Location: 301 Freeport Road, Aspinwall. 412-408-3258
Hours: Sun.-Thu. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday brunch 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $7-10; soups, salads and sandwiches $5-15; entrees $15-22
Fare: Contemporary American
Atmosphere: Warm and welcoming
Liquor: Full bar
Let's discuss, for a moment, the diaspora of New American cuisine. When this style of dining first developed, on the coasts some 30 years ago, it was all about updating old chestnuts with unexpected new ingredients to make them "fresh" and "unique." Reduced by uninspired chefs to the practice of adding the trendiest ingredient du jour to whatever respectable recipe they could get their hands on, however, the approach often yielded results that were "odd" or even "unpalatable." Rack of lamb in kiwi compote, anyone?
New American cuisine, along with its lesser cousin, the One More Wacky Ingredient school, still dominated menus even five years ago at some higher-end local restaurants, but never gained a foothold at mid-range establishments around here, being a little too precious and self-conscious for most Pittsburgh diners. But a recent outgrowth of the New American trend, the Slow Food Movement -- epitomized by that trinity of buzzwords "fresh, local, seasonal" -- is much more universally appealing, and thus much more widespread.
Which brings us to the Cornerstone in Aspinwall. The location, once a dark, otherwise undistinguished drinking establishment, has been transformed into two serene dining rooms joined by a handsome, well-lit bar at their hinge. Exposed brick and a subdued palette of autumnal colors create a warm, relaxed ambience that feels comfortable whether you walk in wearing shorts or a little black dress. The phrase "down to earth" came to mind, and stayed there as we read the seasonal menu.
We found Cornerstone's range of offerings to be impressive, nodding -- sometimes even winking -- to various local and international influences in dishes such as Not Your Average Pittsburgh Steak Salad (featuring grilled tri-tip steak, fingerling potatoes and housemade buttermilk bleu cheese dressing) and risotto with chipotle glazed shrimp, sweet corn and snap peas. Many items, including burgers, steaks and chops, were familiar, but none of the preparations were clichéd. True to the invigorating beginnings of contemporary American cuisine, every dish was served with a twist, but none was too twisted.
The menu did indulge in that au courant trend, fancified mac 'n' cheese, but the ingredients -- mascarpone, pancetta, leeks and sugar snap peas -- seemed more like a sophisticated exploration of classic components than a display of cleverness for its own sake. The sweet peas and zingy leeks provided vegetal balance to the creamy cheese, while the smoky pancetta added savory depth. This is what mac 'n' cheese wants to be when it grows up.
Also outstanding were slow-roasted brisket sliders. The meat was pliant and fully flavored with a not-too-sweet barbecue sauce that allowed the native beefiness of the brisket to shine through. The sliders were dressed with horseradish cream that was zesty enough to make its presence known, but mild enough to defer to the meat and an excellent sourdough bun.
A full-size grilled lamb burger was so finely ground that the texture could only be described as plush. Tangy chevre, peppery arugula and truffle balsamic vinaigrette filled the mouth with the savory notes of umami, that full, round flavor of (among other things) well-seasoned meat.
House-smoked pulled-pork nachos with pineapple-poblano salsa were somewhat better in concept than in execution. The chips were indifferent, the pork tender but timidly flavored. The salsa was balanced, perhaps too balanced: a little kick would have been welcome.
We loved the concept and approach of an entrée called, simply, "The Picnic." Fried chicken, grilled corn on the cob, and a salad of greens and diced watermelon were a wonderful, sit-down-dinner evocation of the ultimate outdoor summer meal. The corn was juicy and the salad refreshing, but the chicken could only be described as extra-extra crispy, so that the meat was overwhelmed by the layers of salty breading. We're sure there's an audience for this style of chicken, but it was simply too much for us.
Cornerstone offers a New American menu that managed to please -- even, at times, surprise -- our palates without raising our eyebrows. If there were a few missteps in the execution of some dishes, we forgive them, because what Cornerstone has achieved is satisfying indeed: a creative take on a traditional menu in a setting that makes even a burger at the bar feel like a proper night out.