There is no more satisfying way to experience Pittsburgh’s 21st century revival than to indulge in its blossoming food and beverage scene.
We might snicker when out-of-town publications print stories overflowing with shock and surprise that this “depressed former mill town” offers mouth-watering cuisine and world-class beer, but that’s only because, to us, it’s no surprise. The hype? It’s real, and well-deserved.
This is the fourth edition of Plates and Pints, where we ask some of the best restaurants in Pittsburgh today to create an unforgettable three-course meal, each dish paired with a different beer, to celebrate the artistry and commitment it takes to craft such culinary delights.
This month, we’re at The Commoner. Tucked inside the Kimpton Hotel Monaco, this gastropub stands out in Downtown’s crowded dining scene by delivering a thoughtful dining experience that deftly blends the classic with the contemporary.
It’s a frigid Monday night when we arrive. We’re greeted by restaurant manager, Chelsea Yeager, and bar manager, Alex Dando, who greets us with a hearty smile and a tray of Old Fashioned’s.
It was to be one of those nights.
Designed by New York’s Mark Zeff Design Company, The Commoner’s spacious interior, with its exposed steel beams and zinc-topped bar, feels as fitting for 2018 as it would 1918. Dark wooden tables run parallel the bar while snug tables for two flank adjacent.
Even though one could imagine a top-hatted Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie stopping in for oysters and an Old Fashioned after a long day chomping cigars with industry elites, The Commoner is a place for all of Pittsburgh.
“I’m always thinking about what’s next versus what we’re doing now. Of course you focus on quality now, but I’m always two to three menus ahead.”
“The name speaks for itself,” says Executive Chef Wyatt Lash. “We want to be presentable and approachable to anyone and everyone.”
Opened in 2015, Lash’s kitchen not only looks after the restaurant but also the hotel’s banquets and catering. There’s also a rooftop biergarten (open during the warmer months) and The Commoner Corner, a five-seat counter that serves fresh breakfast and lunch options year-round.
“It constantly changes,” he says. “I’m always thinking about what’s next versus what we’re doing now. Of course you focus on quality now, but I’m always two to three menus ahead.”
As we await the first course, Dando, the master mixologist, tells us that the cocktail menu, like Lash’s food menu, changes quarterly. For better or worse, he explains, the first thing people do with a fancy cocktail is is take a photo to share to the world on social media, so presentation must be carefully considered.
Right on cue, a round of drinks arrive. The “Wish Yinz Were Beer” is a tall tropical cocktail made with Plantation rum, Hennessy, and Omnipollo’s raspberry crème brulee sour, garnished with dehydrated flowers and blood orange. It’s an elevated, easy-drinking, and endlessly complex twist on tiki that’s almost too beautiful to drink.
As we sip (and snapchat) our cocktails, the first course arrives: crispy cauliflower, garnished with charred eggplant, tahini, crispy chickpeas, coconut flake and harissa yogurt. Light, crispy, and bursting with flavor, it could be served in buckets at the movies in lieu of popcorn.
The dish is accompanied by an Evil Twin / Westbrook collaboration NEIPA, The Limits of My Language are the Limits of My World. Dando, a former philosophy major, points out that the name is a twist on a quote from Wittgenstein, though it doesn’t take a genius to realize that this hazy juice bomb pairs wonderfully with the spicy harissa.
The draft list at The Commoner includes a few tried and tested crowd-pleasers, like Genesse and Yuengling, alongside local offerings from the likes of Hop Farm and Helltown, among others.
Next up, the showstopper: an expertly cooked and trimmed ribeye, served medium rare, stacked atop smashed crispy spuds and punctuated with pickled mustard seed, foie gras butter, pearl onions, grilled broccolini, and a housemade gravy made with Left Hand Bittersweet milk stout.
Steak and potatoes: hardly a new idea, but Lash’s reinterpretation of this classic dish is a revelation, each ingredient in harmony with the next to create an entree that’s somehow greater than the sum of its parts.
Lash, who grew up in Lancaster County, says that The Commoner’s classic-meets-contemporary allows him to be completely open in his approach to crafting a menu. He calls the standard “ever-evolving.”
Our steak is elevated further by Oude Bae, a sour ale from Stillwater made with pinot noir grapes and aged on French oak. It’s an ideal pairing and an obvious twist on pairing red meat with red wine.
Somehow, we saved room for dessert, and good thing, too: the final dish was a rich and spongy pineapple cake, topped with dulce de leche and served with a sidecar of house-made, wood-fired tepache, a Mexican beverage made from the peel and the rind of pineapples.
And if that wasn’t enough, the cake was paired with Off Color brewery’s Dino S’mores, a Russian imperial stout brewed with graham flour, marshmallow, molasses, cocoa nibs and vanilla bean.
Under ordinary circumstances, it is hearty enough to be dessert on its own. Tonight, it is the cap to an extraordinary meal, a forward-thinking feast that any commoner would enjoy.