Location: 107 Sixth St., Downtown. 412-992-2005. www.braddocksrestaurant.com
Hours: Daily 2-11 p.m.; Sunday brunch 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
Prices: Soup, salad and small plates $5-13; entrees $12-29
Fare: Upscale cuisine, with local twist
Atmosphere: Contemporary and clubby
Liquor: Full bar
Pittsburgh has had its Renaissance I, its Renaissance II, and then the transformation of the former Fulton Building into the Renaissance Hotel -- to our eyes, one of the most glorious things to happen to downtown Pittsburgh this millennium. OK, maybe it was technically last millennium, but the point remains: The hotel reinvigorated one of Downtown's most sparkling architectural gems -- have you stood in that marble-lined, grand-staircased lobby? -- and anchored its side of the Allegheny River waterfront. It also added new fine dining and drinking establishments to a tired, timeworn map, helping to set up Downtown as a dining destination, not just a place where mediocre restaurants barnacled onto the Cultural District's popular performance venues.
Ten years on, the hotel is going strong, but the restaurant and bar have undergone mini-transformations of their own. We regret the loss of The Bridge, the storefront tavern that was equal parts cozy and swank, but welcome the trade up from Opus, the Renaissance's original high-end restaurant, to Braddock's American Brasserie.
Whether Opus opened the floodgates, or the timing was simply right for an explosion of culinary culture Downtown, we cannot say, but Opus did not maintain its hot-spot status for long. It was quickly overshadowed by more ambitious and, frankly, stylish neighbors. In response, the lobby of The Renaissance has been refurnished in a curvaceous, contemporary style that makes for a surprisingly simpatico complement to the space's original neo-Classical bones. The lobby wine bar is gone, but Braddock's American Brasserie has decided to join the competition Opus was unable to beat.
While Opus seemed targeted at the symphony crowd, Braddock's aims to be more broadly accessible, as evidenced by the hot sandwiches that share the menu with the steak and seafood dinners. But even the latter entrees are distinguished by modest prices for an establishment of Braddock's station and location; at $17, mussels and frites are a good value anyplace this side of a chain.
A young chef with an impressive résumé, including a stint at Northern Virginia's legendary The Inn at Little Washington, chef de cuisine Brian Volmerich shucks the staid menu staples of most local American restaurants. He brings a rare creative vigor and, even more rare, a delicious sense of humor to the preparation of local ingredients and traditional recipes. Braddock's mussels and frites "Strip District style" improbably combines shellfish with kielbasa and beer, for instance, while its Pittsburgh Reuben sandwich (which somehow incorporates a pierogie) is nicknamed "The Big Ugly."
Our initial impressions were supported by the delivery of an excellent baguette, freshly baked in-house, in individual bakery bags to keep the slices warm on their short journey from oven to table. More of that crusty, airy, chewy baguette, this time grilled, came with the charcuterie platter. This was an impressive spread of three sausages, pork rillettes and pate, accompanied by a housemade pickle of peppers and asparagus, and a grainy mustard, the flavor of which blossomed with the addition of crème fraiche.
To explore the kitchen's full range, from high brow to low, we next ordered steak tartare and braised-short-rib pierogies. Reflecting modern attitudes toward rare steak, the tartare was chopped coarsely, creating a slightly meatier take on this steakhouse classic. The ruby-colored tenderloin was nonetheless buttery-smooth, while a gently poached egg on top wittily evoked a steak-and-eggs diner breakfast. The pierogie bore a nominal relationship to its humble church-supper forebears, with a crisp, flaky wrapper that was more like pastry than pasta. The pork filling was fork-tender and savory, but Jason thought the whole thing was a bit underseasoned, whether it needed salt or perhaps just a bit more liveliness in the sauce of braised leeks and pan juices.
Angelique had to have the mussels and frites, but found it difficult to choose among five preparations, each sounding better than the last. She finally settled on Billi-Bi, an aromatic concoction of saffron, vermouth and cream, which was, despite this last ingredient, light and mild, allowing the fresh, briny mussels to assume center stage. The accompanying frites almost deposed them, however, with their crispy-creamy delectability.
Braddock's cassoulet was not a literal translation of the classic French dish. Its signature luscious, creamy white beans were present, but in place of duck confit or slow-cooked pork, Braddock's served a braised lamb shank atop the beans. The lamb was suitably fork-tender and drizzled with a rich reduction, but the overall effect was unctuous, crying out for something bright and light.
Whether Braddock's surpasses the neighborhood competition is a matter of taste, but it has certainly placed the Renaissance back in the heart of Downtown dining.