AS SOON AS I RETURNED home after my first visit to Pittsburgh Blue, I put two bags full of leftovers in the fridge. I flopped down on the couch, loosened my belt, and hoped my stomach would make peace with the copious amounts of medium-rare rib eye nestling in my belly.
Portions aren’t the only thing that’s big at this new Maple Grove steak house. The people who own it—the Parasole group—are big shots. They’re the ones who created the Buca and Oceanaire franchises and now own Figlio, the Good Earth, Chino Latino, Salut, Muffaletta, and Manny’s. Pittsburgh Blue’s location—the Shoppes at Arbor Lakes—is a big top circus of consumerism. And the competition is big league: Biaggi’s, Olive Garden, Red Lobster, P. F. Chang’s, and Timber Lodge Steakhouse, plus every fast-food franchise, well, ever. But even here, Pittsburgh Blue is a big deal. Try calling for a same-day reservation and you’ll be lucky if they can squeeze you in at 5:15 or 8:30.
What is this, the 112 Eatery?
Secure that 5:15 reservation, and within the hour you’ll find yourself surrounded, as the tables around you fill with groups of coworkers, clients, and couples. The three dining areas in Pittsburgh Blue are decorated like wife-approved man rooms—stone and wine bottles are key decorating elements. A bronze bull head hangs, totem-like, over an enormous fireplace.
Though it’s easy to run up a triple-digit tab at Pittsburgh, its clientele isn’t clad in trendy clothes or jewels. Two women I happened upon in the restroom were discussing a sale at J. C. Penney. But it’s likely that’s exactly what Parasole wants: Their most recent restaurant concept, Salut, has been wildly successful serving French fare sans pretension. Pittsburgh Blue applies that same casual attitude to steak. “Come in a stretch limo or stretch pants,” the voice on Pittsburgh’s answering machine urges. The place is classy enough to offer complementary hairspray—but it’s the penny pinchers’ favorite, Suave.
Photo by Terry Brennan
The food is similarly focused on value. Pittsburgh Blue uses the same meat supplier as Parasole’s upscale steak house, Manny’s, but serves slightly smaller portions at a lower price point. If you sit in Manny’s dark, clubby pub room, eating steak feels like a hallowed tradition. At Pittsburgh, it feels like dinner.
The term “Pittsburgh Blue” refers to a way of ordering steaks purportedly popular among Iron City steelworkers: charred on the outside and cold inside. While I like a rare steak, I’m not a fan of char, and was wary of wasting a good piece of meat. I decided to order the Tuscan Steak Contadina Pittsburgh-style: I figured that even if I couldn’t chip through the crust, I could at least console myself with the accompanying peppers, onions, and Italian sausage. I was surprised to find the steak only slightly blackened, and eagerly dug into its purplish center, like I’d just spent 10 hours working a blast furnace.
Of the Pittsburgh steaks I tried, the bone-in, dry-aged New York strip and rib eye were best: Both were tender and packed with flavor. At the other end of the spectrum was the steak Diane: Ordered medium-rare, the tasteless meat dripped blood into a bland shallot-butter sauce, creating an unappetizing puddle. The fillets were fine, but they’re all wrapped in bacon, which tends to mask, not enhance, the meat’s natural flavor.
The rest of the menu items are as straightforward as a wedge of iceberg lettuce. And that’s not a bad thing. The loaded mashed potatoes, topped with bacon, green onion, sour cream, and cheese, for example, were ultra-creamy and comforting. A slice of cheesecake that could have doubled as Paul Bunyan’s doorstop was as tasty as it was smooth. But simplicity can be simply dull. The fresh-baked loaves were as tasteless as Wonderbread. A side of spinach-mushroom gratin resembled wallpaper paste with white pepper. And the fresh fish fillets, minimally dressed with lemon and olive oil, were underwhelming, given the price. Even the guests I brought who’d chose tuna casserole over massaman curry found the food a little bland.
Yet this is comfort food, which means quantity is king. The kitchen seems to breed French fries like rabbits, as entire herds of the skin-on strips arrive with every sandwich and entrée. The Pittsburgh Blue brownie costs $12 and it takes just one look to see why: The dense, fudgy square is the size of a cinder block. Some of the dishes, like the creamed corn—thick-skinned kernels smothered in what tasted like thinned nacho cheese dip—made me wish for a smaller portion of a more carefully sourced product. In fact, the only dishes I tried that seemed to truly demand a chef’s attention were the corn-crusted halibut served with steamed mushrooms, asparagus, and lemon beurre blanc, and an appetizer of seared scallops on Texas toast with a slice of bacon and a smear of spicy Hollandaise sauce. The latter was the kitchen’s most creative combination, at once rich, creamy, crisp, and piquant.
But as much as I enjoyed the scallops, I realized there was no way the kitchen could feed the masses if all the dishes it turned out were that intricate. Parasole’s strength is its ability to run restaurants as efficiently as machines. And that’s due, in part, to smart hiring and training: Their front-of-the-house staff always seems friendly, knowledgeable, and confident enough to elbow its way through a crowded New York subway or trade witty repartee with Jay Leno.
If you’re the sort of diner seeking culinary artistry and innovation, Pittsburgh Blue probably won’t impress. But the crowds it’s drawing indicate that there are plenty of people who enjoy dining like those Pittsburgh steelworkers: They don’t care if the food is pretty, as long as it fills the plate, tastes good, and doesn’t bust the budget.
11900 Main St. N., Maple Grove,
Open for dinner daily.
Parking in the adjacent lot.
Prices for appetizers range from $7–$15, entrées $9–$40.
Rachel Hutton is associate editor of Minnesota Monthly.