Just as independent stores and architecture make communities unique, neighborhood restaurants are essential for local flavor. These restaurants must not only offer likeable food, but also a homey and friendly ambiance. I grew up with a strong tradition of frequenting favorite restaurants, and their food gained a comforting familiarity, even an emotional attachment; my love for Eat’n’Park, however, has long since fled. Sibling to the Point Breeze gem Point Brugge Café, Park Bruges hopes to establish itself as a staple of Highland Park. With a slick take on comfort food and assistance from established Pittsburgh eateries, Park Bruges seems to fit the bill. But if Park Bruges hopes to attract those who live further than walking distance, inconsistencies in the menu must be straightened out.
Park Bruges works to make guests comfortable. With wooden tables and leather booths (not to mention its extensive beer menu), it is easy to get settled. Servers introduce themselves and the manager makes the rounds, checking on food and chatting with regulars. There are even a few tables outside which, besides the occasional roar of passing busses, are equally relaxing on a summer night. However, with consistent crowds, the interior can get equally noisy.
While offering an eclectic choice of appetizers, the frites are an absolute necessity. The frites at Park Bruges are thinner (dare I say crisper) than their counterparts at Point Brugge. Instead of being soaked in grease, the frites have a light crunch on the outside while still retaining moisture on the inside, making them among the best fries in Pittsburgh. When I heard Park Bruges offered poutine, I couldn’t have been more excited. My one Canadian poutine experience was like something out of a fever dream: a bowl of fries overflowing with gravy and globs of melting cheese curds. Park Bruges’ Montreal-style poutine is clearly less messy, but sacrifices much of the unholy joy of the original concoction. In order to get to the gravy, one must dig through the top shell of frites. Even more, the only perceivable flavor in the gravy was salt, lending only mushiness to the frites. An appetizer of Organic Phoenix Tofu was overwhelmed by its salty “soy-ginger sauce,” which tasted more like Kikkoman than anything else. One of Park Bruges’ specialties is the Tarte Flambée, a thinly crusted French/Alsatian pizza. Baked in Enrique Biscotti’s ovens, the light, crunch crust could be a great snack on its own. A tomato-herb topping for the pizza, similar to a caprese salad, was unfortunately drenched in olive oil. As far as appetizers go, sticking with the frites may be the most consistent choice.
While one of the highlights of Point Brugge Café is its mussels, Park Bruges may have its sibling beat. The mussels served in the Creole-style sauce are fantastic. The dish’s spicy tomato broth with peppers and lots of minced garlic gives the mussels a slight bite, while drizzles of bitter blue cheese balance the burn of the peppers. Even better, it is served with Allegro Hearth bread, perfect for sopping up the remaining sauce. Unfortunately, the other entrees pale in comparison to the Moules. The sauce on the Steak Frites tastes only salty, while julienne vegetables are only sad, flavorless slices, buried beneath fries. A daily special of breaded black cod with frites (a Park Bruges spin on fish’n’chips) faired much better. With a hearty cornmeal breading and no grease, the fish is delicately pan fried, again showcasing the chefs’ skills with frying. While a bed of creamed spinach adds only texture, an addictive mustard-mayonnaise dipping sauce compensates with more than enough flavor. Park Bruges also offers sandwiches, and the homemade Southwestern Veggie Burger is a surprise hit. Made with beans, peppers and spiced with cumin, then topped with a scorching poblano pepper sauce, the veggie burger is more complex than many of its meat counterparts. While Park Bruges serves dessert, a stomach full of frites forced me to decline.
Despite the problems riddled in Park Bruges’ menu, its welcoming atmosphere is difficult to resist. When I opened the door for the first time, I was greeted first with a wave of garlic, frites, polite chatter and the tap of forks on plates. I had never been here before, but I already felt at home.
(Park Bruges is located at 5801 Bryant Street in Pittsburgh. Entrees range from $8-$26.)