The mantra at Pittsburgh Blue is "bigger is better."
"We don't do 'tiny' very well here," said our server. No kidding.
Everything's plus-size at Pittsburgh Blue, the casual suburban cousin to downtowners Manny's Steakhouse and the Oceanaire Seafood Room -- starting with the sign just inside the door that limits occupancy to a mere 295 people, and carrying through to just about every plate coming out of the kitchen. Rare is the dish that doesn't invoke a startling double-take, as in, "No, I ordered [insert menu item here], not a meal for a family of six."
The ghost of Girarrosto Toscano seems to lurk in PB's vast parking lot. The short-lived restaurant was Parasole partner Phil Roberts' campy Tony Soprano-meets-Iron Range supper club steakhouse in Eden Prairie, and it was a rare Roberts bellyflop (I thought it was a hoot). So when the company refocused its attention on the 'burbs, it left nothing to chance. Girarrosto's clever, inside-baseball sass is definitely out. Pittsburgh Blue is as smooth and test-marketed as a Mitt Romney stump speech.
With more than a dozen choices, steak (far more affordable than Manny's, by the way) is the menu's centerpiece, and they're fine but rarely transcendent. The exceptions are the kitchen's signature, a massive bone-in New York strip, and an even larger rib-eye for two that accomplish everything that sizzling, carefully dry-aged hunks of beef should do, their brawny flavors boosted by salt, flame and a cook with a sixth sense. You know it when you taste it, it's that primal, and a béarnaise sauce, bacon slice, blue cheese crumble or other distracting embellishments aren't required to mask any weaknesses.
Maple Grove Mayor Mark Steffenson ought to hand over the keys to the city just for the oysters. Freshly shucked oysters at Interstate 94 and Hemlock? A miracle. Running counter to PB programming, the selection isn't huge, but they're perfect: briny, chilly, refreshing. Diminutive burgers, three to a serving, hit the spot, and a bowl of dough-wrapped cocktail weiners is nicely silly. A mango-curry chutney puts a lively spin on coconut-crusted deep-fried shrimp. The super-thick onion rings have a feisty peppery bite, and a rich béchamel and smoked gouda slap a grown-up finish on macaroni and cheese, hot from the oven (a trait the kitchen needs to concentrate on) in fancy Staub cast-iron gratins.
Seafood and fish are another focus, and I found that the simpler -- translation: brushed with olive oil and a squirt of lemon and broiled -- the better. Sticking to that motif, there's a terrific steak sandwich and burger. Skip the overwrought "stacked" burger and don't even think of ordering the dreadful pounded, bread-crusted pork tenderloin sandwich.
The crab cake is another disappointment. A big one. Sure, it's gigantic (surprise!), but it's more carbs than crab. For comparison, I dropped by the Oceanaire, and discovered there is no comparison; the latter's, beautifully browned and piping hot, just barely holds together under the weight of so much sweet, succulent crab. It's a peak Twin Cities dining experience, where the PB version is a wan wannabe. PB's shrimp cocktail rates, though, despite a dopey dry ice flourish; the shellfish are plump and snappy, and the cocktail sauce has a marvelous horseradish kick. Caesar, iceberg wedge and spinach salads are salad-bar huge, and while they bear a professional polish, they also fade into the background, fast.
Like all Parasole restaurants, service is a priority, and my encounters were mostly smooth and observant (the warm greet at the door is particularly noteworthy), minus a few glitches. On one visit I played dumb -- barely a stretch, trust me -- and inquired about the difference between a rib-eye and a filet. "It has something to do with marbling," was the reply. Sure, whatever.
The mammoth, meant-to-be-shared desserts are showstoppers in scale -- it's perceived value, cranked to the max -- but after a few towering layer cakes, a Tonka Truck-sized slab of cheesecake, a brownie that probably weighed in at 4 pounds, all forgettably bland, I longed for some substance, some ingenuity, behind the flash. And please, dear lord, a little restraint. Even something so simple as a bread pudding gets flattened by a high-octane slosh of Maker's Mark, turning the sole sensory experience into a boozy one. At least PB has the good sense to scoop Sebastian Joe's ice cream; it's the centerpiece of its best dessert, a $4 hot fudge sundae that's just exactly right.
On the day the doors opened in September, Pittsburgh Blue instantly became the neighborhood's best-looking restaurant. The bar -- vast, naturally -- is especially attractive, a long racetrack flanked by roomy booths and punctuated by handsome red-shaded lamps. (Don't permit anyone to steer you into the cramped overflow dining room; you'll feel like a kid who isn't quite old enough to rate a seat at the grown-ups' table.)
I never pulled into PB's parking lot without thinking that I was at the Mall of America on the day after Thanksgiving, that's how popular it is. Let's just say that if Parasole, which also runs many of the Twin Cities' top-grossing dining establishments (Figlio, Chino Latino, Salut Bar Americain) ever goes public, I'll elbow my way to the front of the line to buy shares; these smart folks have an uncanny ability to give the dining-out public exactly what it wants. Just look at PB's address: What better place for a Manny's Lite than amid Arbor Lakes' faux downtown? Their work is critic-proof, a trait this critic admires, enormously.