While executive chef Derek Stevens classifies his restaurant's menu as "modern American cuisine," I'm comfortable saying that few of my lunches in modern America have been as memorable as the one I had at Eleven.
The entrée was a duck confit salad, which was hearty and warm while combining at least a couple of tastes new to me. Chief among them was the duck itself: leg meat marinated overnight, then slowly braised in rendered duck fat, in a low oven. It's an ancient preservation process (originally French, actually) whose rich simplicity accompanied fat savory chunks of homemade bacon (cured and smoked on site, from raw pork bellies), roasted pearl onions and a lentil vinaigrette, all on a bed of springy green frisee, and topped with a single, lustrous poached egg. The salad arrived just after a bowl of the seasonal lentil soup -- rich and dark as topsoil, enhanced with a dollop of pesto -- and alongside a glass of mild Les Salices pinot noir. Not to mention a breadbasket highlighted by a hunk of delicious salted foccaccia.
"We try to focus on doing simple things, but very, very well," says the 33-year-old Stevens, whose bright blue eyes light up further when he's talking food. A longtime employee of the Big Burrito restaurant group, which owns Eleven, Stevens was on the team that opened the restaurant in mid-2004; he became executive chef in October 2006. His innovations have included expanding vegetarian offerings, adding a vegetarian tasting menu to complement the meat-eater's sampler, and creating another such menu derived from the a la carte fare. Now you can highlight your "tasting menu" meal with, for example, either semolina gnocchi (with mushrooms, roasted squash, Swiss chard, jack cheese and black truffle butter) or prime-beef carpaccio (with radish salad, cilantro, sweet and spicy soy, toasted sesame and nori).
Other dinner entrees include Scottish salmon (pine-nut crust, white-bean ragout, spicy rapini, pesto and portobello mushrooms) and Pennsylvania chicken (pan-roasted, with a braised leg risotto, Swiss chard and thyme jus). Desserts -- like the bread, they're made on site -- include a gourmand's ice-cream sandwich of cocoa-nib ice cream, hot fudge, caramel sauce and crème anglaise. Eleven is also noted for its extensive wine menu; a big glass-walled wine rack perches overhead and behind you as you enter.
For those seeking something more familiar, Eleven offers a tavern menu of sandwiches and pizza, highlighted by its Eleven Burger, a ground-Angus beast topped with braised veal cheeks and short ribs.
The restaurant's ambiance is unfussily elegant. A tranquil mossy green hue predominates in a main dining area of tiled walls and upholstered booths and benches, with atrium lighting. Tall, curtained windows to one side face the open kitchen on the other, with the joint pastry kitchen and bakery visible at the far end.
The restaurant has been praised since it opened. One draw is its focus on locally grown ingredients, which has made Eleven a favorite of such "locavores" as Pittsburgh's Slow Foods chapter. (In September, the group held its Harvest Moon dinner at the restaurant.) Stevens' favorite suppliers include Elysian Fields, a Greene County lamb farm, and Mercer County's Three Sisters Farm, which for half the year grows all of Eleven's salad greens, including a mesclun that often includes such wild greens as sorrel and dandelion.
In spring and summer, up to two-thirds of the produce the restaurant serves is local in origin, says Stevens. Such food is fresher and tastes better, he says: "more natural, more healthy, more interesting to eat." The menu changes with the seasons. "You never know what you're going to get week to week," he says. The arrival of 10 pounds of a certain tomato, for example, might mean a few days' worth of treats for lucky patrons.
Stevens adds another reason for developing relationships with local farmers -- and for feasting as much as possible on the bounty of Southwestern Pennsylvania: "It just feels like the right thing to do."