Hours: Sun.-Thu. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-midnight
Prices: Appetizers $5-8; salads, burgers, and sandwiches $7-8; entrees $12-22
Fare: Contemporary American
Atmosphere: New olde saloon
Liquor: Full bar
In 1892, German immigrant August Henry Mathias opened a pioneering blueprint shop in Allegheny, soon to be demoted to Pittsburgh's North Side. The business moved to Penn Avenue, Downtown, but stayed in the family. As the Cultural District crystallized around them and the new convention center rose across the street, a pair of August Henry's great-grandsons decided to give a very different business a go, honoring their ancestor in the process.
In keeping with the homage to history, the interior of August Henry's City Saloon has been done up in turn of the (last) century style -- dark-stained beaded board and fluted columns, a massive bar, and floor-to-ceiling storefront windows letting light deep into the space. Frosted glass partitions keep the bar visually separate from the dining area, which is dominated, to impressive effect, by an oversized view of old Pittsburgh. From a back corner near the kitchen, a portrait of August Henry himself quietly surveys the scene.
The menu harkens back as well, but with a distinctly contemporary flair. It seems safe to say that Herr Mathias never encountered a Brie-filled quesadilla, and the variety of salads here would surprise a German accustomed to root vegetables and greens cooked till they were gray. But "Gus burgers," sharing the patriarch's nickname, and entrees such as steak, ribs and fried chicken keep one foot firmly in the old school of bar food, plain and simple.
For our appetizers, we could not resist trying some of the more intriguingly updated offerings. The aforementioned Brie quesadilla was beautifully grilled to a softly toasty texture and contained flavorful morsels of chicken and tender strips of sautéed pepper and onion. Yet the star of the show was scarcely in evidence; there was barely enough melted cheese to bind the tortilla top and bottom together, much less infuse the filling with its distinctive creamy flavor.
Our crabcake was similarly disappointing. Flat as a pancake, it could not hold up to a sauce that seemed to be heavily flavored with wasabi -- not a bad thing in itself, but out of all proportion to the meager ration of seafood it was meant to complement. Though the flavor and texture of the cake were good, there was simply not enough of it to justify its hefty eight-dollar price.
Much more satisfying for the same money was a plate of sweet-potato shrimp. Butterflied and deep-fried in a mixture of roasted coconut and shredded yam, the shrimp developed a substantial, sweet, crunchy crust that was delicious unadorned as well as dipped in an accompanying citrusy-peppery sauce. Whoever came up with the unlikely idea of frying shrimp in shredded sweet potato had a genius we can appreciate. August Henry's also features sweet-potato-crusted chicken as an entrée, and we would jump at the chance to try this too.
Having experimented a bit with appetizers, we played it safe with entrees. Angelique's Gus burger with blue cheese and bacon was everything a burger should be: juicy, hearty and piled high with toppings: lettuce, tomato, red onion, crumbled bleu cheese and substantial slices of bacon, cooked to the perfect point of balance between crispy and chewy, arrayed in an attractive pinwheel atop the burger patty. Jason thought the grill had not been hot enough to sufficiently char the outside of the burger, but Angelique thought it rivaled anything she's had at a certain well-known burger joint in Bloomfield. It was accompanied by excellent homemade potato chips, thick-cut and crunchy with a subtly piquant mesquite seasoning.
Jason's cowboy-cut steak was somewhat less successful. The menu promises a Pittsburgh rare steak smothered in barbeque sauce, but only half-delivers. Although decently cooked, and tender from a balsamic marinade, the steak had clearly not been acquainted with a sizzling skillet, much less the red-hot surface of an open hearth. Without a bold, black crust, the beef's flavor receded beneath the copious tangy-sweet, tomato-based sauce. Then there was the bed of black beans and rice, which, while a tasty-enough mix of wild rice and white, made an odd couple with barbecue. A happier mate would have been August Henry's garlic mashed potatoes, a splendid mix of creamy-smooth and chunky spuds, with garlic flavor enough to stand up to any meat.
For once we bypassed the dessert offerings, which are made off-site. We had been amply filled by August Henry's distinctive melding of modern, inventive preparations with traditional bar and steakhouse fare. Although not every dish succeeded in fusing these disparate styles, we think August Henry Mathias would be proud of his progeny, still breaking new ground in Pittsburgh, 112 years later.
Jason: 2.5 stars
Angelique: 2.5 stars