By Bob Batz Jr. / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
After 16 years of marriage, the fire still burns.
For our anniversary last weekend, I asked my wife if I could take her to a hotel.
Yes, she said, hungrily.
That’s because I was inviting her to a hotel restaurant. With our kid. But still.
Our special weekend was practicalized, as second-decade anniversaries can be, by a story I had to do (for this Sunday’s paper) on the Mighty Penguins Sled Hockey team and our 9-year-old’s ice hockey tryouts. Both took us to the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry, as hockey regularly does. Amidst the mind-boggling sprawl, we’ve found some good places to eat, including the Breakneck Tavern. But a special occasion called for a special experience, so I made a reservation to try a new restaurant that’s been popping up on my radar: Ember & Vine.
Subtitled “Woodfire Oven + Social Bar,” Ember & Vine is the centerpiece of the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Pittsburgh-Cranberry (which is actually in Marshall and has a Mars mailing address) that last year got a multimillion-dollar makeover. The restaurant and bar are more spectacular than you’d expect in a suburban hotel, floating in a five-story atrium in sophisticated hues of woodtones and orange and blue.
But it’s down-to-earth: The Penguins game was on most of the nine TVs, and the place offered gold-clad fans game-day specials including half-priced pizzas from the wood-burning oven in the gleaming open kitchen. After we were seated at a table along a comfy banquette, I ordered the house Two Trees Kolsch (made by North Country Brewing of Slippery Rock) from the list of two dozen beers, many from breweries marked as “Close” and “Really close.” There are eight wines dispensed from Napa Technology WineStations ($12 to $24 a glass), plus a solid list of other wines by glass and bottle, and cocktails about which I’ve heard raves, including four shrubs and four mules.
My wife ordered an Austerity Cabernet ($12), and we asked if the bar could make our son a watermelony mocktail ($2.50), which he pronounced delish after we toasted.
I’d heard good things, too, about the food, directed by executive chef Sam Castrale, who says his philosophy is to shape quality ingredients with salt, pepper and fire. He had the winning dishes at last month’s Glass Slipper Ball to benefit women’s initiatives that was held at the hotel. In the fundraiser’s Best of the Chefs competition, his wild-caught diver scallops with celery root purée and preserved lemon vinaigrette along with adobo lamb lollipops, Mexican street corn, arugula and lamb jus won the People’s Choice Award for Best Overall Dish.
Our young server was a little green -— he had to go ask if they had any specials that night — but agreeable, and we appreciated being maitre d’ed by the very warm director of restaurant operations, Harry Siebert. As attentive as he was, he had time to watch snippets of the hockey game. While there was a large group behind us and a party in the private dining room, the restaurant was surprisingly quiet for 7:30 on a Saturday night. I’m betting that the place will get busier as more people discover it.
We liked the spare, one-page dinner menu. We were drawn to the dozen small plates, and it was hard to choose, but we were delighted with the two large glass plates of Smoked Salmon Deviled Eggs with “deeply roasted rye bread crumbs” and dill ($6) and Woodfired Oysters with chili garlic butter and fresh thyme ($9). My wife didn’t even order one of the eight entrees, going instead with the Woodfired French Onion Soup ($7) and later tacking on an order of the Crispy Brussels Sprouts ($10), served in a skillet with house bacon, caramelized shallots, salted caramel sauce and golden raisins. Those were great.
She gave the kitchen props for its way with vegetables, including the perfectly cooked broccolini, green beans and carrots on my son’s kids-menu plate of grilled chicken with buttered noodles ($8).
The atmosphere and the occasion made me decide to order the Steak & Fries ($28), which was a lovely filet with compound butter and seasoned-with-fresh-herbs hand-cut fries. We happily shared that, but the stark white rectangular plate could have used some more color — perhaps some of that broccolini — to look good enough to share on social media.
Next time, I’d like to try one of the pizzas -— probably the Potato (thinly sliced roasted Yukon golds, rosemary, provolone, pecorino, arugula, Champagne vinaigrette and garlic oil for $13) and/or the Charcuterie Plate ($18), which includes a house-made duck pastrami.
Did we get dessert? Of course: Chocolate Creme Brulee ($8) for the lady, the Fruit Cup ($3) for the boy, and flourless Chocolate Torte with coffee ice cream for me ($8) — all solid endings.
The special dinner was a win. The Pens, in the second period, were leading the Caps.
My team was full and sleepy, so I asked my wife if she wanted to go back to the hotel room.
She said, Yes.
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