8-23-16 / Altius / Pittsburgh, PA

For my birthday this year, I was struggling to come up with a place that we’d all enjoy as a family (my wife and parents). I’m always looking to try somewhere new and something different, but I couldn’t think of a place that I’d eaten in the last year that was as special as the dinner that my wife took me out to for my birthday in 2015: to Altius at the top of Mt. Washington. While the menu at Altius is constantly changing, there were a few holdovers from last year that I was happy to see. Happier still, their cocktail program remains the best I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying in the entire city. With an unbelievable view, outstanding service, incredible food and cocktails, surrounded by loved ones, I could not have asked for a better birthday meal.

My father’s not a big drinker at all (except for the occasional Bloody Mary, heavy on the worcestershire sauce and tomato juice, light on the vodka), but my wife and mother joined me in ordering a couple of cocktails.

(top right) I started off with the Last Laugh (Hayman’s Old Tom Gin, Yellow Chartreuse, Fino Sherry, Maraschino Liqueur, candied lemon slice) a sweet, cool, refreshing cocktail. Extremely drinkable with a lovely tart finish from the chartreuse and the lemon slice. (bottom left) Later in the meal, I ordered the Laid Back (Leatherbees Gin, Clément Orange Liqueur, Lemon, orange segments). Perfectly citrusy and sweet, with a nice orange mellow note, it went down smooth and was well-balanced in strength.

(top left) My wife ordered the Lemon Drop (Meyer Lemon-Infused Vodka, Cointreau, Rosemary, Lemon) powerfully lemony and herbaceous with a lightly sugared-rim, the vodka and cointreau made it a bit strong for my tastes, but she loved it. (top middle) For our entrees, she ordered the Debutante (Ketel One Vodka, Cointreau, Lemon, Mint, Balsamic Syrup, Egg White). The balsamic cut wonderfully through the frothy creamy egg whites and the bright sharp notes of the lemon and mint. It was all wonderfully balanced and beautifully smooth.

(bottom right) My mother ordered the Violation (Hendrick’s Gin, Aperole, Crème de Violette, Blueberry, Lillet, Lemon) a lovely sparkling, smooth apertif. She’s been obsessed with aperol as an apertif ever since her and my Father went to Italy and enjoyed Aperol Spritzes up and down the Amalfi Coast.

 

For an amuse bouche, the chef sent out a lovely mini-sugar cone filled with a smoked salmon mousse, topped with tiny chives. I am a huge fan of smoked salmon, but the sweetness of the sugar cone was strange to me. I always go the salty route when it comes to the proper lox and bagel, so I was not a convert this night. However, it served its purpose perfectly, cleansing my palate without any lingering aftertastes of salt, smoke, or sweetness.

The bread course featured a (clockwise from left) Zucchini Bread, stoneground rustic wheat, and a sea salt garlic focaccia. They were served with a chive honey butter and a roasted red pepper paste. The zucchini bread was moist and sweet, far closer to a cake than a paired bread, but I wasn’t complaining in the slightest. Chunks of walnut reigned in the cinnamon-sweetness of the rest of the dark, dense bread. The wheat was excellent, with firm, crunchy crust and a soft, pillowy body that made it perfect for either spreads. The sea salt focaccia was nice and light throughout, with a salty, crispy, buttery crust to hold it all in. The honey butter would have been nicer with a less savory element so prominent throughout, making it an impossible pairing for the zucchini bread, but enjoyable with the wheat.The roasted red pepper paste, very thick and just slightly, slightly on the further side of bitter, was still extremely vibrant and tasty, just very specifically one-note for such varied bread offerings.

When we dined there last year, I’d ordered the She-Crab Bisque and was absolutely amazed by it. A bowl, prepared with golden crab roe, sherry creme fraiche, and honey roasted peanuts is presented and the golden, thick, buttery creamy crab broth is poured over the art tableside. I love the crunch and sweetness of the nuts with the salty pop of the roe and creaminess that the creme fraiche and bisque broth that all work together to create a sweet and sour body of soup magnificence. I’d urged by mother to order it, but she was less impressed with the technical ingenuity and put off by the lack of actual crab meat pieces in the soup. I think she’ll order the bisque again when she returns to the shore and they’re far more direct in their soup preparation and delivery.

I ordered the Calamari Milanese, not even realizing it at the time that it’d be served as a salad over baby arugula. Two huge filets of calamari were liberally coated in an egg wash batter and deep fried. They were tossed with crispy prosciutto, a caper vinaigrette, and sprinkled liberally with truffle pecorino. The best way I can describe it is all of the best parts of the inside of an italian chicken sandwich (zesty, herby, garlicky from the cheese and dressing, meaty/smokey from the prosciutto and calamari) with the crunch from the crust on the calamari. It was delicious. Far more substantial and hearty than any salad has a right to be, I was glad to share this one.

I was extremely impressed with the charcuterie board when my wife and I had visited the year previous, so I wanted to share that experience with my parents, as well. All house made and local cured and smoked meats, a selection of local cheeses, grilled breads, a cup of pickled gherkins and drop peppers, stone ground horseradish mustardo, a quince jam, and honeycomb. The cheeses were a nice spread of semi-soft goat, soft and gooey cow’s milk, and hard sheep’s milk cheddar. The meats were equally varied, with nice cures, beefy and earthy salami, prosciutto, and bresaola. Especially delicious with the funkier cheeses, the honeycomb was outstandingly sweet and feathery soft.

