- Photo: Brian Kaldorf
- Chef's potpourri: lobster tail, black Angus filet mignon and center-cut loin lamb chop
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 4:30-9 p.m.; Fri. 4:30-9:30 p.m.; Sat. 5-9:30 p.m.; and Sun. 4-8:30 p.m.
Prices: Starters $5-9; entrées $9-33
Fare: Continental, Italian and chophouse
Atmosphere: Small-town sophisticated
Liquor: Full bar
Smoking: Designated sections
"To each his own." In some ways, it's the ultimate statement of a free society. Sometimes it's expressed in an individual's utter idiosyncrasy, like an outsider artist's self-defined universe, or a bold chef's improbable fusions. In other cases, it's embodied in the nonjudgmental offerings of superstores that stock something for everyone.
The Station Brake Café in Wilmerding -- onetime seat of George Westinghouse's fiefdom -- embraces both sides of the maxim. Since 1986, the owners have proffered a lengthy menu that comfortably straddles the banal and the exotic. All this takes place within a rambling restaurant that includes both a bar that would be at home behind glass block anywhere in the Mon Valley and a glassed-in porch with a handsome stone fireplace and one of the most singular pieces of folk art we've ever seen. (Trust us when we say you've got to see it to believe it.)
But before we got a look at it, we had to fathom the menu, perhaps the longest we've ever seen outside of a Chinese restaurant. Divided among a "Customer Appreciation" section that includes mostly comfortable favorites at modest prices, chops, stir-fries, "pasta-bilities" and all the categories of old-school Continental dining, the list alone took a while to digest. Familiar options like shrimp scampi, stuffed shells and fried zucchini tugged at the appetite with equal force to authentic or invented Euro-flavors such as mussels Amontiliado, veal Norman, and seafood salmagundi (subtitled "Lordly, like no other").
For our first appetizer, we could not pass up the opportunity to try kangaroo. The meat, perhaps inherently tough, had been chunked and braised for eight hours with blackberries in a port wine demiglace. Though still slightly chewy, the meat flaked apart in a supple burgundy-colored sauce that tasted sweet without being cloying.
Escargot Ronaldo showcased a self-proclaimed award-winning recipe: snails cooked with mushrooms in pesto. Though the snails were tender, Jason found this dish underseasoned. Angelique, however, appreciated their combination with the oily, herbal pesto and nutty pignoli.
On a more homey note, 19-bean and ham soup was a country-style masterpiece, heartily flavored but not too thick, with plenty of smoky ham chunks and a panoply of legumes that varied in size, tenderness and flavor, making each bite unique.
Angelique's entrée of veal parmesan, off the Customer Appreciation menu, featured two thin, tender cutlets coated in a crispy breading full of the salty, nutty flavor of grated parmagiano cheese. These were served atop a mound of spaghetti in a classically mild and slightly sweet marinara sauce. Melted provolone on top was a bit of overload, but this fine version of a classic dish, several servings large, made clear why it was marked a customer favorite.
Jason tried one of the Station Brake's more ambitious entrees, chicken Neptune -- two huge chicken breasts sautéed in garlic butter, topped with lobster chunks and scallops, and finished with a lobster sherry cream sauce. Such rich ingredients promised a special dish, and Neptune delivered, but with one flaw: too much salt. Despite this, the complementary flavors came through: meaty lobster chunks playing against sweet, tender scallops and the pink sauce bringing poultry, seafood and seasoning together.
The menu warns that because everything is prepared to order, diners should be prepared for a multi-hour meal. Multiple meal accompaniments are partly responsible for this -- two choices from among soup, salad, various vegetables and assorted starches result in a larger-than-usual number of courses -- but the goal is clearly to hearken to an era before slow food had to be labeled as such. Nearly quaint touches, like chilled salad forks and tiny cups of lemon sorbet between appetizers and entrees, evoke a genteel dining experience within the Station Brake's comfortable atmosphere.
Like the artwork in its solarium, the experience of dining at Station Brake Café -- and it is an experience -- is worthwhile and unique.