Isabela on Grandview
The Height of Fine Dining
1318 Grandview Ave., Mount Washington
Mon.-Sat., 5-10 p.m. Nonsmoking, handicapped-accessible. Prix-fixe, seven-course menu, $65 per person.
Humans build up to look down, I muse while we’re motoring up from the Liberty Tubes to the portion of Grandview Avenue that hugs the rim of Mount Washington. After reaching the summit, my husband, Brad, and I enjoy the grand view as shadows elongate and scenes below take on the look of a dreamy-eyed child’s miniature train village. No matter how many times we’ve seen it, this Impressionistic vision of Pittsburgh, its architecture and its topography can still generate the kind of electricity that takes our breath away – like rocking the cart at the top of the Ferris wheel.
Therefore, it only seems fitting and proper that the string of facades lining Grandview’s restaurant row, tall and short, tiny to massive, should provide perches from which locals can show off an expansive urban view, now and then hoisting toasts to the staggering beauty of such a vista. On a strategic peak, chiseled into the hillside as if someone had used a giant shoe horn to get it just right, you’ll find Isabela on Grandview. This prime site is occupied by a boxy, two-story bungalow, once someone’s bachelor pad and now a double-decker restaurant for fine dining. Even if you think you’ve "been there, done that," the view remains tireless (unless, of course, you’re squeamish about heights).
Inside, seated by windows draped with damask swags and twinkling Christmas lights, we are seduced by the Golden Triangle and points westerly, where mountains envelop the panoramic, rippling slate-green rivers. I like the eggplant-colored second story with its exhibition kitchen. A little clanking in the kitchen is as good a backdrop as a crackling fire in this glitzy aerie.
After shuffling water, wine, bread – a delicious cherry-rum loaf and salty dinner roll – we are given the skinny on the workings of Isabela’s seven-course, prix-fixe ($65/person) menu. Diners select appetizer, fish, meat and dessert courses from a short, seasonal list, and the chef prepares the amuse bouche, intermezzo (daily sorbet) and salad, which change frequently. A fixed-price flight of four wines is selected to match the meal, including champagne with dessert.
Service is impeccable, prompt but discreet, even with a new person on crew. Yet, no one is so stone-faced that you will feel as if you’re visiting the queen’s castle.
If seven courses sound overwhelming, tiny amuses are like magic tricks when they appear, perfect nibbles that coax us into believing we’ll make it to dessert.
This night, two tiny Nantucket Bay sea scallops in a green-caper and artichoke tapenade are phenomenal, outdone by silky sliced mango and avocado drizzled with a lightly spiced, anise and vanilla syrup with lime zest – powerful in your mouth, the epitome of an amuse bouche.
A dark, deep ancho chili-cherry braised duck leg is great paired with a sauce of red wine, chilies, dried cherries, oranges and cinnamon. Smooth and creamy polenta, lightened with ricotta cheese, is served on the side.
Chef Dan Leiphart, in his neat black skullcap (a stylish replacement for the old-school toque), is a humble man of supreme detail, as complex as the interesting, contemporary food he delivers. "My mother was a great cook, although I wasn’t necessarily standing over her shoulder," says Leiphart, who got his first job toasting garlic bread at Rillo’s in Carlisle, Pa., at 15. He has worked in kitchens ever since, but it wasn’t until he made a move to a North Carolina beach that "chef-ing" seemed like a "good life decision."
During and immediately after culinary school – Leiphart graduated from Pennsylvania Culinary Institute in 2002 – he worked in the kitchen at LeMont. "Every chef should experience a big kitchen with a screaming chef," he chuckles. Later, after knocking on doors once or twice, Leiphart got his first dream job from a woman who he says changed the face of dining in the United States – Lidia Bastianich, at Lidia’s Pittsburgh.
Moving on to Piccolina’s in Upper St. Clair, he got a taste of culinary freedom, the chance to "create" dishes that went onto the menu. Then, in August of 2005, a job opened up at Isabela. He grabbed it, starting out as third cook, moving up to sous chef and then becoming executive chef.
