Location: 1600 Stone Mansion Drive, Franklin Park 724-934-3000. www.woodsidesgrille.com
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat. 11:30 a.m.- 11 p.m.; Sun. 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, soups, salads and sandwiches $3-12; entrees $16-28
Fare: Casual contemporary
Atmosphere: Old-fashioned opulence
Liquor: Full bar
If Pittsburgh rose to greatness in the Era of Invention -- from the Bessemer converter to Westinghouse's countless patents -- this must be the Era of Reinvention. On every scale, people -- and places -- are shedding unwanted relics of the past and tweaking what's left to be more in tune with the times, from the latest humiliated celebrity feigning a new outlook (or at least a new look) to Pittsburgh itself seeking new status as a leader in industries so light their products travel via the transmission of digital code.
Businesses, including restaurants, must frequently reinvent themselves if they want to stay relevant to their clientele. The downside of such transitions is that they can leave those who were devoted to the original version bereft. But the owners of the Stone Mansion in Franklin Park, pieced together in the 1930s from salvaged bits of the Gilded Age mansions then being demolished by the dozen, have executed a neat trick: a major overhaul that didn't touch their iconic namesake. As a result, you can still eat among the splendors salvaged by Sheriff Robert Woodside, but it's now known as Woodside's Grille at Woodside Manor, and has a new menu that blends high- and low-end concepts and ingredients, from truffled popcorn to lobster mac-and-cheese.
Having enjoyed a lovely summer dinner on the Stone Mansion's patio a few seasons back, we were looking forward, this time, to sampling chef Robert Courser's updated offerings in one of the mansion's warm and cozy original rooms, preferably by the light of a blazing fire. Alas, those rooms were filled with holiday parties, and so we were shunted to a back corner of a characterless dining room that had been tacked on to the original house in the heyday of acoustical ceiling tile. From there, we felt like the Little Match Girl, able to see but not partake of the patina-ed glow of mahogany paneling, stained glass and firelight.
But at least we got to partake of Asian steak bites, one of the more original items on a menu that veers from classic, not to say dated, dishes -- such as mushrooms stuffed with crabmeat and boursin cheese, seemingly unchanged since 1980 -- to intriguing twists on current faves like the ubiquitous sliders, here offered in Kobe beef with three kinds of ketchup. We thought the steak bites, tender morsels in a not-too-sweet hoisin glaze, were brilliant enough to merit their own ubiquity. They came with a little paper cone of the truffled popcorn, in which the truffle oil and salt combined to provide the lightest of snacks with a more substantial flavor; we only wish there had been more to accompany the generous portion of steak.
Our other starter was poutine, French Canada's surprisingly non-frou-frou contribution to world cuisine. Essentially, it is cheese fries with gravy. What elevates it to "poutine" is the use of curds: fresh, simple cheese not unlike what's in cottage cheese, and a much less greasy alternative to cheddar. And then, Courser's touch with the other ingredients could single-handedly transform Quebec's culinary reputation. The dark, intense and silky gravy from braised short ribs was an inspired choice that provided an excuse to stud the dish with succulent strips of beef. Even beneath these heavy toppings, the thick-cut fries were impressively crisp and light, creating a dish with balance, rather than mere excess.
The shaved-prime-rib sandwich was another standout, with the meat taking on an almost unctuous tenderness, enough to hold up under mushrooms, onions and five cheeses without becoming a stunt-sized mega-sandwich. The bun was crusty, the horseradish cream provided welcome bite amidst all the richness, and the end result was superb, well worth its premium price.
We also loved a salad that took the conventional combination of field greens, chevre and balsamic vinegar, and paired it with two kinds of beets -- red and golden -- for a successful, seasonal take on what is more commonly a summer salad served with berries.
This, however, was a precursor to a couple of entrees that did not measure up. First, veal tenderloin was cleverly presented with wedges of cheesy potato gratin and tempura leek strips. But Jason's request for medium rare wasn't quite met, and somehow the tenderest cut of a tender meat turned out tough. And then, Angelique ordered pappardelle Bolognaise (after her first choice, halibut with pumpkin risotto, sage and cider reduction was sold out) and found it barely palatable. The noodles were mushy -- mealy even -- and the sauce had the dried-out, almost sticky consistency of tomato paste. Although we're sure the kitchen would have graciously addressed our concerns -- Woodside's service was quite good -- fine restaurants need to get these things right the first time, especially if a dish is prone to failure when miscooked. (Jason didn't mind the rareness of his veal, only the toughness.)
Overall, we liked the reinvention of Woodside's mansion. If some dishes fell below our expectations, the peerless décor remains the same, while the updated menu has been cleansed of stuffiness and studded with some original dishes you won't find elsewhere.