Hours: Breakfast 6-11 a.m.; lunch 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; dinner 4-11 p.m.
Prices: Starters $6-12; entrées, $14-26
Fare: Haute Pittsburgh
Atmosphere: Contemporary and classy, but relaxed
Liquor: Full bar
A laudable trend in local fine dining is the showcasing of local fine ingredients. A few area farms -- most notably Elysian Fields, whose lamb graces many a white-clothed table -- have gained national prominence, and ambitious local chefs are scouring Western Pennsylvania for other sources of quality homegrown veggies, herbs and meats. We're seeing more and more local preparations on upscale menus as well: "Pittsburgh rare," an innovation of steelworkers cooking beef on a blast furnace, has become a staple at tony steakhouses, while pierogies offer at least as many opportunities for fancification as their more refined cousins, ravioli.
But often, these dishes seem to be the creations of chefs smiling out of one side of their mouths, smirking out of the other, as they condescend to incorporate provincial tradition into their rarified repertoires.
Not so Kevin Sousa, chef at Downtown's newest hotel restaurant, Bigelow Grille. The restaurant's subtitle, if you will, celebrates its emphasis on "regional cooking," and Sousa is sincere when it comes to offering fine foods with Steeltown flair. At the tender age of 31, he's assembled one of the most extraordinary menus we've ever salivated over, loaded with ingenious combinations and enigmatic descriptions. (We've heard of buerre blanc, for instance, but what is a buerre rouge? And just how does one melt an onion?) We marveled at the improbably apt creation of Allegheny choucroute, a version of the Alsatian sauerkraut dish utilizing sausage from Freeport, and appreciated seeing the "Pittsburgh rare" label perfectly suited to seared tuna.
Our food largely delivered on the menu's promise, beginning with the Shared Appetizer sampler. Deviled eggs topped with salmon, pancetta, American sturgeon caviar, crème fraiche and chives offered a panoply of tiny textures -- from creamy to chewy to the pop-pop-pop of fish eggs -- in one beautifully balanced mouthful. Rock shrimp and calamari came in a slightly greasy breading that broke up when dipped in the creamy remoulade, but the baby octopi were the best we've ever had (and tentacle tipplers that we are, we've had quite a few).
Grilled flatbread was topped with local heirloom tomatoes -- spectacularly colored bright yellow and deep aubergine -- herbs, olive oil and Point Reyes bleu cheese. Now, we are not usually ones to advocate for less cheese. But while the flatbread's toppings each were outstanding, and we especially savored the juicy tomatoes out of season, the generous slather of strong, salty bleu tended to overwhelm the ensemble of flavors.
Jason couldn't resist also starting with McConnell's Farm corn and shellfish bisque, a hearty soup that used the corn as a canvas for a blend of scallops, shrimp and blue crab. The creamy broth was punctuated with micro-greens floating on a crustacean raft, accompanied by a broad but thin slice of lightly toasted, rustic bread.
We found it almost painful to select our entrées, as committing to one main course meant resisting the intrigue of others. Ultimately, Jason decided to test the New York strip, proudly procured from Stockyards Packing in Chicago. The grilling was beautiful, and the cut exemplified what steak should be -- beefy, tender, but not without some chew. Honestly, though, it wasn't clear that the market price -- the night we were there, it was 20 percent more than anything else on the menu -- was justified. The potato gratin, cut from a cake of potato slices, was good as potatoes in melted cheese can't help but be, and the rich, thickly reduced foie-gras jus was tasty if slightly over-salted. But the best part of the plate may have been the roasted tomato-bleu cheese tartlet, with grilled flavor punching up the tomato's sweet astringency and balancing it against the bold bleu cheese.
Angelique had the menu's sole pasta dish, bucatini with tender strips of Virginia ham, "melted" sweet onions and firm quartered Brussels sprouts in a subtle sherry cream sauce. In one bite, she understood melted onions: They were more tender than the noodles, and sweeter than the sliced red grapes which also polka-dotted the dish, adding bursts of their fresh juice to every mouthful.
A fine restaurant is not necessarily the same as a special one. Bigelow Grille is the rare venue that is both. Its talented kitchen offers a combination of local flavor and inspired preparations that might even allow us to coin a phrase: "Western Pennsylvania cuisine."
Jason: 3.5 stars
Angelique: 3.5 stars