Point Brugge Cafe known for its mussels dishes

| Sunday, April 26, 2009

Point Brugge Cafe in Point Breeze goes through 500 to 600 pounds of fresh mussels every week.

Mussels, in fact, are the restaurant's biggest sellers, according to executive chef Kevin Hunninen. It gets its mussels from Prince Edward Island.

"It's a classic Belgian dish," he says. "People in Belgium eat mussels like we eat hamburgers over here."

The mussels can be prepared one of three ways:

• The classic recipe uses white wine, shallots, garlic and light cream.

• The Thai recipe incorporates red curry, coconut milk, lime juice, basil and cilantro.

• A third recipe consists of tomatoes, roasted fennel and saffron broth.

Mussels are served with crusty Italian or French bread for mopping up the sauce.

"We sell more mussels than anything else," says Hunninen, 32, a 2000 graduate of Pennsylvania Culinary Institute. "The mussels we get on Tuesday were harvested Friday. The mussels we get on Friday were harvested Tuesday. If you like clams, you'll like mussels."

The cozy and charming restaurant, with just 50 seats including the barstools, is known throughout Pittsburgh as the place to go for mussels, as well as other Belgian delicacies such as Liege waffles, which it serves during Sunday brunch.

Liege waffles are fairly dense and a bit crunchy because of the pearl sugar used in the batter, Hunninen says.

Another Belgian dish is carbonnade flamande -- beef braised in Belgian brown ale with onions, apricots, cherries and rosemary and served with "frites," or Belgian french fries. Frites are fresh potatoes cooked twice and served with basil mayonnaise.

Point Brugge Cafe offers small plates and platters, such as a cheese board, with Hunninen selecting a variety of unusual and familiar cheeses. Another popular platter is the Mediterranean, featuring roasted red pepper hummus and spiced eggplant baba ghannouj.

The lunch menu offers several appetizers and substantial sandwiches.

"We describe this as a Belgian bistro, but we have a fairly eclectic menu," he says. "It's simple, fresh bistro food."

The restaurant underwent a full renovation almost five years ago, when owners Jesse Seager, Elaine Wolfe and Barry Silverman completely gutted the building.

"It took us eight months for the renovation," says Wolfe, whose restaurant is named for its Point Breeze neighborhood and the Belgian city of Brugge. "The building has been here since the 1950s and has always been a restaurant with apartments upstairs."

Hunninen has been the executive chef for more than two years. Previously, he worked at Bruschetta's and Isabella. A sous chef and five full-time line cooks help Hunninen fill the orders.

"On a busy Saturday, we'll do nine full turns in 11 hours," says Hunninen, an Allerdice High School graduate. "It still boggles my mind. We're even busy weekdays. I've never seen anything like this place -- it's crazy."

About two-thirds of the menu is set in stone, he says, but he gets the chance to be creative with the remaining third, in addition to daily specials.

"This summer, we want to expand the use of local ingredients," Hunninen says.

Classic White Wine Mussels

Kevin Hunninen, executive chef of Point Brugge Cafe, chose to share his Classic Mussels dish with Cooking Class. He suggests using Prince Edward Island mussels if you can find them, because they're "a little more plump, have a better flavor and tend to be cleaner."

A pilsener or Belgian golden beer goes well with this dish, as well as a crisp sauvignon blanc or dry riesling.

• 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

• 1 pound mussels (about 18 to 24), cleaned ( see "Choosing and cleaning mussels" )

• 1 tablespoon minced garlic

• 2 tablespoons minced shallots

34 cup dry white wine

12 cup heavy cream

• Salt and freshly ground black pepper

• Water, if needed

• 1 tablespoon minced parsley, for garnish

• Crusty French or Italian bread

Heat the vegetable oil in a saute pan over medium-high heat. Cook the mussels, garlic and shallots, stirring frequently, until the garlic and shallots are aromatic and the first few mussels begin to open.

Add the wine, bring to a boil, cover and steam for 5 to 7 minutes or until the mussels are open (Photo 1) and the meat has pulled away from the sides of the shell and is firm to the touch.

Add the cream, and season lightly with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil and cook just until the cream begins to thicken but remains brothy and just thick enough to begin to coat the shells. Add a little water if the cream cooks away too much.

Serve sprinkled with parsley, with crusty bread for mopping up the flavorful sauce.

Makes 1 serving as a light meal or 2 as an appetizer.

Larger amounts can be cooked in a larger dutch oven or stock pot; just leave enough room to stir the mussels as they cook.

Choosing and cleaning mussels

Buy Prince Edward Island mussels if possible; they tend to be sweeter and slightly meatier.

Clean the mussels in a clean sink under cold running water, discard any open mussels that do not close when tapped or squeezed; then, pull any "beards" off. (The beard is what mussels use to attach to rocks and other objects. It is a little clump of hairs that stick out from the crack in the side of the mussel shell.)

Scrub the mussels lightly with your hands -- or a vegetable brush if they are excessively dirty.

This can be done a few hours ahead of time, with the mussels stored in the refrigerator and covered with a damp towel.

Additional Information:

Point Brugge Cafe

Cuisine: Belgian eclectic

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays

Entree price range: $16-$26

Notes: Reservations accepted only for larger lunch parties. Accepts Visa, Mastercard and Discover only. Extensive Belgian beer list and wine list. Outdoor patio. Sunday brunch from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Beer dinners every other month, featuring four courses with four beers.

Address: 401 Hastings St., Point Breeze

Details: 412-441-3334 or Web site

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