Having just displaced the denizens of Fort Duquesne, it may seem strange to say we're glad to see at least some French influence remain. But it's hard to imagine our town's culinary scene without the presence of John Marie's tavern on Grant's Hill.
Here you will find no trace of the unimaginative food that characterizes too many frontier establishments. No one ever tires of delicacies like mush and milk, or of meat cooked in opossum fat. But these writers need never see another wooden bowl of watery hominy topped with bear's oil.
Upon first entering Marie's, one is struck by the feel of rough-hewn authenticity. Low-hanging lintels of native timber forced us to duck from time to time, but that only made it easier to admire the original axe-cuts. That attention to detail permeates everything Marie's does.
The boot-scrape and porcelain spittoons welcome patrons of means and refinement. On a chill evening, one is heartened by the open kitchen, and from the center of each table, lard lamps contribute a flickering glow over the whole scene. The resulting atmosphere is subdued, promising both convivial warmth and a bit of intrigue. One can't help but eavesdrop on the animated discourse of proposed roadways, and whose steed is indeed the swiftest.
What truly distinguishes Marie's, however, is its emphasis on local food, harvested in season. All the meat, we were assured, is free-range, and is often slow-cooked. All of these are reassuring traditions in an age where convenience rules, and it's possible to reach Philadelphia in less than three weeks!
A toothsome venison stew offered the first proof of Marie's skill. Hunks of meat -- which had been slaughtered on the premises not long after bounding through the woods outside -- were tender to the knife, yet substantial enough to satisfy the broadest-shouldered frontiersman. The ladies, meanwhile, exclaimed over the roots, a colorful and delicately flavored collection from Penn's Woods. All of this was accompanied by a basket of cornpone with a small jar of soft, buttery cheese.
Less successful was the trout, seared fireside on an iron skillet. Again, the trout had been taken from the pristine waters of the Monongahela earlier that day, but it was served with a bit too much Indian sweetgrass, which dominated the delicate fish.
For afters, the children were delighted with the fruit-nut clusters, the strong flavor of crunchy black walnuts paired with pliant dried apple tidbits, held together in a web of "tree honey."
Marie's offers a lunch menu as well, which we didn't sample. We hear his latest innovation is to layer pomme frites -- as Marie calls his potato dish -- with various cuts of meat between two hearty slabs of bread. We have doubts about whether this cumbersome hodgepodge will succeed. This may be the rugged Western Frontier, but Pittsburghers value nothing so much as the sophistication of fine dining.