It’s back again! Pittsburgh Restaurant Week began today, and we’re wasting no time to get you notes from our mealtime exploits. First up is a wonderful new place we checked out for dinner: Altius on Mt. Washington.
Truth be told, we’d not really heard anything about Altius before coming in for dinner earlier this evening. Basically, we chose this restaurant based on two criteria: 1) we’d never been there before, and 2) it was open on Monday night — a requirement which, if you like to eat out on weeknights, you know can sometimes be tricky to satisfy.
Author’s Note: Before I go on, I feel I should apologize in advance for the number of times I’ll be using the word “perfect” in this post. But truly, Altius came out of nowhere and served up one of the best dining experiences we’ve had in years. So, I guess sorry-not-sorry about all the perfect-talk.
The bar was small but well appointed, and the cocktail list had plenty of approachable offerings. Fox had a Seelbach, made with Old Forester ‘Signature’ Bourbon, Cointreau, Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters, topped off with some bubbly. I went with a house cocktail, the Allegheny. It consisted of Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Lillet, blackberries, and lemon. The drinks were promptly prepared by the bartender, Ashley, and as you can see, they had a tidy, thoughtful presentation.
A table opened up just as our drinks were served, so the maitre’d had Ashley close us out, and then he carried our drinks to the table for us.
While we perused the menu, our server, Dominic, came around with some truffled popcorn. We were really pleased with how light the kitchen’s touch was with the truffle — ever since it’s become “the thing” with which to fancy up one’s sides, we’ve come to notice that it’s really easy to overuse. Not here; it was just right.
The Restaurant Week menu has three courses, with two choices for each, so Fox and I decided to be thorough (for food science!) and try one of everything. Of course, we opted to take the wine pairing that went with each dish as well.
But before our first course came out, we were offered more complimentary deliciousness! We received our pick of three different breads (pictured here are the focaccia and the Parker House), with a fennel butter and delicious sun-dried tomatoes to spread. We also got an amazing amuse-bouche prepared by executive chef Jessica Bauer, which was composed of a slice of fresh local plum, complemented by a dollop of mascarpone and some Aleppo peppered honey. Sweet, spicy, scrumptious.
Just before our “starter” dishes, our first round wine pairings were brought to the table. Here was something that really set Altius apart for us. The wines were delivered directly by the sommelier, Alan, who also happens to be the restaurant’s GM. And not only did he deliver the wine for each course throughout the evening, but he also explained the logic behind each pairing. He did it in really approachable terms — nothing hoity-toity about it, just a sharing of knowledge from a man who has clearly put a lot of thought into how the food and drink will interplay.
For her first course, Fox had the Bison Tartare, prepared with a poached egg, gaufrette potatoes, and mustard. The wine pairing was a 2008 Thierry Tissot Roussette du Bugey Mataret, from Savoie, France. The dish had a great contrast of textures between the crunch of the waffle and the creamy mouthfeel of tartare. The wine had a crisp, clean minerality to it, and its acidity perfectly tempered the tartare’s richness.
I started off with the Squash Blossom Risotto, which had saffron, shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano, and garden peas. My wine pairing hailed from Piedmont, Italy — a 2011 Ferrando La Torrazza Erbaluce di Caluso. The risotto was a straight-up bullseye: firm, dense, rich, but somehow surprisingly light. It had a great balance of heartiness and sweetness, further enhanced by the crisp finish of the Caluso. Also, the portion size was just right (which could be said for every single dish we were served).
Ok, we also got something that wasn’t on the Restaurant Week menu — this “Tongue n’ Cheek,” which is a crispy tongue steak, topped with braised beef cheek pierogi, melted leeks, mushrooms, a veal demi-glace, and horseradish crème fraiche. It was heavier than the other two appetizers, but still very tasty. The beef tongue was remarkably tender, and the leeks were perfectly cooked. I would describe this as comfort food at the Olympic level.
Soon after the appetizer round, our entrees came with Swiss-watch precision timing. (Along with a second wine visit from Alan.)
Fox opted for the Balsamic Shallot Glazed Black Cod, served with smashed fingerling potatoes and a summer vegetable succotash. Alongside came a pour from our favorite wine region in France, the Rhône Valley — a 2010 Santa Duc Côtes du Rhône ‘Vieilles Vignes.’ The cod was magnificently flaky, and the glaze added another color to the dish that complicated the flavor profile, without overwhelming the vegetables’ natural flavor. The wine pairing was another hit — you might be surprised to find red being served with fish, but the selection here was totally appropriate; this grenache-syrah-mourvedre blend has a medium-to-light body that lends a subtle silkiness to the proceedings. True threading-of-the-needle stuff. (And look at that beautiful plate composition!)
I went for the more rustic entree: Braised Jamison Farm Lamb Orechiette, with zucchini, sun-dried tomatoes, spinach, and sheep’s milk ricotta. The wine was another Italian, this time from Sicily — a 2011 Tasca d’Almerita Lamuri Nero d’Avola. The lamb had a wonderful succulence; it wasn’t at all gamey. The pasta was cooked to a perfect al dente, and the vegetables were tender yet firm. As for the wine…whoa, baby. It was fuller than any other Italian wine I’ve had, with a sultry smokiness like a summer woodfire. It added a lot of character paired with the lamb.
Finally, we moved on to dessert. Fox went for the Half Baked Brownie with salted caramel, amarena cherries, and vanilla bean ice cream. It was paired with a Spanish sherry — the Alexandro Pedro Ximenez. The brownie had a gooeyness to match its name, but it wasn’t overly heavy. The berries on the plate darkened and complicated the flavor profile, and as for the wine? The sherry was, once again, a perfect pairing, and thick enough on the tongue that you’ll almost want to cut out the middle man that is your glass and drizzle it directly onto the brownie.
I chose the Vanilla Brown Sugar Cheesecake, which came with berries, coulis, and a fruit sorbet. The wine pairing was Austrian — a 2011 Alois Kracher Cuvée Auslese. I will not describe the cheesecake as perfect. Because actually, it was downright miraculous. It was dense and held together very nicely, but somehow when you took a bite it felt as light as whipped cream. The wine was a new one to me; it was sort of like a moscato but not as syrupy. It did everything a good wine pairing should: it brought its own personality to the table, while also highlighting some of the more subtle flavors in the cheesecake. For example, the wine had a strong apricot note, which complimented the cheesecake but also drew out the vanilla to make it more prominent.
Honestly, we couldn’t have been more impressed or charmed by Altius. From the view of the cityscape, to the magnificent and attentive staff, to the fine food served without pretension — to the fact that the place shares a transformer with the Duquesne incline next door, resulting in a slight dimming of the lights every time the incline reaches and alights from the top platform. Altius gave us a storybook evening up on the Mount, and for that we are grateful.
One last dose of truth: dining at Altius is not cheap. But for the overall quality and experience — and especially with the $39.14 Restaurant Week special that includes app, entree, and dessert — it’s actually a relative bargain. It’s a real five-star spot, and we recommend you have a date night there this week. There are still reservations available through OpenTable, so crack open that piggy bank and get to planning!