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Eleven chef relishes stress of crafting ideal meal

| Thursday, April 26, 2012, 11:38 p.m.

There is nothing ordinary or average about Eleven Contemporary Kitchen in the Strip District.

Soaring, two-story ceilings set off the interior brick walls and the warm, earthy decor in the sprawling dining room and lounge, which seat about 200.

"We're known as high-end, fine dining," says executive chef Derek Stevens, 35, who has presided over the open-air kitchen since October 2006. "We constantly strive to improve what we are doing at Eleven. Our menu is seasonally driven and changes daily. We try to use local produce, meats and cheeses as often as possible."

Eleven is one of the most innovative restaurant in the big Burrito Restaurant Group, which includes Casbah, Soba and Umi in Shadyside, the Mad Mex restaurants, and Kaya in the Strip District. Gushing reviews have celebrated Eleven since it opened six years ago. Stevens credits many factors for Eleven's success.

"We try to be the whole package here, from the quality of our service and food to the music, atmosphere and energy," he says. "We consider ourselves to be a very good restaurant and have lots of loyal customers. We serve about 250 meals on a busy night."

Stevens is a humble man, but his creativity in the kitchen has much to do with Eleven's culinary reputation. His versatile menu is a reflection of his Southern roots and Northern upbringing. Born in Maryland, Stevens lived in Jacksonville and Memphis before moving to Pittsburgh at age 13.

He graduated from North Allegheny High School, then went to The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and graduated in 1994. Stevens completed an externship at the Duquesne Club, became the sous chef at Casbah for a time, returned to the Duquesne Club as sous chef and then accepted the executive chef position at Eleven.

"Our menu changes daily, because it's important to me for it to continually evolve, and for me to continue to grow and learn as a chef," says Stevens, who lives in Crafton with his wife, Marie, and their three children. "I don't want to get bored, either. As a chef, every day is a new set of challenges. I do minor tweaks on the menu throughout the week."

His appetizers include unusual cheese plates, roasted squash ravioli with walnut-ginger brown butter, smoked lamb taco, shrimp and grits, spicy tuna tartare with edamame, kumquat and sesame tuile, and jumbo lump crab cake with butternut squash. Eleven is known for its pleasing salads, such as the warm roasted beet salad with Fuji apples and watercress, and the duck tasso salad with pears and cider vinaigrette.

Entrees include many seafood dishes like wild striped bass, cod, salmon and tuna; gnocchi with peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes and rapini; Elysian Fields Farm lamb with buttermilk polenta and Brussels sprouts leaves; chicken breast and braised leg risotto and beef tenderloin with squash, shallots, mushrooms and red wine au jus.

Stevens oversees a chef's tasting menu and a vegetarian tasting menu. Pastry chef Ericka Idler is responsible for the to-die-for desserts that feature items such as lemon cannoli, banana cream pie, pineapple butter cake, molten chocolate cake, butterscotch creme brulee and cinnamon churros.

"Everything is made from scratch here, and we make all our own breads and desserts," Stevens says. "We sell our baked goods to other restaurants and the general public."

While Stevens does not offer specials because his menu changes so frequently, he will do special requests when asked.

"If we have the stuff in house, we can make it," he says. "We want our customers to come back -- it's important to maintain our clientele."

When asked to name the best and worst parts of being a chef, Stevens laughs.

"The neverending learning and constant challenges, the stress, the hours, the food, the people, the business, the excitement, and Saturday nights," Stevens says. "It's the same for both."

Being a chef is a physically and mentally demanding job, he admits, and he works more than 60 hours a week, but he can't imagine doing anything else.

"It's very rewarding and gratifying," he says. "It's all pretty fun, really. You have to love this business or it will drive you insane."

Chicken and Risotto

This popular entree has been on Eleven's menu since day one, executive chef Derek Stevens says. Braising the chicken in broth in the oven makes it juicy, tender, and full of flavor. The risotto turns out creamy and delicious. This would be a perfect recipe for a dinner party, or just a nice dinner for two.

• 2 chicken legs, skin on

• 2 chicken breasts, skin on

• Salt and pepper to taste

• 1 small carrot, diced

• 1 celery rib, diced

• 1 small onion, diced

• 3 sprigs thyme

• 2 cloves garlic, crushed

• 1 cup Arborio rice

• 3 quarts chicken broth

• 2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese

• 3 tablespoons butter

• 2 tablespoons blended oil

• 1/4 cup white wine

To braise chicken legs: (These can be done a day ahead, or use leftover roasted chicken.) Season legs on both sides with salt and pepper. Place in a shallow baking dish and cover two-thirds of the way with chicken broth. Place in a 350-degree oven and cook until very tender and skin is golden brown and crispy, about 50 minutes. When cool enough to handle, remove from braising liquid, reserving the remaining broth. Remove the skin, all of the bones, and reserve the chicken meat.

To roast chicken breasts: Salt and pepper breasts. Heat the blended oil in a medium-size, oven-proof skillet. Add the chicken breasts, skin side down, and then transfer to a 400-degree oven for 30 minutes. While the chicken is cooking, start the risotto.

To make risotto: Heat remaining chicken broth and reserve. In a medium-size saucepot, melt 1 tablespoon butter and add the diced vegetables, cooking until soft, about 3-4 minutes. Add the rice and stir until hot and coated with the butter. Add the broth a cup at a time, stirring often. As the rice cooks and the broth is absorbed, continue to add more broth -- a cup or two at a time -- until the rice is tender and creamy, about 15-20 minutes. Remove from heat and reserve, keeping warm, until the chicken breasts are finished cooking.

To finish the dish: When chicken is cooked, remove from the oven and add the garlic, thyme, and 1 tablespoon of butter to the pan to baste the chicken. Remove breast from the pan and reserve in a warm place. Over medium heat, add the wine to the skillet and reduce for approximately 1 minute. Turn the heat up to high and add 2 cups broth to the skillet and reduce by two-thirds. Stir in the remaining tablespoon of butter, season the jus with salt and pepper to taste and reserve. Place the risotto back on low heat and add the pulled chicken leg meat and enough of the remaining broth to make it nice, moist and creamy. When the risotto is hot, stir in the Parmesan cheese and butter. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

To plate: Spoon the risotto onto a dinner plate, place the chicken on top and spoon the jus over it.

Makes 2 servings.

Additional Information:

Eleven Contemporary Kitchen

Cuisine: Contemporary American with international influences

Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 5-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5-9 p.m. Sundays

Entree price range: $19-$43

Notes: Major credit cards accepted. Reservations recommended. Handicapped accessible. Full bar and extensive wine list, with two wine-tasting menus daily with optional wine pairings. Seasonal patio. Benefit dinner on the 11th of every month for a different nonprofit group.

Address: 1150 Smallman St., Strip District

Details: 412-201-5656 or Web site

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