Who Is Christian James And What’s He Cooking At The Joinery Hotel Downtown?
The restaurant offers a rotating menu of global cuisine based on the adventures of a fictional foodie.
Once upon a time, Kimberley Ashlee was a starving artist trying to make a name for herself as a journalist.
Through a series of serendipitous events, the enterprising Canadian found herself working in a high-end Toronto hotel’s catering department — and loving it. She designed menus by day and penned articles at night.
“There were a lot of things happening in my life, and cooking and being in the kitchen made me feel good,” she says.
Now, after years of freelancing and running Kimberley Ashlee Catering and the fast-casual concept Terrene at Station Square, the veteran chef tells stories through food at Christian James, a new restaurant inside the Joinery Hotel, Downtown.
Ashlee and her husband Joshua Haugh, a sommelier whose other expertise is in hotel-restaurant management, officially opened the business Jan. 25. The seasonally evolving menu tells the tale of Christian James, a fictional foodie who travels the world trying different cuisines. Each dish is a chapter in his journey.
“I love to travel and try new things,” says Ashlee, who moved to Pittsburgh seven years ago. “This character will evolve as he experiences trips and dishes we’ve had over the years.”
The eatery serves breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner and cocktails and handles all food and beverage operations inside the hotel, a Gothic-revival-style building at 453 Boulevard of the Allies. Christian James is nestled inside the former Salvation Army of Western Pennsylvania auditorium (and more recently the former Distrikt Hotel and or, The Whale restaurant).
Upon entering the space, guests will see a coat rack where Christian James, who is sort of like a hungry Indiana Jones, hangs his coat and hat. Photographs from Ashlee’s trips abroad line the walls, along with an enormous map of the world made of moss that the entire staff assembled before the grand opening.
I started my own culinary quest with a cocktail. The Midnight Fog is a mix of scotch, bourbon, spiced cola syrup, lemon juice, Angostura bitters and a rosemary-infused smoke bubble. There’s also an extensive beer selection. Haugh acts as a tour guide through the restaurant’s boutique wine selection.
My order of Shishito peppers with seasoned salt and beer cheese provided a nice little kick in the tastebuds. If you’re not a pepper fan, try the Montreal-style poutine. Canadians do this cheese-curd-and-Guinness-gravy-comfort food right.
For my entree, I took a cue from the globetrotting adventurer and tried something new to me. The goat vindaloo, marinated and braised in a curry sauce with mild spices on a bed of jasmine rice, is something I’d definitely revisit.
Because Christian James is located inside of a hotel, it has to appeal to all sorts of road-weary travelers. From steak and fish to a cheeseburger and fries, there’s something for everyone, including children.
Ashlee and Haugh have a young daughter, so creating a kid’s menu was a big priority. The menu includes wood-fired pizza, chicken fried rice, white cheddar mac and cheese and other upscaled favorites. Tykes 10 and under eat for free and receive a warm cookie that they can decorate at the table. The sweet distraction gives parents a little more time to relax with a dessert — try the house-made donuts — or a boozy beverage.
A new menu launches on April 7 — Good Friday — and Ashlee says she’s excited to work with local purveyors and experiment with a bounty of fresh, spring ingredients.
“Opening in the Joinery has really taken us full circle,” Ashlee says. “We’ve both worked at a hotel before. It’s serendipity.”
Bottomline: Christian James is worth writing home about.