Pittsburgh is buzzing: the biggest restaurant opening of the season has arrived. Poulet Bleu, a project by empire-building chef Richard DeShantz and his business partner Tolga Sevdik, opened its ground-floor dining room last week in what’s poised to be a much bigger restaurant, with a second floor, a roof deck, and an expansive outdoors all on track to open by spring.
Having debuted in Lawrenceville — a former working class stretch now replete with restaurants and boutiques — it’s the first of DeShantz’ restaurants to depart from a Downtown address. DeShantz, one of Pittsburgh’s most prolific restaurateurs, describes his portfolio as, on the one hand, watering holes where a customer can get drink and a bite for a $16 tab, or, on the other, a place to splurge on a 45-ounce rib-eye in the meat-and-potatoes for two for $75.
Following hits like gastropub Meat & Potatoes, whiskey-centric Butcher and the Rye, Asian-Mexican mash-up Tako, and barbecue destination Pork & Beans, Poulet Bleu — currently with just under 50 seats — departs from this formula. Named for the North American take on the famous blue-footed French bird from Bresse, Poulet Bleu features steak frites, pot au feu, and skate wing meuniere. This is classic French fare served in a candle-lit stunner of a space, with floral wallpaper accents and blue tiles. The kitchen, with its French blue Hestan range, seamlessly flows into the dining room in a design DeShantz and his brother Ron carried out — an example of his art-school education. DeShantz has designed every restaurant he’s opened, with this one less of a party, more refined, bathed in soft light.
DeShantz put together a menu along with the restaurant group’s executive chef, David Racicot; it will be carried out by chef de cuisine Ryan Hart. While DeShantz spots have earned the spotlight when it comes to bar programs, Racicot has been long-listed by the James Beard Foundation at least three times for his cooking. He is a fine-dining refugee who joined the group around 2015.
The breakout star of the menu is the French onion soup, upstaging starters like beef tartare, escargot, or even housemade potato chips and French onion dip dolloped with a quenelle of caviar. In this version of the soup, a pound of oxtail and onions anchors each serving, ladled with Cognac-laced veal stock that nearly touches the lip of the bowl. It’s finished with a slice of baguette, like a raft, topped with Emmental and Comte, with the whole thing then browned under a broiler.
At the table, the diner punctures a taut layer of cheese to unleash the perfume of broth, then spoons through the sodden slice for shredded oxtail and onions rendered sweet. DeShantz obsesses over presentation. “I hate when the cheese sinks a little,” he says. “That pisses me off.” And, of course, the soup has to be worthy of finishing, including the browned cheese that has overflowed the edges of the bowl.
At a small bar by the entrance, Cecil Usher, who’s been with DeShantz for six years, has put together a cocktail list of classics, including a vodka gimlet with lime cordial, St. Germain, and a dash of lavender bitters, as well as drinks like the French 75. Sommelier John Wabeck, a Washington, D.C. expat, says he’s put together a food-friendly, mostly French wine collection, with the goal of over-delivering for the price.
And while Wabeck might lead a diner to a Sauternes or Kirschwasser after dinner, desserts point to DeShantz’s past as a baker and pastry chef. Among the creme brulee, yuzu lemon curd pavlova, profiteroles, beignets, and clafoutis, the chocolate souffle is the early fan favorite: a pouf of chocolate for two, served with accompaniments like creme Anglaise and cherry compote.
The real estate, the food, and its moment of arrival — French restaurants, back in style nationwide — have shaped Poulet Bleu, which has the potential to attract that still-elusive Pittsburgh food traveller. But DeShantz didn’t want to open something that’s not approachable for locals. Rather than a “let’s go in there someday,” restaurant, he prefers those that inspire spontaneity, more of a “let’s go in there right now.” With seats packed and diners jockeying for reservations, his approach seems to be working.
• Poulet Bleu [Official site]