Eleven turns 10

Written by Gretchen McKay on

A sampling of dishes served at Eleven's 10th anniversary dinner, clockwise from top left: Roasted Chicken with Grilled Escarole and Risotto; House-made Prosciutto with Rhubarb, Candied Shallot and Nasturtium; Three Sisters Farm Mesclun with Brioche and Chicken Rillettes; and Herbed Pappardelle with Morels, Summer Truffle and Riverview Farms Chevre.

Eleven Contemporary Kitchen turned 10 yesterday, and to celebrate, big Burrito Restaurant Group threw itself a big party. 

Instead of cake and balloons, or a complimentary glass of Champagne at the start of a meal,  the Strip District restaurant marked the day by giving back to the community.11 menu
11 chefMore than 200 diners made reservations for Executive Chef Derek Stevens' anniversary dinner, served as a tasting menu with four courses, each of which came paired with a different wine. (Five if you count the amuse bouche that preceded the first dish.) For lovers of good food, the meal was a reward in itself. But here's the twist: big Burrito donated all proceeds from the sold-out event to charity.

Guests, who paid $150 per plate, got to choose which organization they wanted their money to go to from a list of more than 50 pre-approved, locally operated or based nonprofits. All told, they raised more than $50,000 for groups such as Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, Bethlehem Haven and Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force. 

As top dog of one of the city's most heralded restaurants, Chef Stevens -- sporting a newly shaved head  --  has attracted a faithful following over the years. Last night's menu was a perfect example of why.

Diners could choose from three tasting menus, including vegetarian. 11 prosciutto

When he was writing the menu a few weeks ago, said Chef Stevens, he knew he had to include a few favorite dishes served over the years along with a few new ones. 

That of course meant making room for its much-loved roasted chicken with grilled escarole and Eleven's house-made hams, which have been hanging and curing since August 2012. Offered as a first course, the thinly sliced prosciutto was served with rhubarb, artichoke, dried raspberry, candied shallot and nasturtium. 

Other choices included herbed Fede pappardelle tossed with morels, dusk ham, peas and River View Dairy chevre; grass-fed strip steak paired with porcini, green tomato and balsamic sabayon; and wild Alaskan halibut in a delicious pool of ramp broth, topped with asparagus tempura that looked kinda, sorta like a big (but very delicious) daddy long legs spider. 

For the gourmands in the crowd, thy served, during pre-service with staff, crispy veal sweetbreads that the chef jokingly referred to as "really good McNuggets." Gently poached, breaded and deep-fried, they were served atop lobster risotto dotted with English peas.11 veg

In addition to the pasta, pickled green strawberry soup (which actually was pink), Carolina Gold rice arancini (fried rice balls)  and raw porcini and artichoke salad comprised the vegetarian options. 11  chicken

Desserts included a blueberry tart stuffed with lime curd and cheesecake; a "hazelnut candy bar" of chocolate-olive-oil cake, hazelnut brittle, hazelnut praline and malted-milk ice cream; and a blood-orange ice-cream sandwich. 

In reflecting on his decade in service, Chef Stevens didn't mince words. 

"I have a love-hate relationship with this job, but I'm still proud of where I am," he said. "We've had so many ups and downs over the years, but I love where the restaurant is right now."

He knows it's unusual for a chef in his position to stay in one place for 10 years. "But big Burrito has given me a lot of support," he said. "I get a lot of freedom to do what I want to do. They stay out of my hair." That hands-off attitude has resulted in three 4-star reviews over the years for big Burrito CEO Cary Klein, who was unable to attend last night's event because of another celebration -- his mother-in-law's 80th birthday in Chicago. 

11 fishThe dinner was especially bittersweet for banquet manager (and familiar face) Ron Ausnehmer. One of just two original hires still on the job (with Chef Stevens), he retired today. He was toasted before service by the staff with plastic cups of Budweiser. 

"It's been a great ride, but it's time for me to move on," he said, adding, "I've worked in the best restaurant in the city. Where is there to go?"11 speech

11 dessert 1Apparently there's no rest for the weary: Tomorrow, with too-little sleep under his belt, Chef Stevens will compete in the North Face Endurance Challange in Washington, D.C.  The 50-mile ultra marathon, which starts and ends in Algonkian Park, including tip-toeing and rock-stepping along buffs high above the Potomac River in Great Falls Park.

"I know, I'm crazy," he said with a laugh. Like a fox.

Gretchen McKay photos

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