Onion soup gratinée with melted gruyère.
Photo by Laura Petrilla
A Reuben on Sixth Street? Wrapped up tight and leaning into the wind on a cold night, we hurried toward Braddock’s American Brasserie at the Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel on a clandestine mission to see if the rumor had legs. Flanking the entrance were our first greeters: two ornamental dragons decked out in black-and-yellow Steeler mufflers. Even one of the grandest façades on Sixth Street is permeated with the Steelers Nation. Ah Pittsburgh.
Inside, my husband, Brad, and I nabbed a historical fact sheet and a couple of menus from the concierge’s desk in the lobby, then stole away to a private marble alcove to read them. Sure enough, a “Pittsburgh Reuben,” subtitled “The Big Ugly” in quirky font, assaulted my reality like a Polamalu blitz. What’s more, not only Braddock’s American Brasserie but also its companion restaurant at the Renaissance, Braddock’s Street Side, serves a Reuben hearty enough to feed the Steelers’ frontline. The sandwich, served open-face on marble rye, crosses the line of credulity with pastrami (6 ounces), kielbasa (6 ounces) and sauerkraut (3 ounces). But wait, it gets better: That Reuben is topped with two large sauerkraut pierogies and 6 ounces of gruyère cheese.
When I got to “pierogie,” I figured it was a typo and so I grabbed a server on the fly. “It’s for real,” he said. And with that, a shot had been fired across the bow at Primanti Bros., the legendary local joint known for its giant sandwich, which includes cole slaw and French fries as components, not sides.
“It started out as comedy in the kitchen,” says executive chef Joe Elliott. A couple of chefs were fooling around, fueling a fever-pitch rivalry for sandwich-altitude records. Joining Elliott, a Pittsburgh native whose résumé includes Nemacolin and The Cloister in Sea Island in Georgia, is chef de cuisine Brian Volmrich, who worked at The Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va.
The sandwich is “extremely big, extremely ugly, extremely Pittsburgh…and it’s the way to go,” chuckles Elliott, referring now not just to the Reuben but also to national trends away from fine dining. “Fine dining—that was my parents’ generation,” he says. “My generation is fast and impatient. We want something that tastes good and we want it right now.” And what celebrities have taken the “Big Ugly” challenge? Elliott reveals that he recently watched actress Shirley Jones (born in Charleroi) finish one singlehandedly.
Braddock’s American Brasserie, located off the hotel’s lobby in the former Opus space, is a sleek, classy, sit-down restaurant with a Euro feel. Hugging Sixth Street on the other side of the lobby is Braddock’s Street Side in the space once occupied by The Bridge. It’s now an imitation of an intimate saloon, complete with a ruddy-faced barkeep, and serving American food with European undertones and local flair. Whether you’re a traditionalist or an anarchist, you have options that include the largest bourbon and whiskey collection in town.
The lighting is right; service is down pat, and modern references to a bygone era specializing in red meat, rakishness and cocktails by the goblet are still intact. An odds-on favorite dish at the moment seems to be mussels, a classic brasserie staple. Braddock’s serves five versions, with or without frites: marinière, dijonaise, fennel and tomato, Strip District (with kielbasa, tomato, herbs and beer) and Billi Bi (with saffron, Noilly Pratt Vermouth and cream). Plump and juicy, the mussels hail from Blue Hill Bay Farm, Maine. They have character—and plenty of muscle.
I also adore the charcuterie, good for grazing, and, as Elliott predicts, “the next big thing in the U.S.” Although it changes day to day, the menu’s been known to feature homemade duck prosciutto, chicken-liver pâté and country (pork) pâté, often served with fresh dried cherries and pistachios, served on a butcher block.
Every dish is fresh and homemade, incorporates food from local vendors, and shows energy and imagination. Elliott good-naturedly tags his cuisine “In-your-face Pittsburgh with a nod to European roots,” resulting in an exciting, classic sort of menu that runs the gamut from straightforward (a rich hanger steak, Gerber Farms Amish chicken) to inventive (sautéd trout menuire with demi-glace, frisée salad with bacon lardons, and a poached egg). The burger is tempting, with beef bacon, fontina and red-pepper marmalade, and the filet is gorgeous. If it’s comfort you’re after, go for an earthy French lamb and white-bean cassoulet.
One night our server, Daniel, dropped off a warm paper bag with a mini-loaf of crusty Italian bread. We hailed him back, thinking he had delivered a doggie bag to the wrong table. Instead, it turned out to be a clever ice-breaker, the house’s way of facilitating interaction between server and customer. It worked. Daniel was absent until the moment we needed him, and then—abracadabra!—present.
I love the pasta, from Fidi Pasta in Moon Township, specifically a tagliatelle with extra-thick noodles cooked perfectly al dente. It was of a smoky bent, seasoned with saffron, lemon and basil. A dozen littleneck clams were located on the periphery. Also don’t miss a unique, rich, trenne cinghiale, a wild-boar bolognese that was intriguingly flavorful. Daniel twisted my arm, and I’m glad he did.
My favorite selection just might be day-boat scallops out of Block Island, which are caught in the a.m. and then dry-packed until they arrive that afternoon. Served in a personal skillet, the plump, supple sea scallops of this variety are seared, allowing for some brown around the edges but without losing a bit of softness or flavor. They’re complemented by fork-mashed potatoes and a bright sweet-pea puree. Another favorite is the wild California bass, with an opulent flake; it’s pan-seared on a flat top and served in a saffron tomato broth. (Hint: Sparkling wines are a great match with this fish, especially when you add a little bitters to the bubbly.)
For small plates there are short-rib pierogies, fried zucchini and eggplant, and kielbasa from Strip District Meats with sauerkraut. There’s a jumbo lump-crab cake, ubiquitous maybe, but in Pittsburgh, you’ve gotta do it. I like the salty shoestring potatoes piled on top, and lemon aioli replaces cocktail sauce. And I am secretly thrilled that here’s a chef who no longer feels the need to discuss the presence or absence of filler. Have we grown up a bit?
“Dessert,” we whispered obsessively, and soon a warm fudge brownie appeared. We forged ahead into banana marshmallow fluff, caramel, candied walnuts and French-vanilla ice cream. Coffee from Presto George—perfect!
A good hotel these days is a place, a town, a city, a world unto itself. The aura it exudes has almost nothing to do with sheets and thread count, and everything to do with everything else—the lobby, the bar, the restaurant, the façade, even what’s next door and across the street. It’s not so much what it takes you away from as what it brings to you. Being different is a more precious quality than ever before.
Peter Karpinski, founder and COO of Sage Restaurant Group, which operates both Braddock eateries, is a man who understands all of this. “Eighty percent of our business is from the city,” he says. “We want to create a comfortable place for people who live and work in Pittsburgh, [something] unique to Pittsburgh. There will never be another Braddock’s.”
Braddock’s American Brasserie & Braddock’s Street Side
Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel
107 Sixth St., downtown
Braddock’s American Brasserie
Breakfast: Mon.-Fri., 7 a.m.-11 a.m.; Sat. buffet 7 a.m.-noon.; Sun. brunch, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
Lunch: Every day 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Dinner: Sun.-Thurs., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m.
Braddock’s Street Side
Mon.-Thurs., noon-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-midnight; Sun., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Small plates: $6-$17
Meat and Poultry: $17-$29
Fish and Shellfish: $17-$23
Full bar, valet parking, major credit cards, reservations accepted, walk-ins welcome, main bar and dining room wheelchair-accessible, no smoking.