Point Brugge has what every restaurants wants: A crowd of steady customers. Diners are often lining up to get in before the restaurant is even open. So what is it about this neighborhood restaurant that has helped it succeed so resoundingly, especially during a time when so many restaurants are simply stumbling on?
The location certainly doesn't hurt -- Point Brugge is in the heart of residential Point Breeze, with very few competing restaurants and no competing liquor licenses in the immediate vicinity. But while many diners live in the neighborhood, just as many don't.
Point Brugge prepares the kind of straightforward, flavorful food that demands merely an appetite -- no dress shoes or culinary dictionaries necessary. A combination of American and European flavors makes this restaurant both homey and out-of-the ordinary. The focus on Belgian beer helps cement this restaurant in diners' minds as a "Belgian bistro," and the Belgian dishes are the highlight of the menu.
Moules, or mussels, are available in a generous appetizer portion (about one pound, $11) or in a larger size with frites (one and a half pounds, $17) and they're fantastic -- perfectly cleaned and cooked, moist and plump and bursting with flavor. Rather than serving the mussels swimming in broth, like a soup, here the mussels are the focus and are almost dressed in a choice of sauces. The classic white wine sauce was delicious, with just enough cream to add some richness, but not enough to dampen the bright flavors of the shallots and garlic.
2 stars = Very good
401 Hastings St.
- Hours: Tuesday-Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-11 p.m. (kitchen closes at 10 p.m.); Sunday (brunch, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.) 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; closed Monday closed.
- Basics: A neighborhood bistro with Belgian and other European influences; reasonable prices, generous portions and an excellent beer list.
- Recommended dishes: Cheese board with grilled sausage; moules frites with classic white wine sauce; mango and tofu; steak frites; mustard-crusted salmon; carbonnade flamande; chicken milanese.
- Prices: Shared appetizers $12-$14; appetizers $3.50-$11; entrees $7-$26; desserts $6.50.
- Beer: More than two dozen beers in theBelgian style, by the glass, $5-$10. More than two dozen other by-the-glass options, including seasonal beers, $3.50-$7.50; more than a dozen large-format beers, $13-$20.
- Summary: Not wheelchair accessible; street parking can be difficult to find; credit cards accepted; no reservations, waits can be long and large groups should probably look elsewhere; corkage, $10.
- Noise level: Medium-loud to very loud.
And as for the frites, or fries, served here with basil mayonnaise in the Belgian style, words simply fail me. One could write poems about these fries. Cut thin so that the crispy edges dominate, they are absolutely addictive and worth every single empty calorie. They play an instrumental role in the steak frites ($24), which pairs them with a juicy New York Strip steak, and they can be ordered as a side dish ($5). However they wind up on your table, you want them there.
Frites also accompany the carbonnade flamande ($19), but here they're merely a grace note. A traditional Belgian stew of beef braised in brown ale with onions, apricots, cherries and rosemary, it would have benefited from another hour of braising and a more generous hand with the salt, but it was still a lovely choice for a winter evening. A pile of thinly sliced, light-cooked carrot and parsnip coins piled in the center of the stew provided some textural and flavor contrast.
Seafood waterzooi gets points for not being called bouillabaisse or cioppino, but it isn't actually waterzooi, which is technically made from freshwater fish and eel and finished with butter, creme fraiche and sometimes thickened with bread crumbs. Why can't fish stew just be called fish stew? This was a good, if not great, fish stew. The tomato-based broth was delicious and a gigantic piece of salmon was perfectly cooked, with great flavor. The scallops, however, were sandy and the shrimp and mussels were overcooked.
The Belgian-style dishes attract more attention, but there's no reason to neglect the more American components of the menu. The pair of small crab cakes ($10) were delicious, balancing a great crust with a moist interior. The roasted tomato and spinach dip ($9) is served with crostini and celery sticks, and if you eat it with the celery sticks you not only get a fabulous temperature and texture contrast, you can also pretend it's healthy. Piave cheese, an Italian cow's milk cheese, shares some flavors with Parmigiano-Reggiano and enhances the rich, full taste of this dip.
Chicken Milanese ($16) was fantastically crispy and a dish that can seem heavy; here it was effectively lightened by piquant accompaniments including arugula salad dressed in lemon juice and olive oil, and slightly briny hearts of palm and artichoke hearts. If the chicken hadn't been so underseasoned, this dish would have been the surprise hit of the meal. Instead, that title goes to the mango tofu ($8.50), which is certainly the odd dish out on the menu. Between the mango and the ginger-brandy sauce, sweet flavors dominate this dish, butthe ginger flavors were pleasantly intense. Cooking tofu well is quite challenging, and frying is a very good choice, giving the tofu a crunchy exterior and silky interior
Servings are generous enough that many probably opt to skip dessert, and that's not a bad choice, especially if you order an "after-dinner" beer instead. The best dessert I tried was the vanilla custard tart with poached pears ($6.50), but the custard was so sweet that it overwhelmed the flavor of the pear. A warm sauce would have enhanced this plate more than the pile of cold whipped cream.
People would probably fill Point Brugge just for the food, but it's the combination of the food, the atmosphere, the beer list and the prices that lead to almost constant, lengthy waits. The setting and service emphasize the casual nature of this restaurant. It's comfortable, but not exactly cushy. Sit in a booth, if you can, as tables are packed more closely together than in the average Pittsburgh restaurant, some of them are quite small, and the room can get quite noisy.
Service is quick and informal, but the servers also know the menu and the beer list better than many of the servers at fine dining restaurants. The beer list is one of the best in Pittsburgh, with enough variety that there's always something interesting to try. The wine list is less impressive, but still credible for a restaurant with a focus on beer, and the cocktail list includes a nice assortment of classics. The coffee ($2, Prestogeorge) was over-roasted and one-note, which is too bad, since there is a rich tradition of coffee-drinking in Belgium. But maybe that's on purpose. After all, if every table lingered over coffee, I might never get a seat.
Restaurant critic China Millman can be reached at 412-263-1198 or firstname.lastname@example.org .