Let's talk about downtown Point Breeze: This is something we've never been able to do with a straight face, since to call this tiny cluster of shops on Reynolds Avenue a "downtown" seems comically grandiose. However, on our last visit, when we stopped to dine at the new Point Brugge Café, we realized that maybe what makes downtown Point Breeze a true downtown is something unrelated to its size or the regional relevance of its retail.
As we waited among a standing-room-only crowd for a table (we highly recommend reservations, even on a weeknight), we witnessed the gathering of a tight-knit community. It seemed that every other patron knew each other, and soon we were drawn into the friendly chatter; the atmosphere was one of a neighborhood house party, albeit the type with wine tastings rather than back-porch beer kegs. Not that there isn't plenty of beer here. The restaurant's owners, Jesse and Amy Seager, are connoisseurs of Belgian ale and were inspired to open the café on a beer-tasting trip to Belgium. It's easy to meet and chat with the Seagers, as they also serve as hosts and waiters.
Intimate and candlelit, Point Brugge's space has housed a number of prior restaurants, none of which had half the ambiance of the current occupant. Blond- and cherry-colored woods build up a pleasing blend of modern minimalism and traditional warmth. The bar is a natural focal point, with booths and mosaic-topped café tables nearby. The night we were there, floor-to-ceiling storefront windows enhanced the sense of coziness by providing views of the snow-blown night outside; in more clement weather, these windows can open to let balmy outside air in.
The menu reflects a concerted effort to translate the European neighborhood café -- warm, welcoming, unpretentious yet delicious -- to Pittsburgh. Inevitably, bits of Asian fusion have crept into dishes such as satay-style chicken and seared mango tofu, but for the most part, the selections are classic Low Country fare: carbonnade, a Belgian beef roast stewed with beer; Genevere chicken, braised in the original Dutch gin; and Italian influences in risotto, sausage and polenta.
We started with the quintessential European café plate, the cheese board. Point Brugge's includes a mild cheddar, dry without being sharp; chunks of very fresh mozzarella tossed in a dish with basil; a nutty gruyere; and Chimay, made with the Belgian ale of the same name. This cheese was creamy, buttery even, with a distinctly beery bitter overtone that even Jason (who does not care for the taste of beer) appreciated.
We also relished an appetizer of scallop and shrimp cakes with chipotle-orange aioli. The cakes were incredibly moist with a breadth of flavor, balanced between the sweetness of the shrimp and the savoriness of the scallops. The citrusy-spicy aioli was, literally, the icing on the cake.
Brugge frites -- twice-fried potato strips, eaten with mayonnaise -- are the staple starch of the Belgian diet, and several dishes at Point Brugge feature them. Jason had a taste for steak and frites at the mere mention of the words "European café," so he was delighted to find this on Point Brugge's menu and settled his entrée selection immediately. The New York strip -- optionally and decadently topped with blue cheese -- was extraordinarily tender, and the frites merited their pride of place. The herbed mayo even won us over, Heinz fans though we may be.
Angelique ordered Mouille frites, a bowl of steamed mussels also accompanied by frites, in a sauce of red curry, coconut milk, cilantro and lime. The mussels were simply the best Angelique has ever had inland. The shellfish were cooked to a point of melt-in-your-mouth tenderness that perfectly released their delicate flavor. The sauce was mild, the strong favors of the ingredients tempered and balanced to beautifully complement the mussels themselves.
Desserts at Point Brugge will soon be made by Susie Treon, formerly the executive chef of the Café at the Frick, giving us a mouth-watering excuse -- as if we need one -- to go back. Point Brugge has accomplished what it set out to do: provide a focal point for a community, and we don't just mean Point Breeze. If you love good food, this is a place where you'll be in good company.
Jason: 3.5 stars
Angelique: 4 stars