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My father had one of the nightly specials, the bone-in Ribeye, served over purple mashed potatoes, baby carrots and green beans, with a maitre-d’hotel butter. The meat was cooked a perfect medium rare and a gorgeous sight overall. Beautiful marbling kept the steak flavorful and juicy, but it was cooked long enough and at a low enough temperature to melt all of the fat down to a sauce-like consistency and still maintain a gorgeous crust and sear all over. The potatoes were sweet and creamy, with a nice kick of extra earthiness from the purple potatoes.

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My mother opted for the Ora King Salmon, seared, and served over escarole tossed in a buttermilk dressing, shrimp and white speckled grits (but opting out of the andouille etoufee), alongside a slice of fried green tomato. The grits were some of the best I’ve ever had in my life, smooth and creamy, cheesy and sharp. The shrimp were plump and fresh, perfectly complementing the grits and tossed escarole. The salad added a nice light creaminess to the base set by the grits and supported throughout the salmon. The tomato had a lovely cornmeal coating, adequately ripe and hard, cooked nicely to highlight the vinegar bite and tartness of a green tomato. The salmon itself was outstanding, seared to a magnificent crisp on the skin-side and practically (perfectly) raw within the fish itself, it flaked satisfyingly and the  bright orange flesh was a true testament to how fresh it was.

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My wife went with the Pennsylvania Amish Chicken Breast, served over a sweet corn hash, bacon lardons, and topped with a chimichurri aioli and tempura zucchini blossoms. The sweet vegetal blossoms and sweet corn hash were a wonderful contrast with the crisp carnivorous sear and juiciness of the chicken and bacon. The aioli provided just enough zip to weave throughout the hash and fatty bacon. The chicken was even butchered ideally, with just the smallest wing bone on the large, frenched breast. An excellently composed dish and a wonderful relief to see chicken highlighted on a menu, rather than just thrown on as so many higher-end restaurants tend to do.

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Unbeknownst to me until after ordering, I (again) went with what I had last year, the Australian Lamb Rack, with herbs de Provence, French green beans, truffled purple potatoes, lightly fried lamb sweetbreads, atop a Meyer lemon Parmesan jus. Subconsciously, I must have recalled the expertly cooked and butchered rack of lamb, the outer crust so well-seasoned and crunchy, the inside meat a gorgeous pinkish red of medium rare, buttery soft and bursting with fresh lamb flavor. The bones, again, were outstanding to strip clean, most of the work already having been done for me by the kitchen, leaving me with the best possible cut to enjoy. The sweetbreads were nice and small, providing nice pops of that good meat flavor that comes from all organ meats. Sweetbreads, which are not brains as a lot of people think, but actually the thymus gland, are wonderfully meaty, soft and sweet in texture and taste, and remind me of the best kind of chicken nugget or scallop in their downright creaminess and mouthfeel.

The sun was setting as we enjoyed our entrees, the city was starting to light up, and the feel of the entire restaurant (with their floor to ceiling windows surrounding the entire floor) began to change. I ordered a glass of the Joseph Phels ‘Eisrebe’ 2014, from their dessert wines list as it’s my birthday and I’m allowed to have an indulgent glass of Ice Wine at least once a year. The ice wine was sweeter, with more of a honey mouth-feel than I’m used to, but finished with that outstanding Napa crispness. The restaurant also provided a slice of decadent fudge brownie topped with a candle, a chocolate straw, fresh whipped cream, a strawberry, and creme anglaise. It was a lovely gesture and greatly appreciated. Had I known we would be getting this complimentary from the kitchen, I certainly wouldn’t have ordered the…..

Sweet holy mother of God. The innocently-enough named “Chocolate Ball” is instead a wrecking ball that will swing into your life and fuck your shit up. Richer than rich, more decadent than anything I can remember having in a long, long time, this dessert was a powerhouse. As seen above, a thick white chocolate shell, covered in hot chocolate until it melts, all surrounding a sweet chiffon cake topped with creme brulee and dark chocolate mousse, until it all blends together to  become this Frankenstein’s Monster of all things unholy and delicious. In a world where desserts are no longer ordered to be enjoyed by a solitary person, this is the Destroyer. Assemble teams, get a block party together, because everyone is going to have to take a bite and pass it around. The multitude of layers of chocolate alone is enough to constitute its own dessert, but when you add the pudding and crunch of the creme brulee, the soft moistness of the warm cake, the smooth creaminess of the cold mousse, the hot chocolate sauce, everything starts to get hazy and you wake up in the car on the ride home. Bring a sherpa.

 

Another incredible meal from the folks high atop the Mount. In a neighborhood full of places that are fine to rest on their name and laurels alone and never change their menu or push themselves (looking at you Le Mont, Tin Angel, Grandview Saloon, Isabella on Grandview, and Monterey Bay Fish Grotto) Altius is a shining oasis. I am so invigorated and inspired to see restaurants like this open up, do well, and maintain that high level of quality and consistency. I am so, so impressed that they’ve managed to top the magnificent meal that I enjoyed last year. I’m going to have to do some heavy research and investigating if I’m going to find somewhere that I’d even consider going to next year for my birthday that could top Altius.

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