Point Brugge Cafe

Retro Hip

Point Brugge Cafe
401 Hastings St.,
Point Breeze

Open Tues.-Thurs. 11 am-10 pm; Fri-Sat. 11 am-11 pm; Sun. noon-9 pm
Appetizers $4-$9.50
Salads $4.50-$12.50
Entrees $12-$22
Desserts $6.50
Bar, nonsmoking building
Not wheelchair accessible

The snow was beginning to pile up the day Liam DePaor trudged in through the front door of the corner tavern. Weathered and rosy, he untangled his son Colin from a tiny sled and plopped him onto a barstool.

I poured Liam a draught and thrilled little Colin with a cherry in his Coke. As the light faded and the snow glistened, we talked of Ireland, moaned about cranky weather and pondered the ubiquitous plights of the human condition. Colin entertained himself with a paper road I had constructed for his Matchbox car. From that day on, the Irishman with a dry wit and impeccable manners became a fellow pilgrim and friend for life.

Neighborhood bars, once cavernous and foggy with smoke, were also merry, spiritual places where companionship was a priority. These days in Pittsburgh, new incarnations popping up on the social landscape embody the neighborhood-bar evolution that is positively thriving: airy and smoke-free atmospheres with muted palettes and finely calibrated menus, some in the league of Alice Waters’ legendary Chez Parnisse restaurant.

Point Brugge Café (previously called The Point), in the heart of Point Breeze – an urban neighborhood with a village tempo – is a highly evolved species. With superb old bones, a great corner location and a frontage of movable windows designed to blur external and internal environments, Brugge blends the best from both the old and the new.

Camaraderie is thick. No one blinked when a young father ambled in for takeout trailed by two rambunctious children getting extended mileage from their Halloween costumes, poking their flashlights at us like junior detectives reveling in the excitement of a deferred curfew.

Owner Jesse Seager calls the venture a "family project" that includes wife Amy and her parents, Barry Silverman and Elaine Wolfe. Two years ago, when they saw the spot for sale, they thought "great neighborhood, great location, great building, great nostalgia" and wondered what they could do to complement this little corner of the planet. It was a prime spot for a Euro-café transplant, which Seager defines succinctly: "Outdoor seating, small atmosphere, good coffee, good beer, good wine, small menu, fresh ingredients, friendly neighborhood." Perfect for reading the newspaper without anyone staring you down and "affordable office space for a fledgling musician," says my husband, Brad, a drummer who conducted business out of Isaly’s during the golden age of jazz-fusion.

Our first visit was on a blustery Saturday night. A line of backlogged diners snaked through the tiny bar out onto the sidewalk. "Forty-five minute wait," someone called out. Those unwilling to pay the queuing costs made a brusque about-face. Some of the hearty piled out onto the sidewalk beneath a mushroom-shaped gas heater resembling a giant smudge-pot, emitting a tiny pocket of warmth. One enterprising couple mitigated boredom with a jocular offer to buy our spot in line. Playing along, we teased, "Dinner? We’re in the line for tomorrow’s brunch." Good stories and Hoegaarden ale melted the minutes.

Between tales, we appreciated Brugge’s architectural details: A frog mascot dutifully guards the entrance; inside, eye-catching wood flooring offers contrasting patinas, and intriguing Haitian artwork (for sale) infuses cross-cultural currents and color into the sanctuary. Bowls of steaming moules (French for mussels) have strangers wondering: How far to the bay?

"You can’t talk wine without talking about France, and you can’t talk beer without talking about Belgium," says Seager, a self-described beer fanatic. The house regularly rotates four taps and 60 to 70 handpicked, bottled Belgium beers. "We think beer and Pittsburgh go well together," he says. Every brew we tasted was excellent. "People don’t realize that beer pairs better than wine with food," swears Seager, explaining that the carbonation factor adds one more layer of complexity to the beverage. "Besides, you can buy the best beer on the planet for $5 to $10 and you’re getting truly the best."

Congruent with the café-bistro concept, Brugge’s food has a light, creative take with a few exceptions. Twice-cooked Belgian frites (french fries) is one – like trying to eat just one potato chip, extra crunchy, served with basil mayonnaise. Pittsburghers don’t like to think that anyone can top Oakland’s famed "O" (also known as Essie’s Original Hot Dog Shop) for fries, but there’s ketchup ready if you’re considering a duel.

Prince Edward Island mussels exit the kitchen so frequently that they make excellent bar bait. They’re also woven throughout the menu, and we half expected to see them for dessert. The minute we made it to our table, we ordered a "small plate" (1 pound) of classically prepared mussels steamed with white wine, shallots, garlic and cream. Knee-buckling! Two exotic versions are offered if you’re experimenting: steamed with Thai red curry, coconut cream, cilantro and lime juice; or, zesty tomato broth finished with salsa fresca. Entree bowls are as big as evolution. The grazing continued: golden shrimp and scallop cakes with chipotle mayonnaise made with fresh squeezed orange juice; a European macaroni gratin with gruyere and cheddar; seared mango and tofu in a ginger-brandy and brown-sugar reduction. Vegetarian offerings are often token dishes in nonvegetarian restaurants, but someone thought about these dishes.

Entree choices include a Provençal-interpreted tilapia, lightly floured and pan-seared, as delicious as it is healthy when accompanied with tomatoes, garlic and the right attitude according to health guru Dr. Andrew Weil in his book Healthy Aging. Mustard-crusted salmon is equally virtuous with French Dijon mustard and cream sauce. Even the classic Flemish stew, carbonnade à la flammande, cooked long and slow, produces a sublime broth with fork-tender beef marinated in Belgian brown ale. Dried apricots, cherries, caramelized onions and rosemary soften the attitude.

Soup, a great synthesizer during a cold, dark month, changes daily. We like the way gorgonzola mixes with pilsner for a slight edge in the beer and cheese soup, and the butternut-squash bisque with nutmeg and a dollop of crème fraîche is another hit. Just as they are on every café menu board in Brussels, steak and frites and linguine Bolognese (Elaine’s recipe) are kindred spirits among proletariat and bourgeoisie alike.

Don’t leave without dessert. As word of mouth in Pittsburgh is a potent form of communication, you have probably heard the buzz: Susie Treon (retired executive chef, Café at the Frick) is making Brugge’s desserts. If you’ve not indulged in Treon’s ethereal delicacies, choices such as the flourless Belgium chocolate mousse cake and the orange almond tart capture the essence of each season without ravaging you with sugar.

Years ago I worked in a scruffy tavern with squeaky floors and two-fisted regulars. My kids ran in the back door after school, and my dog routinely hid under the pinball machine. It was a diverse scene, full of colorful characters. It’s not exactly like that today. It’s been replaced by hip, Brugge-like bistros with chefs, lots of windows and lodestar menus. Yet constants remain: You can always borrow an umbrella, and you never know when you’ll make a friend for life. With that, I raise a frosty (New Year’s) glass to Brugge and to my late, sorely missed friend, Liam DePaor, who would guffaw and point out that the company counts as much as the porridge. I agree.

Categories: Restaurant Reviews