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Habitat strives for perfection on a plate

| Thursday, April 26, 2012, 1:22 a.m.

Andrew Morrison won't reveal his age, his wife's name, or the name of their 3-year-old son.

While private about his personal life, the British-born Morrison, executive chef of the new Fairmont Pittsburgh Hotel's Habitat restaurant, is downright talkative when it comes to his passion — good food.

"Being a chef is not really a job, it's a lifestyle," Morrison says. "You can't approach this like a job, or you won't be successful. You have to live this stuff. You have to have passion for it — otherwise, it shows."

Morrison freely admits to being a perfectionist in his kitchen, and he expects those who work with him to follow his philosophy. He oversees 30 cooks in four kitchens at the hotel, which also has a 500-seat banquet facility, as well as several smaller rooms for other functions. Thirty cooks sound like a lot, he agrees, but he says he could use a few more.

"Some of our cooks are local, some come from culinary schools, and some come from other Fairmont hotels," Morrison says. "Fairmont likes to grow talent, and they give you options to move anywhere in the world. I've been in Pittsburgh since last September, and I really like the city."

Being a chef came almost naturally to Morrison, who was born in Cheshire, England, and began washing dishes and peeling potatoes in restaurants as a teen. The more he learned about cooking, he says, the more interested he became.

"I never went to culinary school, but I learned from other chefs," says Morrison, who lives on the North Side. "I'm still learning. It's a process that never ends."

Morrison has cooked all over North America, moving to Los Angeles early in his career, with stints in Washington, New York, Seattle, Miami and Atlanta.

"There's a lot more interest here in using local products than in other cities," he says. "We use local honey, grass-fed beef, cheese, eggs and produce. My recipes are ingredient-driven, finding seasonal products and the best way to utilize them. It's all about balancing flavors and textures, and not about colors."

Habitat's menu focuses on unusual small plates, such as yellow lentil broth with littleneck clams and Portuguese sausage; Indonesian-style braised pork belly with baby pea shoots and crushed hazelnuts; Tandoor chicken tacos with spicy watermelon and cucumber raita; and roasted baby beets with local goat cheese and wild honey dressing.

Wok entrees include lobster lo mein; pad thai with tiger shrimp; and caramelized pork and vegetable fried rice. Tandoor specials, served with basmati rice, feature marinated Elysian Fields lamb with a green chile glaze; chicken tikka masala; and jumbo shrimp with almond chutney.

There are also select cuts of New York strips, filet mignons, rib eyes and skirts. The larger plates feature miso-glazed salmon with baby bok choy; Elysian Fields lamb chops with eggplant puree; and wild bass with braised baby artichokes.

One of the most important things Morrison teaches his cooks is that every plate sent out has to be perfect.

"You need to have attention to detail from the very first thing you do," he says. "You have to put thought and effort into every step. If you don't care enough about what you do, that will be reflected, too. There is a certain element they have to have inside themselves that I can't teach them."

Habitat, which opened March 29, is sleekly elegant, with heavy, dark wood tables, hardwood floors, and bronze cylindrical chandeliers suspended from the soaring ceiling. The 106-seat restaurant is drenched in sunlight, thanks to the glass walls, and a communal table for 12 sits in the center of the carpeted dining room. Diners who sit at the tall chairs can watch the chefs prepare their meals in the open kitchen.

Habitat's whole purpose is not to be known as a hotel restaurant, Morrison says.

"That's why you won't find club sandwiches or Caesar salads on the menu," he says. "We want local diners to come here, as well as hotel guests."

When asked about his favorite meal, Morrison doesn't hesitate.

"My wife's chicken cutlets are the best," he says. "But she won't tell me how she makes them."

Salmon with Teriyaki Vegetables and Pickled Shitake Mushrooms

This delicious entree, using wild Copper River salmon from Alaska, is a popular item on Habitat's menu. Chef Andrew Morrison says this dish has several components, but the preparation and assembly is easy.

"It makes for a sophisticated dinner that is simple, delicious and healthy," he says. "Your guests will think you spent all day in the kitchen."

He suggests serving this meal with a sweet white wine such as a riesling or pinot noir.

• 2 (8-ounce) salmon fillets

• Sea salt, to taste

• 1 tablespoon canola oil

• 1/2 a medium red pepper, julienned

• 1/2 a medium yellow pepper, julienned

• 2 whole baby bok choy, cut in half and blanched

• Teriyaki Sauce (recipe follows)

• 2 tablespoons sesame seeds

• 2 tablespoons green onions

• Pickled Shitake Mushroom Salad (recipe follows)

Sprinkle the salmon with sea salt. Heat the canola oil in a pan over medium-high heat and sear the salmon, skin side down, until golden brown. Transfer the fish to a cookie sheet and bake at 350 degrees until the desired temperature is reached (usually 5 minutes for medium doneness).

In the same pan, saute the peppers and blanched bok choy until tender. Once tender, add the Teriyaki Sauce to the vegetables and mix until coated. Toss the vegetable mixture with the green onions and sesame seeds.

To finish the dish, place the peppers and bok choy on a plate and top with the salmon, skin side up. Top the salmon with the mushroom salad and serve.

Makes 2 servings.

Teriyaki Sauce

• 2 tablespoons water

• 4 tablespoons cornstarch

• 1/4 cup pineapple juice

• 1/4 cup orange juice

• 1 tablespoon fresh gingerroot, peeled and crushed

• 1/4 cup soy sauce

Mix the water and cornstarch in a small bowl. Combine the pineapple juice, orange juice, ginger and soy sauce in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Once boiling, slowly add the cornstarch and water mixture until the sauce is slightly thickened. Set aside.

Pickled Shitake Mushroom Salad

• 2 tablespoons white vinegar

• 2 tablespoons sugar

• 4 large shitake mushrooms, julienned

In another saucepan, combine the white vinegar and sugar. Bring the mixture to a boil. While the mixture is boiling, place the julienned mushrooms into a bowl. Pour the hot liquid over the mushrooms and set aside to cool.

Additional Information:


Cuisine: Contemporary American and Asian

Hours: Breakfast: 6:30 a.m.-10 a.m. daily. Lunch: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. daily. Dinner: 5:30-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 5:30-10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays

Entree price range: $12-$28

Notes: Open kitchen. Menu features many small plates, as well as Tandoor entrees and some larger plates. Reservations accepted. Banquet facilities for up to 500. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards accepted. Valet parking. Chef Andrew Morrison has his own blog, Chef's Corner, on the restaurant website.

Address: Habitat, Fairmont Pittsburgh Hotel, second floor, 510 Market St., Downtown

Details: 412-773-8848 or online

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