For decades, French restaurants dominated the American restaurant scene. Then, Italian took over along with an array of ethnic options from around the globe. Today, Pittsburgh has relatively few French restaurants, just one or two upscale options and a handful of creperies and cafes.
With Brasserie 33 (say it as the French would, "trente-trois"), Omar Mediouini wanted to offer a middle ground -- a casual restaurant with delicious, traditional dishes, the ones people think of when they think of France.
5863 Ellsworth Ave.
- Hours: Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.
- Basics: Chef de cuisine Jeremy Hickey prepares classic, casual French fare in sight of the charming, bustling dining room.
- Recommended dishes: Salad Lyonaisse, endive and beet salad, onion soup, sweetbreads, trout amandine, coq au vin, eclair, raspberry tart, paris-brest
- Prices: Appetizers, $7-$14.50; entrees, $13-$28; desserts, $7-$8.
- Drinks: A short but frequently changing list of red and white French wines, starting at $40 per bottle and $12 per glass; bottled beer (expect draft beer in the near feature); full bar.
- Summary: Wheelchair-accessible; credit cards accepted; reservations encouraged for prime times; corkage, call to inquire.
- Noise level: Low to medium loud.
"The big difference between a bistro and brasserie is a brasserie is more seafood and steak," said Mr. Mediouini, who also owns the Spanish and Moroccan restaurant La Casa just up Ellsworth Avenue from Brasserie 33, both in Shadyside. Along with onion soup and salad de chevre chaud, the Brasserie 33 menu offers steak frites and a number of daily seafood specials, such as bouillabaisse and truite (trout) amandine.
The long, narrow space isn't ideal for a restaurant, but it's well-suited to its newest occupant. Tables line the long front window, presenting a charming view to the street. A large chalkboard menu displays daily specials such as coq au vin and cassoulet. General manager David Cesaro helped set the scene as well, with his French accent and a briskness typical of French service. Mr. Cesaro took an active roll in the dining room, taking some orders, frequently checking on tables and almost always overseeing wine selection.
The all-French list has flavorful, food-friendly pairings, and Mr. Cesaro is both knowledgeable and enthusiastic, often offering tastes of recommended wines before we committed to a bottle. But the list itself -- short, opaque and expensive -- is somewhat unwelcoming. At a restaurant where most entrees are in the low $20s, I would expect at least a few bottles of wine for less than $40.
Once the wine list was conquered (one of those moments when I was extra conscious of my expense account), the meals themselves were, for the most part, pleasing.
The number and variety of appetizers were impressive, as was the dedication to authentically French flavors and preparations. You might start with a salad Lyonaisse, a lovely contrast between crisp, sturdy frisee and a warm poached egg with crisp bacon lardons ($9). Endive, roasted beets and walnuts, blanketed in a Roquefort dressing, were a tantalizing mix of crunchy-bitter and creamy-salty flavors ($8.50).
Roquefort played a quieter, gentler role in a savory flan, a delicate wedge of gently cooked eggs and cream with a light, smooth texture ($8).
A robust onion soup, ubiquitous on Pittsburgh menus and so often disappointing, was exactly as it should be: the intensely flavored broth buried beneath layers of toasted baguette and a pungent sheet of melted gruyere, crispy at the edges ($7).
Dishes that some restaurants would consider too difficult to sell round out this menu nicely, such as sweetbreads enrobed in a delicate mushroom sauce, emphasizing their mild, earthy flavors ($12). There are escargot and rabbit rillettes (although they were out of the latter when we wanted to try it).
Among the seafood selections, raw oysters, crab legs and cold poached shrimp are available individually ($12.50, $11.50, $10.50), but the platter, which includes four of each served with a tangy mignonette and a spicy, mustard-inflected aioli, is an excellent deal ($18).
Consistency is a concern. The shell-on shrimp (neatly deveined) were wonderfully sweet on one visit, but oddly flavorless on another, as if they had been poached in plain water.
The crab legs, sampled only once, also were delicious, and fun to tear into. It would be nice if servers could provide larger plates for the shells, and perhaps damp cloths after the detritus is cleared.
Service was generally strong, but marred by moments of obliviousness, such as when steak knives were handed out to the entire table because they had run out of butter knives (not a useful utensil for a salmon fillet) or when a server knocked over an oyster, unconcerned as its flavorful liquor spilled onto the plate. It was, however, extraordinarily pleasant to hear so many French names and phrases beautifully pronounced, even by non-native speakers.
French standards ruled the entree menu as well, generally to its benefit. A giant bowl of coq au vin was redolent of red wine and rich broth, bone and skin lending even white meat extra flavor and moisture, while the slowly braised leg was meltingly tender ($22).
A butterflied trout amandine, held together by the crisp skin, was moist beneath its buttery coat and a generous handful of toasted almonds ($22). Crisply cooked green beans and asparagus and a small timbale of rice rounded out the plate, a neutral reminder that seasonality isn't a primary influence on this menu.
Half a roast duck with a tart sauce of cassis (blackcurrant liqueur) was served with a thick square of potatoes au gratin and a surprisingly flavorful roasted tomato, filled with chopped zucchini, onion and toasted bread crumbs. Roasting a duck is no easy task, and as often happens, the dark meat was tender and flavorful, but the breast was still somewhat tough beneath a coating of chewy skin and a layer of unrendered fat ($25). Still, with half a duck per portion, there was more than enough meat to satisfy.
Moules frites are another popular dish on Pittsburgh restaurant menus, and Brasserie 33's version may not be the best, but it is far from the worst ($13). The mussels themselves were clean and plump, but the broth (Provencal in our case) was a bit mild, the garlic plain to see but not so much to taste. The best part was the large bowl of excellent fries, which were crispy and creamy and tasted of potato rather than just oil.
The frites also accompany the half-roast chicken, which I didn't try, and the New York strip steak, which I did. The French cut up their beef very differently than Americans, so a certain amount of flexibility is required, but why not choose a less expensive, more flavorful option, such as a skirt or hanger steak, which would more closely resemble the authentic steak frites experience?
A thick spread of garlic and parsley butter gave the steak a helpful flavor boost, but we still ran out of fries before we ran out of meat ($21).
Mr. Mediouini did track down a delicious, crusty baguette, not such an easy thing to find in Pittsburgh. The bread, as well as most of the desserts, come from the Lawrenceville bakery La Gourmandine. Don't miss the superb eclair, filled with chocolate pastry cream and topped with a dark chocolate glaze, or the wonderful Paris-Brest, a ring-shaped pastry filled with hazelnut cream.
All in all, a dinner at Brasserie 33 is a lovely reminder of the rich and varied cuisine that was the bedrock of American dining and still very much merits our attention.