Now, even though he has dreams to enlarge the kitchen and offer an a la carte menu, Leiphart admits he has come to love the "course format" because it defies provincial accusations that are sometimes leveled at the populace’s level of dining sophistication. "We keep it interesting. The experience is part of the deal," he explains. His philosophy: "You can order fish and still get the meat ‘fix’ you went out for to begin with; and you might just try something that’s not typical. And you get a dessert here. Enjoy it." It may all seem exhaustingly pure, but in a small room with a small kitchen, the "joy of cooking," is what powers him. Thank you, Irma Rombauer.
As often as possible, Leiphart buys local and makes everything possible from scratch, creating food inspired by cuisines found around the world.
After getting our palates warmed up, a shrimp appetizer, lightly poached in sake and rice-wine vinegar, is enjoyable unadulterated because it’s so fresh. However, if you do want to heighten the experience, the sweet, mellow ginger and carrot gastrique, as a substitute for the dogmatic cocktail dip with horseradish, is a triumph. Pickled radish with fennel offers a crunchy counterpoint.
A sublime leek and cauliflower soup – thick and creamy, but not too much so – is worthy of special mention. Its caramelized leeks, shallots, carrots and parsnips, which are grated and cooked until they are a dark, burnt-orange hue, are then deglazed with sherry, pureed, finished with cream and served with a lacy gruyere cookie on top. The slightly subtle tang from the leeks compliments the earthiness of the cauliflower, and the nuttiness of the cheese pulls everything together, yielding a soft and mellow yet complex porridge.
Next comes the fish course – also delicious. I appreciate a flawless striped bass that morphs from a virtuous white fish to an enchanting dish when spiked with a spicy Vietnamese tomato sauce (the secret is pickled scallion) and green bamboo rice (sushi rice infused with bamboo oil). Middle Eastern-inspired, corn-encrusted sea scallops in soothing sweet mango juice with cool green cilantro yogurt foam and one lone red-pepper garnish for spunk is a dish for people with quiet yearnings. They do exist. A seared hamachi filet is served with a dense but delicately flavored sweet-potato gnocchi, topped by a gorgeous sauce made of crème fraîche and crushed pistachios.
The chef has a new Brevel juicer he can’t stop experimenting with. A teeny scoop of Green Apple-Meyer lemon sorbet – mostly tart but just ever so slightly sweet – readies the palate for upcoming attractions.
Meat courses include a cabernet-braised Japanese Kobe beef. The marbling is responsible for the phenomenal flavor. The sauce contains much red wine, lots of shallots for sweetness and rosemary. All this is flattered by a porcini-mushroom risotto. Or expand your horizons with a visceral venison from Australia. Specifically, it’s a leg filet – "Denver" leg steak, as it is sometimes called – which is very similar to a filet of beef. The serving is pan-seared and paired with blood-orange jam (made in-house) and a lovely potato-parsnip puree.
Finish with a simple seasonal salad. Squeaky-fresh baby greens were enough to keep me from missing summer’s vegetables. Goat cheese and dried apple – tossed lightly and flashed with a clean vanilla-cardamom dressing – added to the pleasure.
Dessert, I must admit, kept popping into my mind during the evening. I’d think about a course, and then imagine a giant piece of cheesecake. Portions, thankfully, are on the small side of reasonable, except for the blue-cheese cheesecake. Our server offered this warning about three times: "You have to think about it, and, of course, you have to be nutso for blue cheese." We did, and we are. Sinfully decadent, rich with almonds, dried pears and port-wine reduction, this confection is its own category.
Three little chocolate truffles are the project of Ericka Graham, an intern from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh Culinary School. "Her professionalism astounded us," says Leiphart. When she came to Isabela’s, Leiphart purchased all the fun tools, such as molds and acetate, which is used to transfer designs to chocolates, so that she could get started. Now, he claims, he is learning from her. Different fillings and chocolates are encased in zany designs – the collaboration flies.
One night, among the last to leave, nursing our coffees as the room grew quiet enough to hear a pin drop, we remembered when the sounds of incline cars going up and down the mountainside never failed to energize us as children. Now, to our adult psyches, the rhythmic motion on the city’s grand edge seems to be as calming as ocean waves.
Each month, Deborah McDonald jump-starts appetites with lively restaurant reviews that scrutinize who’s cooking what and where. She works anonymously, visiting each restaurant at least twice before writing her column.
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