At Bridge Ten Brasserie, general manager David Cesaro wore a European-cut suit, urbane attire for the front of the house lead. The restaurant that opened in early July seems more of a khakis and polo kind of place, flanked by the Holiday Inn Express next door, the Oliver Bath House down the road and a warehouse across the street.
On a warm fall evening at the Tenth Street Bridge, the setting sun left threads of light against a darkened skyline. Mr. Cesaro shimmied a round table to the patio's center as a makeshift performance space. "You've ordered a lot of food," he said, revealing a French accent. "You'll need a larger table."
1 1/2 stars = Satisfactory+
20 S. 10th St.
- Hours: Monday, 4:30 to 11:30 p.m.; Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight.
- Basics: Offers a wide menu of casual French fare, an ambitious wine list and good values for students throughout the evening and visitors during happy hour.
- Recommended dishes: Daily specials, mussels mariniere, la soup du jour, rillettes de canard, steak tartare, steak frites, salad Nicoise, clafoutis.
- Drink: An interesting wine selection from $6 per glass to $100s by the bottle; an array of cocktails from $6 to $20; a short list of domestic and international beers from $6 to $15.
- Prices: Appetizers: $5 to $20; entrees $12-$30 (sometimes higher for market price); desserts $7 to $12.
- Summary: Wheelchair accessible; credit cards accepted; reservations encouraged for prime time; valet parking.
- Noise level: Low to medium loud.
Darting inside, Mr. Cesaro returned with a napkin-covered tray. Snapping the cloth corner, he unveiled an array of delights: Minced shallots. Chopped pickles. Worcestershire sauce. Olive oil. Capers. A raw egg, presented for its yolk. A dollop of Maille Dijon. A small dish of salt.
The finest ingredient arrived cold. Presented in a nesting bowl that clicked against ice, bright red ribeye made its entrance. Mr. Cesaro pushed up the sleeve of his jacket, lifted a pair of spoons and began his tableside performance. Deserving of full attention, this is the assembly of steak tartare.
Similar attention to detail arrives in the selection of wine, a cherry-picked list that includes crisp rose, a flinty sancerre, and a balanced burgundy. No surprise, considering: Bridge Ten Brasserie was conceived by Dave DeSimone, radio host for KQV and wine writer for more than 20 years.
"Wine should be a thing of pleasure," said Mr. DeSimone, citing how often he runs into folks intimidated by French varietals. Rather than overwhelming patrons, his edited selection will change often. He offers monthly tastings, framed by a regional approach to learning about grapes. "I don't judge wines according to numeric ratings," he said. "People respond to wines with stories." He cited the 2010 Capucine Les Ollieux, named for the vintner's daughter.
Though wines led him to French cuisine, there's little snobby about Mr. DeSimone's restaurant. "We wanted to open a restaurant of high quality, value and fun," he said. "French is a real niche. This should work in Pittsburgh."
French restaurants aren't new here, of course. And neither is the brasserie, the more gregarious sibling to the modest neighborhood bistro. Named after the French word for brewery, a brasserie is the lively gathering place where the menu offers dishes to please many cravings.
In the meantime, formal French stalwarts such as Le Pommier that closed in January 2011 have become dark stars of dining. Reborn as creperies and cafes, bistros and brasseries, modern French restaurants on these shores offer the spirit, if not the letter of the country's cuisine.
Such is the case at Bridge Ten Brasserie, a sleepy corner's oasis on the South Side, where its potential appeal is at times a flaw. In an attempt to be all things to everyone -- foodists, wine geeks, hotel guests and students -- the restaurant casts a net too wide.
It's the food that can suffer. Grouper en papillote ($27) -- a parchment pouch -- garnished with thyme unwraps a dry fillet, craving citrus. A serving of French lentils sits chalky, missing a demi-glace sheen. A bouillabaisse bowl ($32) displays head-on prawn, a giant scallop, PEI mussels and clams that breathe steam. Yet the saffron tomato broth lacks harmony and brightness. "I thought I'd be soaking it up with bread," said a fellow diner, "but it's not quite right."
Stick to simple gems for now. A classic bowl of mussels ($12) with white wine, shallots and garlic quells a craving. Petite gougeres ($6) arrive piping hot, cheese-laced rounds of choux pastry. The daily soup ($5) offers velvety cream of in-season leeks. A cheese board preens Comte, semi-soft Morbier and tangy Bleu d' Auvergne ($15).
Though the cooking is uneven, the selection is admirably ambitious, culled from Mr. DeSimone's sojourns around France. It includes not one but several variations on mussels and frites and a dozen little plates (of hearty portion sizes). Bone marrow occasionally makes an appearance. Duck rillettes ($12) store decadent duck fat for toasted baguette rounds. Coq au Vin ($20) and steak frites ($25) make the list of larger plates, which also includes sandwiches and pizzas.
Desserts are house made. The bread pudding meets custard of the fruit-filled clafoutis ($6) is a favorite, though crepes Suzette ($12) lit afire offers drama.
A pre-opening trip to Paris with executive chef Shawn Carlson shaped the menu. Mr. Carlson, who served in the 101st Airborne in Haiti and Somalia, had never been to France. "There's nothing like being there," said Mr. DeSimone.
He attempts to bring Paris to Pittsburgh in the dining room with flourishes of a classic brasserie that include oversized mirrors, rehabbed wood floors, wainscot walls and photos from France.
Among this 60-seat dining area, 30-seat bar and 40-seat patio, Mr. DeSimone emphasized the view of the Tenth Street Bridge. Framed by a wall of plate glass indoors, it's more of a neighborhood vista than Station Square or Mount Washington.
And yet, like the bouillabaisse, the space at Bridge Ten Brasserie hasn't come together. Whether it's easy-listening tunes that don't resonate or the expansive interior that craves a crowd, Bridge Ten Brasserie needs a few adjustments.
As the crew gets its stride in the interim, there's the Drunken Goat, a 5 to 7 p.m. happy hour menu with drink and dish discounts that include piquillo peppers stuffed with goat cheese and shrimp or thin-crust pizza with goat cheese and watercress, each for $7. Students can be lured by all-night price breaks with the Menu Etudiant, a changing selection of items under $10.
Otherwise, solid service and stand-out wines mellow discontent of an inconsistent performance. The ringer, of course, is the steak tartare, for which the ingredients, accoutrements and tableside show translate to a stand-alone scene that's worth the trip.
Correction/Clarification: (Published September 14, 2012) Thursday's review of Bridge Ten Brasserie gave the incorrect name of its executive chef, Shawn Carlson.
Melissa McCart: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @melissamccart.