Location: 604 W. North Ave., North Side. 412-231-6544
Hours: Thu., Fri. and Sat. 5-10 p.m.
Prices: Seven-course prix fixe menu $65; a la carte appetizers $10; entrées $28-36
Fare: Contemporary Continental
Atmosphere: Elegant, but slightly earthy
Liquor: Full bar
Smoking: None permitted
Carriage houses, the garages of their day, have aged more gracefully than most other utilitarian outbuildings. To say that anything exists "in an old carriage house" -- be it an apartment, a shop or a studio -- is to imbue it with a sense of urban romance that a mere house can never hope to have. Carriage houses manage to be distinctly cottage-like and cozy, but also inherently genteel -- after all, only the rich could afford them and their contents. Today, there is a restaurant in a carriage house on the North Side which fulfills the romantic potential of this outmoded building type to a T.
Jeff Stasko, a former teacher of culinary arts, and his partner, Karl Kargle, got hooked on the Mexican War Streets by restoring rowhouses there in the early 1980s. By the 1990s, they had purchased the War Steets' white elephant, the dilapidated old Boggs Mansion -- built in 1888 for department store magnate Russell H. Boggs -- and begun the painstaking process of converting it into a swanky boutique inn. It took them several more years to realize their vision, which included a tiny, luxurious bar in the mansion's old library and a slightly larger, even more luxurious restaurant, called Acanthus, in --you guessed it -- the carriage house.
After a decade of hard work, the two have taken no half measures with Acanthus. The tables -- there are only 10 -- are set with a quartet of wine glasses and a Victorian array of forks, knives and spoons. (Be sure to consult your Emily Post guide before coming; it would be most unseemly to do so during your meal.)
The evident expectation is that most diners will choose the seven-course fixed-price meal, which entails an amuse bouche, soup course, fish course, intermezzo (sorbet), main course, salad and dessert. There are two options for many of the courses, permitting guests to tailor the meal to their tastes, and diners can order a flight of wines carefully selected to complement their choices. For the less ambitious, each item is also available a la carte, but the portions remain modest, designed to suit a multi-course meal.
While an amuse bouche is often no more than a morsel, Acanthus stretches the concept to a sort of mini-appetizer. Like the carriage house itself, the pierogi (the menu is refreshingly brief in an era of wordy disquisitions on ingredients) has been elevated to luxury class. Here, it was less a dumpling than a mound of pureed potatoes on a triangular crisp, surmounted by a disc of toasted or fried pasta in a nod to the traditional wrapper. The delicate potatoes were a far cry from leaden church-basement filling, and the sage buerre blanc sauce was rich yet mildly flavored, complementing without overwhelming the pierogi's rarified earthiness.
The broth of Jason's mushroom soup was thin but reminiscent in flavor of Japanese miso. Alas, the thin slices of shiitake and small diced sweet potato were too insubstantial to add much to the broth. Meanwhile, Angelique's yellow-pepper bisque with crab relish was sublime. The succulent crab was almost as tender as the velvety soup itself, and its saline notes really sang in the sweetness of pureed peppers and cream.
Escargot, a dish rarely offered in Pittsburgh, was unapologetically toothsome -- dare we say chewy -- in an equally resilient, stretchy puff pastry. This traditionally prepared dish offered the unalloyed flavor of snails in butter, accented only by light touches of lemon and garlic. The other fish course, coulibiac de salmon, also used pastry, this time as a bed for a gorgeous filet of Copper River salmon. The fish had been slightly crisped at the edges, which created a wonderful texture, but the flavor was a bit overdone, as if twice cooked.
Both main courses of the fixed-price menu were geared toward the omnivore. Jamaican-jerked pork tenderloin was aggressively seasoned with Caribbean spices, then balmed with an autumnal applesauce. It was served over creamy pepper-jack polenta cakes with the simple, perfectly complementary accompaniment of black bean salsa. Pepper-crusted filet is a steakhouse staple, but Acanthus prepared it superbly, with just enough Gorgonzola sauce to enrich, and thin asparagus wrapped in a potato-leek crepe.
If this were a Victorian novel, dear reader, it would end with a marriage. Instead our meal ended with a fresh salad Caprese (tomatoes, basil and mozzarella) and a luxurious chocolate dessert.
At Acanthus, the marriage is one of Victorian sumptuousness with a modern sensibility toward food. Long may it flourish and prosper.