Restaurant Review: Spirits & Tales at the Oaklander Hotel

Executive chef Jessica Lewis’ strong voice is undermined by inconsistencies throughout the restaurant.

Spirits & Tales at the Oaklander Hotel should be a destination restaurant. The establishment’s top-line talent, most notably executive chef Jessica Lewis and lead bartender Randolf Boitel-Hance, rank among Pittsburgh’s rising stars. On top of that, the lofty, nearly panoramic perch 10 stories over Oakland provides a sweeping vista of overlooking landmarks such as Soldiers and Sailors Memorial, Schenley Park and Schenley Farms Historic District, surpassing all restaurants (except a few Mt. Washington establishments) for best view in the city.

It’s frustrating, then, that wildly inconsistent execution from both the front- and back-of-house staff makes it impossible to know what sort of experience you’re going to have at Spirits & Tales, which opened in March. On a good day, it’s quite enjoyable; an off day, however, means an unsteady experience.

Unfortunately, through my multiple visits over the course of four months, the off days outnumbered the good ones.

Lewis, a former NCAA Division I star swimmer and scholar-athlete, attended culinary school in New York and worked there for a few years (she also appeared on season 11 of “Hell’s Kitchen”) prior to moving to Pittsburgh in 2014. She ran the special-events kitchen at Heinz Field and was part of the opening team in a number of endeavors — The Commoner at Hotel Monaco, Carota Cafe (which she ran as part of the inaugural class at Smallman Galley), or, The Whale at Distrikt Hotel and Merchant Oyster Co. Each step helped to build her reputation as a chef who loves to combine flavors and textures in a way that feels indulgent yet, most of the time, leaves you feeling good after your meal.

At Spirits & Tales, she’s overseeing four menus — breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner — plus catering. Lewis has to put together offerings on all of them that offer smart, of-the-moment options.

I appreciate Lewis’ passion for bringing vegetables forward. The beetroot Niçoise salad on the lunch menu might take some liberties with its name — for me, a hardboiled egg is a must on a Niçoise, while poached egg, such as the one served with this salad, gets lost — but is otherwise an adventure in flavor, color and texture. I love how the tender red and yellow beets are wide-cut and draped as if they were slices of cold cuts. Accompanied by spinach, frisée, new potatoes, olives, haricots verts and anchovy breadcrumbs and dressed in lemon-parsley vinaigrette, it’s one sublime salad.

On the other end of the flavor spectrum, pain perdu resonates in much the same way. Challah is dredged in egg wash and griddled crunchy on the outside — and gooey as bread pudding within. It’s garnished with savory-sweet squash-apricot marmalade and warmly spiced coriander-almond crunch, painted with fresh ricotta creme and anointed with Paul Family Farms maple syrup. It looks like a sunrise and tastes like a hug someone might give you to send you off on your day.

Breakfast is, overall, my favorite meal at Spirits & Tales. There are light options such as broiled grapefruit with rosemary and maple-flax granola with berries; on the flip-side, there’s the indulgently gooey and delicious open-faced croque tartine Parisienne. Fresh-pressed green and golden juices, as well as respectably brewed coffee, round out the meal.

Horseradish gnocchi Parisienne is a well-thought-out, time-tested and smartly executed dish Lewis has carried with her from Carota Cafe; it’s a standout on the lunch and dinner menus. Pâte à choux, an enriched pastry dough also used to make eclairs and cream puffs, is first poached then finished in butter. The tender, chewy dumplings are assisted with umami-rich mushrooms, earthy kale and creamy black-pepper ricotta.

Sometimes, however, I wish Lewis would edit herself and pull back on a couple of ingredients. More troublingly, she’s not getting much help from a kitchen staff who often has difficulties executing her vision. Salmon tartare was bland and missing acidity, while the umami-factor was double-downed by adding an overly oceanic oyster aioli. I would have liked a little more of the dreamy saffron-citrus creme fraiche or any of the listed horseradish gremolata. The bread served with it, dead and stale, ate like it was snatched from a leftover breakfast room service tray.

Service inches so close to scripted-comedy bad that, on one visit, I muttered to myself, “thank goodness the good server is here.” During one April dinner, rather than getting to spend some time with several delightful small plates including socca (chickpea flatbread, black olive and anchovy aioli, grilled scallions, chimichurri, red wine-date cheese), everything except for one dish that my table of four ordered came out at the same time. The only dish that made a solo entrance as a second course was the S&T Burger.

It would have been better for all of us if it had stayed in its dressing room.

The burger was ordered medium-rare, yet our table wondered if there was a word for beyond-well-done to describe how the Jubilee Hilltop Ranch beef had been defiled. Garnished with sad pickles and greens that looked as if they lingered too long at a chain-restaurant salad bar, the burger elicited reactions at the table ranging from “It’s a very disturbing burger” to “I’m alarmed by how bad this burger is.” A second visit delivered a medium-rare burger served medium-well, but all that did for me was highlight the fact that comte cheese, fermented garlic aioli and limp lettuce doesn’t make for a top-flight hamburger construction. On the upside, the French fries, which come frozen but were cooked to perfection every time I ordered them (which was every time I visited), are top-rank.

I was hoping a June visit would have given the staff enough time to work out communication kinks, but the pause between courses was equally uncoordinated. This time we had about three minutes with the small plates before the larger-format courses appeared. What I would have liked to have seen happen in this situation was an acknowledgment of the mishap; instead, we awkward-sat as a team of servers tried to Tetris where everything should go.

It would also have been nice on both nights to wash away our misery with a cocktail or a glass of wine, but neither server seemed very interested in asking if we wanted anything else to drink after taking the initial orders. That’s too bad, since Boitel-Hance might be the best thing going for Spirits & Tales. Working with a cocktail list designed by Chelsea Melvin, Concord Hospitality’s (the parent company of the Oaklander Hotel) corporate director of beverage operations, the charasmatic bartender is an ace at service and is executing one of the better bespoke drink lists of the year. Butterfly Effect (pea-infused gin, oleo saccharum, verjus) is crystal-clear electric indigo that’s boozy on the nose yet soft and balanced on the palate. It’s a classy drink that matches the design of the space. Root of All Evil’s tequila and orange liqueur base is bolstered by a refreshing mix of beet, celery and lime juices. If you want something spirit-forward and anchored to the neighborhood, Wonder Boys (Jameson, Nocino, orange bitters) is your drink.

My best advice is to sit at the bar — it’s a lovely place to enjoy the view and someone certainly will ask if you want a drink — and stick to Lewis’ strengths, which right now are her artful vegetable dishes. I get that staffing any Pittsburgh restaurant is a challenge right now — the city is woefully overextended, and good help, as they say, is very hard to find — but the only way for Spirits & Tales to reach its potential as a destination restaurant is for the Oaklander, and its parent company, Marriott, to give Lewis more to work with. Restaurants, especially those with as many moving pieces as this one, are team sports, and right now Spirits & Tales is playing with a very short bench.

Oaklander Hotel, 5130 Bigelow Boulevard, Oakland; 412/297-4080, spiritsandtales.com

Categories: Dish Reviews, Eat + Drink, Hot Reads