Café Raymond, in the Strip District, makes a perfect stop for breakfast or lunch | Restaurant Reviews | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Café Raymond, in the Strip District, makes a perfect stop for breakfast or lunch

It offers a selection of sandwiches, burgers, pastries and its popular blueberry-ricotta pancakes

Little Ray’s Fat Burger with bacon, American cheese, fried egg, crispy potatoes, lettuce, tomato and Thousand Island dressing
Little Ray’s Fat Burger with bacon, American cheese, fried egg, crispy potatoes, lettuce, tomato and Thousand Island dressing

From a popular place to buy specialty foods, the Strip District logically evolved into a popular place to eat them. Lunchtime options run the gamut from humble pizzerias, street vendors and inexpensive international options to full-service foodie destinations. But if you’re in the Strip in the morning? Breakfast has always been the province of diners, those traditional bastions of belly-busting griddled farm food and bottomless cups of coffee.

Until, in a tiny storefront carved out of what used to be Alioto’s Produce, a little bakery opened and then added some breakfast service. It was eventually supplanted by Café Raymond, a fully fledged source for take-out or sit-down breakfast and lunch. With counter ordering and table service, Café Raymond was, and is, suited to the Strip’s casual vibe and crowded weekend scene. But with items such as croissants and field-greens salads, it fills a different niche than your favorite greasy spoon. Raymond’s signature dish is its blueberry-ricotta pancakes, always offered alongside specials so tempting, they make decision-making difficult.

About a year ago, Raymond moved down the street into a brand-new building that had sat empty for years before finding a suitable tenant. It could hardly be a better fit for the café: The interior, while still cozy, finally has some elbow room, and an upper-story balcony forms a roof over sidewalk tables which, while still pressed by shoppers, at least can accommodate a few more plates than before.

The fare remains the same, but the wall-mounted menu has stretched to fit the bigger wall. Breakfast is still a half-dozen plates and eight sandwiches, but burgers, previously a Thursday specialty, are now offered every day. There’s one simple burger option and nine fancy ones, including one with coffee-crusted bacon and a rather astonishing burger topped with bacon, egg, potatoes, and Thousand Island dressing. Jason was enticed by the bistro burger, topped with, yes, bacon and red-wine-braised onions, plus garlic aioli and spinach. The onions were the heroes of this concoction. Rich and slightly sweet, their flavor was pervasive without hiding the tasty aioli, nicely complementing the spinach.

Angelique indulges in a pastrami sandwich perhaps once a year, so she was gratified when the one she ordered at Café Raymond was really, really good. The stack of juicy sliced meat was thick, but not ridiculously so, allowing the toasted rye, melted Swiss, field greens, tomato, onion and grain mustard all to contribute their wonderful, well-balanced flavors and textures to the absolute and utter pleasure that was this sandwich. 

Both the burger and the pastrami came with deeply browned roasted potatoes in big chunks, well seasoned with cracked pepper and a hint of rosemary. The inside of the potatoes was properly fluffy, but the crust was a tad tough, perhaps due to our arrival shortly before closing time. They were still pretty great.

Back to breakfast. Raymond offers eight different breakfast sandwiches (most on croissants), but on the sweet side, just two options (other than pastry): French toast, and the popular blueberry-ricotta pancakes. The French toast was made from house-made challah — in our opinion the best bread for the job — and slathered with a strawberry compote and whipped cream. The visual was spectacular, but the texture fell short. The thick slices of challah were so thoroughly saturated with batter as to be soggy inside, as if undercooked, and even the outer areas lacked the lightly crisped edges that set French toast apart from mere pancakes. The compote was brilliant, however. Angelique, in particular, has always favored gilding her French toast with jam or preserves rather than syrup, and in this regard, Café Raymond played directly to her desires.

Raymond’s blueberry-ricotta pancakes must have their devotees to retain top billing on the menu, but we found them in need of improvement. While they were thick, suggesting plenty of rise, the ricotta seemed present in pockets rather than being integrated into the batter, causing portions of the cakes to be heavy and wet. Its flavor brought on divided opinions at the table: Those who aren’t fond of ricotta found it too forward, while ricotta-lovers hardly noticed it. But everyone agreed that the blueberries were scanty.

Even if the Café Raymond’s hallmark breakfast treat failed to live up to the hype, our sandwiches left no doubts as to this establishment’s strengths: good ingredients in tasty combinations and location, location, location.

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