So many things were so comically awful at the restaurant we chose for Saturday night dinner in Pittsburgh last weekend that the consensus among our foursome was to give it the award for the worst restaurant we had ever been in — and the most pretentious.
We had only an afternoon and evening in Pittsburgh, the City of Bridges, following two days on a Frank Lloyd Wright pilgrimage to the nearby countryside. We spent two nights in one of his late and most simple “Usonian” houses, which had been moved to Pennsylvania from Illinois, and were thrilled to tour his monumental Fallingwater and a smaller, elegant residence called Kentuck Knob.
In Pittsburgh, a decision to take the funicular, known as the Duquesne Incline, to the top of Mount Washington for the fun of it, as well as the view and dinner, was preordained. But as for the restaurant we chose, which has apparently been named Pittsburgh magazine’s “best overall and most romantic restaurant for 2010 and 2011?” Ay caramba.
We should have left when we learned there was no a la carte menu on Saturday nights. But after taking a rickety old car up the incline and a short but steep walk to the restaurant, on Grand View Avenue, we decided to stay put, hoping the expensive seven-course prix fixe would be a treat.
The view of the city, where the Allegheny and the Monongahela meet the Ohio River, was spectacular, and fascinating. Lighted riverboats and a long coal barge inched along. What could go wrong? Almost everything.
The most disappointing thing was that there wasn’t much flavor to be found despite highfalutin garnishes described for every dish on the menu. Here’s a small sample: stinging nettles, fiddlehead ferns, oyster crema, pecan gremolata, golden raisin jus, and ramp chimichurri.
As it turned out, the portions were from small to minuscule, which was okay with us because a taste here and there was all we really wanted. And when the $10 glasses of wine turned out to be poured no deeper than three-quarters of an inch we just shook our heads.
Three choices were offered for the four principal courses (appetizer, fish, meat, and dessert), with an amuse-bouche, a sorbet “intermezzo,” and salad. The amuse-bouche was a tiny bean of some kind dusted with crushed sesame and accompanied by a frond of frisée. Not bad. But, as the meal progressed, we found that the descriptions on the menu were far more flavorful than the food.
We were continually surprised; expecting jolts to the taste buds, we got, well, nothing much. Okay, so the ricotta-filled crepe I chose as an appetizer was crispy, but the best thing I could say about the warm octopus salad, which I chose for the fish course, was that the strands were chewy. (And I’m an adventurous eater, who loves to eat octopus.) Chris liked his appetizer, little chunks of sea scallop tartare, molded with rhubarb, cherry bomb radishes, and preserved lemon, although he couldn’t taste the rhubarb. You get the idea.
The illumination was so low and the type so small that we had resorted to using an iPhone flashlight app to read the menu. The decibel level was so high that we had to lean over the table, get as close as possible, and then shout to be heard. When one of us, laughing, said, “I can’t see and I can’t hear,” another chimed in: “And you can’t afford it!” We roared.
Aside from the view, which we saw first during daylight and then after dark, the only thing we took away from Isabela was the memory of a few good laughs and a photograph that the host took and presented to us.
If, like us, you plan to go to Pittsburgh for the first time, take heart. It is filled with public buildings (museums, a conservatory) that are legacies from the titans of industry (Carnegie, Phipps, Frick) — and there are plenty of better places for dinner.