On the Table: Altius reaches for new heights in dining on Mount Washington
The real estate on Mount Washington has the potential to become more of a destination than it already is. Yet transition in the neighborhood has been modest, marked by a smattering of fixed-up homes, a new sign on a bar or a restaurant’s change of ownership.
Progress has been especially glacial when it comes to Grandview Avenue. Despite offering some of the best views of any city, most restaurants have catered to customers who pay 2014 prices to dine like it’s 1994 on filet of sole almondine, scallops l’orange and chicken tangerine. The exception is Isabela, which is for sale.
Having opened mid-May, Altius reaches for change, its name chosen for its higher Latin denotation.
Speaking of higher powers, the opening of Altius seems like fate. When the Mazzarinis learned their tenants from the Georgetowne Inn were closing after nearly 40 years, they wanted to update the neighborhood.
So they sought out their favorite restaurant folks, Josephine “B” DeFrancis and chef Jessica Bauer from Bistro 19 in Mt. Lebanon. What chef wouldn’t want to be tapped to run a place in such a great location?
Driven by a love of fine dining, the pair looked for inspiration at icons in New York at Per Se, Le Bernardin, Public, The Modern and Aureole, as well as Chicago’s Alinea.
Combining their favorite elements of tasting-menu restaurants with a dining public averse to pretension, Ms. DeFrancis and Ms. Bauer came up with Altius. They’re hoping an a la carte menu, a sleek but comfortable space, and pampered service will lure regular patrons and destination diners.
The dining room looks like a stylish international airport meets the Starship Enterprise, with clean lines, sensuous lighting, expansive tables and leather chairs on swivels.
Although the view is the draw, service will define the place. Three hosts, four managers, 10 servers and seven assistants fawn over customers at the two-level restaurant. With room for more than 50 diners on the first floor and 75 upstairs, that’s five customers to every employee on a busy day.
The lead server during one of my recent visits was a burst of energy, a little nervous but clearly sold on his employers’ wares.
“Everything on the menu is out of this world,” he started, an effusive but charming assertion that continued throughout the dinner.
Here’s what I’m sold on: The wine list from Alan Uchrinscko, the general manager and sommelier. Although I’m not always in love with organic, sustainable wines, he has put together one of the most compelling selections in the city.
Pours range from an easy-drinking New Mexican sparkling wine, a high-acid Greek Assirtiko to a more serious Barbera d’Alba. The list parallels ambitious selections in bigger cities that are hard to find in Pittsburgh, where people’s appreciation for wine has been choked by mealy distribution and byzantine liquor laws. If he’s able to attract customers willing to explore, he may be able to deepen selections.
The kitchen also has debuted a bar menu, with lobster corn dogs, duck confit nachos and a burger made from grass-fed strip, in a price range from $8 to $17.
Dinner is punctuated by gifts from the chef. A server brings truffled popcorn with a flourish. Served in a stainless-steel cone, it reinforces dinner-as-a-show.
Ms. Bauer switches up an amuse bouche every day, such as white asparagus soup, thick in a demi-cup but a disconcerting reminder of mid-spring in July. Berries and cheese or lamb meatballs have also marked the start of the meal.
Bread service reminds diners of the bygone practice, as restaurants hampered by budget and poor sourcing have done away with it. Parker House rolls wear a sheen of butter, and rosemary on the focaccia perfumes the table.
This is the work of Heather Deraway, who came to Pittsburgh after having cooked in Avignon, France, for Alain Ducasse in Las Vegas and Norman Van Aken in Miami.
Savory starters and entrees up the ante for Ms. Bauer, who until now has been cooking casual bistro fare in Mt. Lebanon. Dishes range from elegant to comfort food.
She hits the mark with a starter of chilled oysters ($13), a half-dozen dressed with a pique of fermented pineapple, chili, oregano and garlic, served with a side of cucumber angel hair.
The beet terrine ($12) is a showy dish. A gelatinous loaf with beets layered from red to gold, the terrine is seasoned with dill and sherry vinaigrette. A little undersalted with beets sliced thick, it’s righted by goat cheese with hazelnuts.
For “Tongue ‘n’ Cheek” ($14), crispy tongue has been braised for a very long time, while beef cheek pierogis are made in-house. Melted leeks and sauteed mushrooms round out the stack, finished with veal demi-glace and horseradish creme fraiche. There are one too many ingredients for me, but it’s popular.
Panzanella ($9) wears toasted croutons from that bread service, tossed on a square plate over heirloom tomatoes, caramelized onions and fried kale chips. I wish that the flavors married — that at least the bread soaked the flavors of the salad — and the balsamic reduction were swapped for something more subtle.
Sustainability threads the entrees, such as the Mexican Paradise Blue shrimp ($28) with a garlic lemon froth and parmesan risotto studded with peas and yellow pepper coulis. It’s harvested in ways that don’t harm other species.
The American red snapper ($31) from the Gulf is my favorite dish. Delicate and crisp, flavored by saffron-leek broth, it’s more luxurious with cannellini beans and a leek and carrot saute.
Another quotation dish, “Duck, duck goose” ($28) is less resonant: a flat of polenta in the center, seared confit duck leg to one side and breast on the other, with dollops of liver mousse around the plate. The components don’t quite come together, and it looks as redundant as the name.
Dessert is accessible and generously portioned. Berries dress cakes, panna cotta, and creme brulee as gelato and coulis. Pretzels show up in a pie, and pineapple makes an appearance in an upside-down cake.
To the end, servers tend to drinks and crumb tables, yet allow diners time to linger.
A few inconsistencies can be ironed out as the restaurant gets its legs. Yet when it comes to service, attention to detail leaves an impression as lasting as the view.
- Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday.
- Basics: In a sleek, redesigned interior, Altius is the most modern restaurant on Grandview Avenue that showcases straightforward dishes with fine ingredients, strong service and one of the city’s most interesting wine lists.
- Dishes: White asparagus soup, chilled oysters, baby kale, spring lettuce, wild-caught paradise blue shrimp, American red snapper, Jamison Farm lamb rack, veal tenderloin.
- Prices: Starters $7-$17; entrees $20-$42; sides $6-$9.
- Summary: Valet and street parking; $25 corkage, wheelchair-accessible, private dining.