Hours: Mon.-Fri. 4-9 p.m.; Sat. 5-10 p.m.
Prices: Picnics, $50-75 for two; appetizers, $10-14; entrees, $19-49
Fare: Surprisingly contemporary American
Atmosphere: To the manor born
Liquor: Full selection; no bar
Birthday? Anniversary? Promotion to Head Muckety-Muck, complete with company credit card? For every special occasion from proms to promotions, Pittsburghers often ascend Mount Washington to take their seats in a dining room with a view. We've done it, too, and there's no question that Grandview Avenue serves up a visual feast.
But the last time we had occasion to go out for a special dinner, instead of driving up Mount Washington, we drove under it -- through the Fort Pitt tubes, past the airport and up a long driveway into the secluded grounds of Hyeholde. Here our car was spirited away and we had the sensation of having fallen down a rabbit hole into a pocket of medieval Europe, somehow situated below the Pittsburgh International flight pattern.
Half cottage, half castle, Hyeholde is housed in a little fantasy building dating to the 1930s, the idiosyncratic vision of William Kryskill, a man with an appetite for romance and fancy food. Of course, what passed as fancy in 1937 -- steak, broiled chicken and lobster -- impresses somewhat less today. But under the capable and imaginative stewardship of Quentin and Barbara McKenna, one of Kryskill's daughters who grew up on the premises and repurchased it in 1991, Hyeholde's offerings have been thoughtfully updated.
For one thing, the McKennas make full use of Hyeholde's splendidly landscaped grounds, throwing outdoor pig roasts, clambakes and picnics in the summer and serving pre-dinner cocktails at candlelit tables in the garden. After an idyllic cocktail hour, we were shown through the compact yet rambling restaurant to our table for dinner. In this studiedly ancient setting, we were pleasantly surprised to find a thoroughly modern menu. Unusual meats -- elk, ostrich -- were combined with fresh, local ingredients in preparations that joined classic and contemporary. Chef Chris O'Brien also prepares a self-proclaimed "vegetarian feast" of seasonal produce.
An appetizer of ostrich carpaccio featured paper-thin, tender slices of seared, pepper-crusted bird that tasted more like steak than the proverbial chicken. It was accompanied by a mound of hearty, chewy lentil-bacon "salad" and a crisp cracker topped with a salty tapenade.
Less original, but still distinctive, sherry bisque is "a Hyeholde tradition." The very name suggests a smooth, rich soup, and a blend of herbal flavors highlighted by the sweet-sharpness of sherry amply demonstrated how classics become just that.
Tomato-arugula salad was topped with fluffy white feta and a surprise: What we first thought was diced tomato was actually red-ripe watermelon. The fruit's juicy sweetness was an inspired contrast with the astringency of the sliced tomatoes and the slight bitterness of the greens. A delicate ice-wine vinaigrette held the entire concoction together.
Sampling another of Hyeholde's exotics, Jason ordered the pan-seared Cervena elk, tournedos that were as much like beef as venison, tightly grained and richly flavored. The accompanying wild mushrooms were soft as butter, sautéed with garlic, restrained bacon and tender greens. Jason had a faint concern that the brandy-plum sauce would be too sweet, but instead it was thick, intense and balanced.
Whenever Angelique orders chicken in a restaurant, she is mindful of Jason's rule to avoid it because of its tendency to be the blandest thing on the menu. However, Eichner's farm-raised chicken with fresh buffalo mozzarella lasagna and poached tomato beurre rouge was chicken of which to savor every moist, succulent bite. The crispy herbed skin was delectable, the meat inside toothsome and tender as cake. And the lasagna was extraordinary, unlike anything we usually associate with that name: more like a savory pastry filled with the freshest ripe tomatoes and creamy cheese cooked just to its melting point, not a second beyond.
The dessert menu tempted us with a half-dozen house-made options. In the spirit of summer, we ordered a fresh blackberry and lemon cream tart. The lemon cream was light yet intensely flavored, and the crisp, buttery pastry provided just enough richness to balance the sweet-tart juices of the fruit.
What we knew of Hyeholde's reputation led us to expect a charming atmosphere and staid food. Instead, we had the exquisitely rare experience of eating art. It turns out there's more than one place to scale the heights of Pittsburgh cuisine.
Jason: 4 stars
Angelique: 4 stars