Location: 5305 Campbell's Run Road, Robinson. 412-787-2525
Hours: Mon.-Wed. 4-10 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. 4 p.m.-midnight
Prices: Appetizers $15; entrees $25-40
Fare: The name says it all
Atmosphere: Traditional steakhouse, without the stuffiness
Liquor: Full bar
Smoking: Designated sections
The Fleck family knows steak. Before there was Morton's, Ruth's Chris or the Capitol Grille in Pittsburgh, there was the Red Bull Inn. For more than 40 years, it stood as a robust regional chain that pioneered once-innovative fare such as the salad bar and the prime-rib special. Red Bull's final location, on the Parkway West, closed a year ago, but the family abandoned neither the business nor the building. Instead, the Flecks tried a new tack: In a suburban area dominated by casual chains, they opened a high-end steakhouse to rival any of the white-tablecloth venues Downtown.
The Pittsburgh Chop House has all the steakhouse markers: stained woodwork, beefy menu and cigar smoke drifting out of the bar. But while Angelique actually wished she had dressed up a little more to go there, we found this chop house refreshingly free of the clubby airs so common to the genre. Instead of the distinct feeling that the staff were constantly looking over our shoulders in anticipation of the arrival of Ralph Lauren, we found friendly but professional service. The dining rooms are decorated primarily with caricatures of famous Pittsburghers. (The definition, though, is pretty elastic -- does Steubenviller Dean Martin really count, or Hill Street Blues' Charles Haid, who once attended CMU?) Even so, the interiors managed -- just -- to transcend kitsch, especially a cathedral-ceilinged room with tall oak wainscoting and gilded rose stencils evoking Art and Crafts master Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
The menu was brief and focused on the specialties of the grill. Anyone expecting to nibble daintily on pasta primavera will be disappointed; this is a place where the cutlery is so heavy, you feel you'll need the protein in your steak just to wield it.
Our first food arrived practically with the menu: a complimentary appetizer of crostini with two dips, caramelized onion-bleu cheese and feta-cherry pepper. The thin wafers of toast were buttery and herbed, and the feta dip was smooth and well balanced, without the excessive saltiness to which feta is prone. The bleu cheese dip, though, was too thin, with inadequate tangy bleu flavor.
More crostini arrived with Jason's filet tartar, finely cubed mignon elegantly presented on a long, narrow plate with stripes of hard-boiled egg, capers, cornichon and minced red onion. While the cooked egg was a concession to American tastes, it still served effectively as a mild foil to the richness of the beef and the sharpness of the other accompaniments. The meat, supple and delicious, was soon devoured.
The crab-cake appetizer was a good ambassador for the Chop House's limited seafood offerings. Cakes the size of a bakery muffin were loosely packed to hold their shape on the plate but fall apart easily when touched with a fork. Composed of highest-quality jumbo lump crab that did not need to hide behind any filler or excess seasoning, they were moist without being soggy and best with a tart, creamy remoulade. The black-bean and corn "salsa," which also came with the crab cakes, was not so much salsa as dry kernels scattered on the plate.
Angelique, who might normally be the aforementioned person nibbling on pasta primavera, instead ordered what the Chop House does best: steak. Delmonico, to be exact. Its exterior seared and drizzled with herbed garlic butter, the interior tender yet toothsome, it was everything we expected from an upscale steakhouse: superb. Angelique also relished the tangle of thread-thin onion crisps on top and the loaded baked potato which came alongside.
Jason sampled the Chop House's most unusual entrée, "Tonight's Game." Bison steak, elk chops and "honest-to-goodness wild boar sausage" were served on a wintry bed of fennel, carrots, celery and potatoes which were pleasantly undercooked, allowing us, for once, to enjoy root vegetables not roasted to a mush. The steak, which looked like a small strip cut, was perhaps a bit less tender than beef, but beautifully cooked and full of the subtly distinctive and welcome taste of bison. The double-cut elk chop was too rare in the middle, but the texture was fine and the meat rich, like a cross between good beef and lamb. The wild boar sausage had a far richer flavor than pork sausage, and a medium-coarse grind that was suitably refined. Beneath it all was a red-wine reduction, just enough to unite the flavors and enhance the meat.
Go ahead, dribble juice down your chin. Another among this restaurant's many refinements are the warm, damp towels that are offered, Japanese-style, at the end of the meal. Informed by decades of family experience rather than corporate market research, Pittsburgh Chop House stands up to its Downtown competition with a comfortable atmosphere, highly capable service and, best of all, mouth-watering meat.