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Best ingredients is Capital Grille's recipe for success

| Sunday, Sept. 30, 2007

It's easy to get a contact high in the kitchen of the Capital Grille -- not just from the glorious 24-ounce porterhouse steaks or 5-pound lobsters that are waiting to make an entrance in the dining room, but because of the infectious energy of the staff.

As the Friday lunch rush winds down, pastry chef Julie Cogley prepares four cheescakes. Behind her is a rack bearing crème brulee and fresh brioches, which are used for the Grille's 10-ounce cheeseburger.

With so many calories at her fingertips, how is it that she's managed to stay ballet-dancer slim?

"I ask myself that everyday," she says, laughing.

Diets die a quick death here at Pittsburgh's newest upscale steakhouse, which opened Aug. 27 in the former Lazarus building on Fifth Avenue. The nationally acclaimed franchise serves classic American dishes, including dry-aged steaks, chops and fresh seafood.

In addition to more than 300 wines, the Capital Grille also features its signature Stoli Doli. Pineapple slices are placed in a large glass jar and filled with Stoli vodka. It sits for seven days. On the eighth day, the vodka is decanted and served in a martini glass.

The dark panelled interior, which seats 230, flirts with men's club kitsch. It features a baronial display of wine, equestrian sculptures and oil paintings of famous Pittsburghers. Fred Rogers presides over the dining room. Roberto Clemente hangs in the bar. Art Rooney keeps watch in the marble-floored foyer.

As sous chef, Joe Bello of Shaler puts it, "It's like a country club without the membership dues."

On a recent Friday, the Capital Grille served a sizeable lunchtime crowd. Diners had their choice of Maine lobster salad, rib-eye steak sandwich or tomato mozzarella and basil salad. Their secret weapon is executive chef Donato Coluccio, a Morningside native who was corporate chef at the Steelhead Brasserie and Wine Bar at the Marriott City Center, Uptown.

"My earliest memory as a kid is rolling meatballs at the kitchen table," he says.

A certified executive chef, Coluccio was voted 2004 Chef of the Year for the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Culinary Federation. But he deflects credit to his 18-member staff.

"I don't stand here and cook this stuff every day," Coluccio says. "They do. I just orchestrate it. I'm a coach."

The philosophy is to buy fresh and buy the best. Do that, and it puts you ahead of the game before you so much as turn on a burner. Or as Coluccio says, do the basics right.

"Everything that we buy we buy fresh daily," he says. "Our meat is dry-aged in-house under strict supervision of relative humidity, wind velocity and temperature."

The room where the meat is aged resembles a wine cellar for fine cuts of meat. Tenderloin, sirloin and shortloin hang in rows, each tagged with a particular date. By breaking down natural enzymes, the dry aging process tenderizes the meat.

"There's no protective packing on it," Coluccio says. "It's placed in a cooler to hang. The relative humidity and air velocity are strictly regulated. It's whole pieces of meat still covered with their natural fat."

Some of this meat will end up as Kona Crusted Dry Aged Sirloin with Caramelized Shallot Butter, or Sliced Filet Mignon with Cippolini Onions and Wild Mushrooms.

Diners can also feast on Norwegian salmon or pan fried calamarai with hot cherry peppers. Seafood is flown in daily, including soft-shell crab from Baltimore and lobster from Maine. The restaurant also uses products from local farmers whenever possible.

Tournedos of Tenderloin with Butter Poached Lobster

This recipe is from Donato Coluccio, executive chef at the Capital Grille.

• 2 tournedos of tenderloin (4 ounces each)

Seasoned salt, to taste

• 1/4 cup clarified butter

• 1 tablespoon heavy cream

• 1/3 cup Beurre Monte ( recipe follows )

• 1/3 cup raw lobster meat

• 2 teaspoons chopped fresh chives

• 1/4 cup warm mashed potatoes

• 1 sprig fresh chervil

Assemble all the ingredients ( see Photo 1 ).

Season the tournedos liberally with seasoned salt.

Place the clarified butter on the flat top of each piece of meat and sear the tournedos in a skillet over medium-high heat until a crisp brown crust forms, for about 3 minutes per side ( Photo 2 ). If medium or well-done meat is desired, the tournedos can be finished in a 350-degree oven. For rare or medium-rare tenderloin, continue to cook the tournedos in the skillet for another minute or two.

In a medium-size saucepan, warm the cream with the Beurre Monte.

While the tournedos are cooking, poach the lobster in the Beurre Monte mixture for 4 minutes over low heat. Be careful: If the heat is too high, the butter will break. Remove from the heat and keep warm until ready to plate.

Just prior to plating, swirl the chives into the butter sauce and lobster ( Photo 3 ). Place the mashed potatoes in the center of a warm 12-inch round plate. Place the tournedos over the potatoes and top with the lobster claws. Scatter the lobster knuckles around the outside of the plate and garnish with the butter sauce. Top the lobster claws with the chervil ( Photo 4 ) and serve immediately.

Makes 1 serving.

Beurre Monte

• 1/3 cup water

• 1 bay leaf

• 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

• 1 tablespoon heavy cream

• 1 pound cold, unsalted butter

• 1 teaspoon kosher salt

Warm the water, bay leaf, lemon juice and cream over low heat.

Cut the chilled butter into squares and slowly whisk it into the water mixture.

Remove the bay leaf and keep warm until ready to use.

Makes 8 servings.

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