French influences differentiate Park Bruges from its older sibling, Point Brugge
April 14, 2011 4:00 AM
Pam Panchak / Post-Gazette
Gerber Farms Roasted Half Chicken served with a pan sauce, Bruges frites and sauteed vegetables, along with a house salad tossed with champagne vinaigrette prepared by Chef Kevin Hunninen at the newly opened Park Bruges in Highland Park.
By China Millman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Neighborhood restaurants are precious establishments. Comfortable, unpretentious and affordable, they welcome spontaneous visits, but can just as easily stretch into a celebration. Living within walking distance of such a place is the holy grail of many a city-dweller.
Point Brugge, the Belgian-inspired bistro in Point Breeze, has long defined that category in Pittsburgh. Now, after several years of delays, sister restaurant Park Bruges has settled into a corner storefront in the Bryant Street business district of Highland Park.
Park Bruges is larger than its older sibling, and slightly more elegant, with dark wooden floors, gray walls and gracefully curving pendant lamps that cast a warm glow throughout the room and onto the street.
Basics: A handsome new addition to Highland Park, this French-inflected, American bistro rounds out well-prepared dishes with a great beer list.
Prices: Small plates, $5-$15; soup and salad, $3.50-$15; dinners, $16-$26; sandwiches, $8-$11; desserts, $7.
Drink: The beer-focused restaurant has five rotating taps; more than two dozen bottled Belgian beers and two dozen more additional beers, all divided by style, $3.50-$11; small but diverse wine list and a half-dozen house cocktails also available.
Summary: Wheelchair accessible; credit cards accepted; reservations accepted only at lunch and only for parties of 5 or more; corkage, $10.
Noise level: medium-loud.
As at Point Brugge, Belgian beers are well-represented, but Park Bruges offers a wider variety of beer styles, including a great selection of large-format bottles. There's also a slightly expanded wine list and a nice assortment of cocktails. Try the Rte. 8 Mule, icy cool in its metal cup, spicy ginger beer perfectly balanced by a measure of vodka ($9).
The food menus share some superficial similarities, but Park Bruges' incorporates new dishes and dispenses with others. Executive chef Kevin Hunninen, previously at Point Brugge, is now running the Highland Park kitchen, while his former sous chef, James McCaslin, has taken over in Point Breeze. Point Brugge emphasizes the Flemish side of Belgian food, while Park Bruges has more of a French influence, hence the different spelling of the names, Mr. Hunninen said.
Many of the best dishes were comfort food in the French style, hearty and savory, but no slave to cliches. Flemish four onion soup, Mr. Hunninen's take on French onion, both embodies and outdoes the classic. Apple and fennel enhanced the sweetness of the onions, while Flemish ale added a refreshing bite. A thin layer of croutons soaked into the soup, leaving the gruyere lid delectably chewy ($6.50).
Braised meats were fork tender and served in plenty of sauce, like boneless short ribs richly flavored by red wine ($23). This dish was classically, casually French, the meat complemented by long strips of zucchini, petite carrots, pearl onions and fingerling potatoes, all soaking up the dark sauce redolent of meat and wine.
A small, fat filet of Clare Island organic salmon was plopped onto a bed of soft, brown lentils, bright red pepper coulis and a pile of arugula, ever so gently wilted by the heat. The salmon was a touch overcooked, but the moisture of the vegetables kept it from drying out ($21).
A small, plump roast chicken, a breast and a leg to each order, was burnished to a golden brown, while the meat stayed impressively moist. Thin, well-browned frites were scattered across the plate, some soaked in sauce, others crisp ($18).
Fries by the forkful are offered up as a house specialty -- poutine, a popular street food found throughout Montreal. The traditional version layers well-browned fries, gravy and fresh cheese curds. An early version was tasty, but disappointingly tidy ($8). A more recent visit, however, produced a better result. They'd switched to a local supplier of cheese curds (Cannonball curds from the Arsenal Cheese House), which resulted in a superior mess of curds, gravy and fries. It was additionally improved by the bolder flavors of chipotle pulled pork, chopped scallions and cilantro, and a generous sprinkling of black pepper ($10).
As at Point Brugge, frites also grace large bowls of steamed mussels. Here they're served with white wine, shallots and herbed beurre blanc or with andouille sausage, peppers, onions, celery and crumbled blue cheese. The cheese added a slightly odd funkiness to the latter sauce ($17).
Small plates showcase a wider variety of influences. Crab beignets are a must-order; I wish these were as ubiquitous as crab cakes. Well-browned dumplings with crisp edges gave way to moist, slightly spicy crab meat, flavorful enough to eat on their own, but all the better dipped in charred tomato remoulade ($10).
Rich dishes are nicely balanced by lighter fare, like a duo of baba ghanoush and roasted red pepper and walnut spread, served with vegetable crudite, crackers and multigrain crisps. The red pepper spread was enriched by oily walnuts and had a pleasant tang from pomegranate molasses. Unfortunately, cut up carrots, celery and green pepper were showing their age, their edges turning brown ($9.50).
Halibut was served over a Moroccan potato-pepper ragout with sauteed spinach ($26). The savory sauce was a good match for sweet, meaty halibut, but it tasted a little unfinished. A similar ragout on the brunch menu was served with Merguez sausage and baked eggs. The sausage added a richness that balanced out the assertive, almost astringent flavors of the peppers ($13).
Bistro menus tend to be aseasonal with little ill effect, but I expect a ratatouille pasta might improve once eggplant and summer squash are a bit perkier ($16). The plate of farfalle was filling, but a drab vegetarian option from a chef that generally pays good attention to this category. Homey, cheddar-drenched mac and cheese ($8.50) and a satisfying veggie burger, topped with poblano peppers and more cheddar ($9) were both solid choices.
The dessert list turns once more to France with a fresh fruit tarte, profiteroles (cream puffs) with hazelnut ice cream and chocolate sauce and an apple tarte tatin ($7). The last was the best, a thin, tender pastry crust topped with roasted apples in a golden caramel glaze.
If you'd like to linger, you ought to order something. At any reasonable time of day or night, odds are, someone will want your table.