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VALHALLA

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In Pennsylvania, you're likely to hear the quip from an old polka standard: "In heaven there is no beer, that's why we drink it here." The ancient Vikings, however, subscribed to a more liberal interpretation of the afterlife, a retreat called Valhalla, where food and beverage would be bountiful. And given the earthly Vikings' voracious appetite for conquest, it seems only fitting that their heaven would be a bastion of sanctified carnal over-indulgence -- and well-stocked with beer.

The globetrotting Vikings did reach the shores of North America, though history is silent whether they sailed one of their mighty ships past the Point and up the Allegheny. Nonetheless, that's the amusing gimmick of the Valhalla microbrewery and restaurant in the Strip: a menu that bolsters traditional fare with international zest, a global food-fusion as might have befitted those conquering Vikings whose travels would have exposed them to many regional cuisines.

Of course, weary Downtown office workers are more likely to be spotted at this Valhalla than battle-scarred warriors, but a long day of conquering inventory shortages can make a man just as thirsty. The menu reads, "Our chilled beer is brewed just inches away from your table, so you get the freshest all-natural beer possible." They weren't fibbing: Not only was a vat spittin' distance from our table, but a beer engineer was hard at work on it.

I admired the dining room, which was long and narrow (there is ample outdoor deck seating) ringed by hanging lanterns, vats, pipes, railings and catwalks. With the curved walls and the dark wooden ceiling, it was reminiscent of the deep interior of some ancient seagoing vessel as re-imagined by contemporary architects. Admittedly, the large copper and stainless steel beer vats reminded me of a mechanical engine that post-dated the Vikings by many years, but the overall fanciful effect of "working nautical" held up without resorting to clichés like ropes and anchors.

With boats on the mind, we began with a water-based appetizer, the Chesapeake duck stuffed shells ($8.95). Giant pasta shells filled with duck morsels, walnuts and ricotta cheese were a bit bland alone (the walnut crunch was nice, though the duck flavor was a little hard to find). But scooping a forkful up with the duck reduction and the accompanying spicy grilled escarole added flavor.

My companion ordered the mango salmon ($15.95) -- a typical Viking fusion dish, I suppose, that combined a northern fish with a southern fruit. The pan-seared salmon was sized for a warrior and bathed in a smooth mango puree. I found the puree just a shade too sweet, since salmon itself is a somewhat sweet fish, but the taste was nicely offset by the side dish: a chilled salsa of black beans, corn, scallions, diced tomatoes and red and green peppers in a vinaigrette. And this dish went well with the complimentary corn bread -- big hulking slabs, moist and sweet, and served with whipped, unsalted butter.

I went native with the Strip District pasta and sausage ($10.95). (I asked if the pasta and sausage were from the Strip, but evidently they were not. This dish is in honor of the place, not the ingredients.) A big plate of fusili lungi was topped with a marinara (with fresh basil), shredded cheese and two full sausages, one hot, and one sweet. (These noodles are amusing -- they're as if elbow macaroni were allowed to grow to their full length -- but the downside is they hold a lot of water in their curlicues and in time the pasta dilutes the sauce.) The cheese suggested the dish might have sat under a warmer too long; the bits on the plate edge had shriveled up.

No dessert seemed Viking-inspired. We chose a chocolate-y sweet, mocha truffle torte. Though it was dense and deeply chocolate-y, the lighter garnish of two raspberries and whipped cream eased it down. After dessert came some inadvertent entertainment when two men appeared with a ladder and began to scale the wall beside us. Artwork was coming down. Surely the real Valhalla would be free from such menial tasks -- especially during dining hours. It's hard to know for sure what awaits in eternity, but if you fear the afterlife might be a teetotaler's paradise, heed the words of the oompah-pah polka prophet: Drink the beer here. * * 1/2

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