nothing like a typical vodka sauce. Here, the fruity tomatoes were balanced by the slight sharpness of the vodka, while the cream served to subtly enrich. The accompanying lobster claws were big and meaty, enough to impact the palate, while the crab provided a backing note of briny sweetness.
The crab was less in evidence in the polenta appetizer, which was supposed to be stuffed with it. Instead, we reveled in the cornmeal patty's light, almost cakey texture, which carried a mellow red-pepper-and-roasted-tomato coulis. Sweet Italian sausage provided a simple, savory counterpoint.
Jason tried the sea scallops, which seemed to be part of an effort to create the richest dish imaginable. Each large diver scallop was lightly seared, placed atop a round of brioche, set in a puddle of tomato-basil butter and drizzled with aioli. Three-tomato relish might have provided a bit of astringent contrast, but instead exuded sun-dried sweetness. In the center of it all was the aforementioned lobster-brie risotto. The brie's flavor was a minor note at best, but its luxurious texture transformed the risotto into dense decadence. Plenteous, mid-sized chunks of lobster provided richness of a toothier sort alongside the just-al dente rice grains.
Angelique had baramundi, a substantial white fish served atop tomato risotto and spinach-caramelized onion sauté. The mild, firm fish was crusted with Cajun seasonings which the layered presentation allowed to mingle with the vegetal flavors of the spinach, onion and risotto. Meanwhile, plump garlic shrimp ringed the plate, and the whole dish was sauced with sherry butter: delicious.
The most straightforward dish of the night, prime rib with exemplary frites-style potatoes, came from the children's menu. The steak -- in a portion plentiful enough for almost any grown-up -- could have been juicier, but there was no mistaking the underlying quality of the beef. Its flavor shone.
The Carlton has an excellent reputation and charges accordingly. It's not easy to make diners feel that $35 entrees are worthwhile. But a generous hand with high-quality ingredients, combined with impeccable preparations, ensure that these recipes have kept up with the times. This, plus a memorably welcoming atmosphere, make The Carlton a special-occasion experience that exceeds expectations.