One look at the beverage menu and it's clear the Belgian-inspired Point Brugge Cafe is a restaurant that doesn't take itself too seriously. The photo on the trifold cover is a frothy beer paired with a mascot that happens to be a Smurf, beer in hand.
In case you've forgotten, Smurfs are little blue characters that live in mushrooms, a fixture that Americans recognize from Saturday morning cartoons during the 1980s and are now part of a movie trilogy. Yet Smurfs are actually a Belgian import from a mid-20th century comic strip, a fact that's not lost on Point Brugge's owners, Jesse and Amy Seager as well as Ms. Seager's mother, Elaine Wolfe and Barry Silverman.
- Hours: Lunch, Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; tavern menu, daily 2 p.m.-close; dinner, Monday-Thursday 5-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5-11 p.m., Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., dinner 5-9 p.m.
- Basics: Point Brugge is a bustling neighborhood restaurant that draws a crowd for its handful of Belgian standards and terrific beer list.
- Recommended dishes: Moules et frites with classic white wine sauce; steak frites; fresh fish; braised lamb ragout..
- Prices: Platters: $13-$15; small plates $5-$12; mussels $12, $18; soup and salad $3.50-$16; sandwiches $9-$13; dinners $17-$29.
- Beer: $5 to $9 drafts, $5 to $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.
Like the cartoon, the restaurant delivers faded charm. On the ground floor in a house on a side street, Point Brugge resides in a narrow space with a wood-framed bar and sage-colored banquettes. Walk toward the back and up a few stairs for a table tucked in an alcove, framed by an exposed brick wall and outside light through stained glass windows.
As new restaurants sprint to open in East Liberty, Lawrenceville and Downtown, the 9-year-old Point Brugge still packs the house, even if the rustic fare is merely fine. Combined with warmth and competence, it pulls in regulars here and at sibling restaurant Park Bruges in Highland Park that opened in 2011.
A cold stretch doesn't keep diners away during several recent weekday lunches. And per usual, the restaurant garnered a 11/2-hour wait on a Saturday night. The restaurant does not take reservations.
"We can't help it that we have tables that are staying for a long time," said the Saturday night hostess who pointed out a group that lingered at a table for three hours. This generosity with time is a testament to the restaurant's hospitality, but it's also a reflection of servers who take orders as opposed to taking the reins by ushering diners through the meal and turning tables with finesse.
As customers waited, a lone bartender tended to their thirst. Now that a diverse craft beer list is nearly a restaurant requirement, Point Brugge isn't the beer lover's destination it once was. But what's available is compelling, particularly for malty Belgian brews such as the high-octane "dubbel," "tripel" and the less common "quadrupel" with bold rich flavors. Stylish Flemish sour beers, herbaceous saisons and Belgian wheat ales also hold their own along with a handful of local and regional brews. The wine list is less lively, a short list of food-friendly varietals.
Like the bar service, wait staff are informal and attentive. Over three visits, no server had written down an order, nor did one make mistakes beyond auctioning off plates among a table of six.
In comparably-sized cities, mussels and fries are ubiquitous, but the pair is not as popular in Pittsburgh. The favorite is the classic ($12, $18) with white wine, garlic and shallots. Here it is doctored with cream, which diners can and should order without. Diners can eat them as Belgians do and use an empty shell as pincers. This technique is a bit messy with the zesty tomato mussels dressed in parmesan, but it's more fun than a fork.
Regardless of how they're eaten, mussels nearly can't compete with the fries ($5). Here, they're especially addictive, sized between a stub and a shoestring, twice-fried and served with basil mayonnaise. There's no dusting with garlic, herb and lemon. There's no ketchup on the side. And they're terrific.
Other Belgian classics can be compelling, such as the hanger steak ($16) at lunch served perfectly pink, with an overdose of black pepper. This hefty portion arrives with diced fingerlings and a wisp of Brussels sprouts, a dish that, for better or worse, offers no surprises.
Waterzooi ($28), Belgian fish stew with lemon-rosemary wine sauce supports generous servings of scallops, shrimp, mussels and fish fillets. Served with crispy spun potatoes, it's a satiating dish.
But many entrees don't resonate. Cassoulet ($22) is difficult to get right and tastes like the crutch of breadcrumbs that don't belong. The result is an Americanized casserole rather than the French peasant dish that forms a starchy crust from beans slow-cooked in the proper vessel, laden with duck confit and sausage, spiked with bacon and tomatoes.
Butternut squash gnocchi ($18) looks like the kitchen sink of ingredients. Handmade pasta from Fede Pasta in North Huntingdon is sprinkled with crumbled goat cheese, a stringy mound of butternut squash and bright, crunchy broccolini stalks. Sauteed in brown butter and garnished with fried sage, this dish displays textures that don't complement each other.
Also on the dinner menu, the mustard-crusted salmon ($24) is plated like a fried arm, menacing with its thick crust. It's all the more prevalent against a sea of pale herbed risotto and a thread of greens lost on the plate. This fish is too heavy.
For dessert, stick to beer if the vanilla custard with pears ($7) is an indicator. Served cold and stiff, it's a lingering disappointment. A slice served during lunch wears a floret of whipped cream from a can, an earmark of not caring, or perhaps a push out the door. Coffee is also disappointing since drip is the only option.
Although the fare can be inconsistent, there's enough to hold interest at Point Brugge. When it comes to neighborhood restaurants, some diners take comfort in those as familiar as the refrain of an old song. Or in the case of Point Brugge, a Smurf.