Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Tried and True the Carlton Remains a Class Act and Competitor in Downtown's Changing Dining Scene

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Tried and True the Carlton Remains a Class Act and Competitor in Downtown's Changing Dining Scene

Article excerpt

There are few places in Pittsburgh where the man is larger than the restaurant. Such is the case at The Carlton Restaurant in Downtown's BNY Mellon Center, where owner Kevin Joyce has stood watch for 20 years.

As a board member of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, Mr. Joyce has been a fierce advocate for the local restaurant industry. He's a leading critic of the Allegheny County Health Department's proposed grading inspection plan -- it's unfriendly to the hospitality industry, he says. He has objected to the county drink tax and the state Liquor Control Board's attempt to raise markups on wine and spirits and has even gone after the city when it pushed nighttime enforcement of on-street parking, saying it would discourage diners from coming Downtown.

He has committed as much passion to upholding the reputation of the 31-year-old Carlton. It remains a Pittsburgh institution in the face of mounting competition from the city's rapidly changing dining scene. To keep step, Mr. Joyce closed the restaurant for just over a month five years ago for a $1.4 million overhaul to update the wine room, carpeting and infrastructure such as air conditioning and plumbing.

The Carlton is like a college eating club for bankers and business types, with better-trained career servers, a compelling wine list and a clubby bar with a fine happy hour (Some Mellon folks go so far as to call the bar "Conference Room C"). Its location on Grant Street also draws pre-theater and pre-hockey crowds.

Some aspects of the place are timeless. The dining room is open and handsome, framed by wine racks that display the restaurant's strength -- it has won Wine Spectator Magazine's Award of Excellence for the past 21 years. With more than 500 selections, the restaurant maintains a huge variety of fair-priced old and new world wines.

And then there's the food, which is unapologetically conservative. You may wish he had updated the menu, too.

The pork cheek appetizer ($12.99) is an interplay of savory and sweet with caramelized onions and crispy leeks on toast. Served over tomato sauce, calamari ($11.99) is delicate; sometimes, I'm sure it's spot-on but on a Monday night in the bar it was served cold.

For an entree, the Maryland crab cakes ($15.99) are a straight shot -- not too dense with a moist interior. The julienned vegetables round out the dish, although it includes buttermilk- whipped potatoes that clash textures with crab cakes.

An evening special, the sea bass ($34.99) was perfect on its own, served with citrus-tossed Napa slaw, lo mein noodles, daikon and wontons. The panko-crusted grouper ($29.99) is also fine, with a dusting as opposed to a coat of bread crumbs. The fish is so flavorful, why have it at all?

Sometimes, a dish is lawless. Take the duck pasta ($15.99), an amalgam of any ingredient that ever could be paired with duck, such as spinach, caramelized walnuts, dried cherries, tomatoes, Marsala cream, grilled pears and herbs. …

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