Isabela on Grandview has a decade-long reputation as a fine-dining establishment
Isabela on Grandview celebrated its 10th anniversary in August with new owners and a new co-chef.
George J. Merrick and his son, Colter Merrick, became the new owners on Aug. 12 after buying it from Christopher and William Passodelis.
That same month, Sherri Leiphart and her husband, Daniel Leiphart, became co-executive chefs. Daniel Leiphart already had been at Isabela for four years after working as sous chef at Lidia's Pittsburgh in the Strip District and a short stint in the kitchen at Le Mont on Grandview.
Before coming to Isabela, Sherri Leiphart worked for 6 1⁄2 years at Le Pommier in the South Side. Both Leipharts are graduates of the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute, Downtown.
The restaurant has a decade-long reputation as a fine-dining establishment with a seven-course prix fixe menu. The prix fixe menu remains and is the only menu available on Saturdays.
But this past spring the restaurant bowed to changes in the economy by adding an a la carte option Mondays through Fridays, says Justin Armstrong, Isabela's front-of-house manager. The result was more customers making more frequent visits.
"We found more of our regular guests were coming in more often for the high quality but smaller meals," Armstrong says.
The restaurant also recently added a bar and lounge area on the entrance level that offers its own view of the city. It also serves as an additional 20-seat dining room and is handicap accessible. Plans are in the works to create a separate menu for the lounge in December.
The spectacular view was one of the reasons George Merrick bought the restaurant. Big picture windows along three sides of the intimate (50 seats) upstairs dining room provide a 210-degree view of Downtown Pittsburgh, Merrick says.
With such spectacular scenery available, the dining room decor works with a muted pallette of cream-toned whites. Recorded jazz plays quietly in the background.
Service is relaxed but caring with servers who know the menu and its ingredients. Successive courses appear at a measured pace allowing customers to linger over conversation and wine.
"Our patrons are looking for a non-conventional dining experience that makes them feel welcome, warm and happy instead of a fine dining experience where the staff looks down their noses as you," Armstrong says.
During the week, Isabela sees more business-oriented customers. On weekends the restaurant becomes what Armstrong calls "a celebration destination." Tables fill up with special occasion diners with families celebrating anniversaries, birthdays or a couples out for a romantic evening. "On fireworks nights, we offer the perfect view,"Armstrong brags. "People are already booking for New Year's Eve."
The food at Isabela is almost universally very good, simply prepared and prettily presented.
Menus change seasonally and emphasize locally grown products in season. Everything, including breads and desserts is prepared on premises.
The restaurant's signature option is the $70 seven-course, prix-fixe menu. Three options are provided for the appetizer, fish, meat and dessert courses while the chefs select the opening amuse bouche, intermezzo and salad courses.
It's the only option on Saturday evenings. Mondays through Fridays diners can order from the a la carte menu or the prix-fixe menu. All of the items we tried are available on either menu. Prices listed with items are from the a la carte menu.
With seven courses to get through it's understandable that portions are smaller than area residents might be used to. "It's deliberate so you can eat seven courses," Armstrong says. "This is a meal where at the end you are full with a smile on your face and can't wait to come back."
Even those who order from the a la carte menu are treated to the amuse bouche. On a recent evening it was a tiny crisp of toast starring a sliver of juicy pork.
With appetites now primed, we moved on to true appetizers. Jonah Crab and Lobster Chowder ($8.50), with big chunks of potato and crab -- a smooth and warming start on a blustery evening and Poached Shrimp and Mussels ($9) with a spicy coconut-lime broth and a crunchy rice cake.
Those who like their fish firm and fully flavored will enjoy the Pan-Seared Barramundi ($29) with its nicely browned, crispy exterior and flaky, slightly oily interior.
A tiny ball of chocolate-cherry sorbet served as a brisk and tasty palate cleanser between the fish and meat courses.
The Roasted Pork Tenderloin ($26) that followed was near perfection -- pink, juicy and tender. It came with cumin-accented cubes of butternut squash and a pilaf of wheat berries and couscous.
An entree serving of Roasted Duck Ragu ($26) -- shredded bits of roasted duck, slivers of bright green fennel and a heap of fresh tagliatelli noodles -- proved itself an elegant comfort food.
Less pleasing was the side order of Roasted Acorn Squash ($4) which was overcooked and dry.
The tender greens of the Pomegranate-Walnut Salad ($6) were lightly dressed and sprinkled with tiny cubes of pickled apple.
Dessert is the one course in which Isabela has yet to distinguish itself. Dark Chocolate Pot de Creme ($8) was silky smooth but the chocolate and candied orange flavors were overwhelmed by the discordant taste of clove. Cashew Cake ($7) was disappointingly small, even for the finale to a seven course feast. That won't keep us from returning, though.
The opportunity to experience Roaster Rabbit Risotto ($8), Chestnut Tortellini with black truffles and clotted cream ($8) or Pepita Crusted Sablefish ($28) is reason enough.Additional Information:
Isabela on Grandview
Cuisine: Progressive American
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays
Entree price range: $26-$34 available Mondays-Fridays when a la carte menu is offered. $70-per-person seven-course prix-fixe menu is available nightly and is the only menu available on Saturdays.
Notes: Reservations recommended. Walk-ins accepted. Handicapped accessible. No smoking, no cell phones, no separate checks. $10 fee for splitting an entree. BYOB with $15-per-bottle corkage fee. $6 charge for valet parking. Accepts all major credit cards. Highchairs available.
Location: 1318 Grandview Ave., Mt. Washington
Details: 412-431-5882 or Web site