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Brunch Hour: Settling in for a celebration of ease

Friday, April 18, 2003

By Sarah Billingsley, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Brunch is the perfect collision of luxury and necessity. You must eat. Why not eat a meal of creative courses comfortably, among friends and family, at a time of day when we feel most relaxed?

Just in time for Easter, Mother's Day and graduations, here's a list of new places for your intimate, friendly gatherings away from home.


Lidia's Pittsburgh

1400 Smallman St.
Strip District

Sunday brunch, $16 non-inclusive. Served 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Reservations recommended, but not necessary.


On a sunny Sunday, the space is filled with light, the Strip is calm, and Lidia's brunch is one of the best -- and most leisurely -- in town.

It begins with a basket of warm, house-made breads, sweet scones, muffins, sugared butter and preserves, and concludes with a buffet of confection that included, on a recent morning, apricot and raspberry crostata, cheesecake, an array of small cookies and truffles and Lidia's addictive tiramisu.

For the first course, choose between creamy Caesar salad and fresh fruit, mostly cantaloupe and grapes on a recent Sunday.

Entrees include lunch items -- chicken with lemons and capers, salmon over lentils, steak -- and American brunch classics, trattoria-style. Lidia's French toast is made from thick slices of panettone, the raspy Italian bread studded with dried fruits and nuts. It's sweet, warm and cinnamon-y. Instead of an omelet, there's a frittata, and subbing for eggs Benedict is potato cake topped with eggs sunny-side up, fresh spinach and prosciutto.

Frico, a wide, flexible wafer of Montasio cheese, wrapped around cubes of potato, onion, bacon and poached eggs, is wholly original, and accompanied by meaty thick strips of bacon. Hash -- usually commonplace corned beef -- is made of slow-cooked duck at Lidia's.

The spacious restaurant leaves plenty of room between tables, and there are big round tables to seat the whole family. Happy jazz standards and comfortable red chairs make the restaurant feel as familiar as Pottery Barn, but giant chandeliers of clustered glass bulbs rescue the decor from the commonplace.

Your coffee cup is kept hot and full by unobtrusive servers; if only the coffeepots, with their thin, square lips, weren't so awkward to pour from. Our crisp tablecloth was covered in dribbles.


Diners are surrounded by windows looking into the grounds of Clayton during lunch at The Café at the Frick in Point Breeze. (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette)

Cafe at the Frick

7227 Reynolds St.
Point Breeze

Set on the manicured grounds of Clayton, Cafe at the Frick is abidingly lovely and the food consistently good. The cafe doesn't offer a full-scale brunch menu, just one brunch special, a prix fixe of two courses, so it's a bit of a gamble for picky eaters or those with dietary restrictions.

If the special doesn't interest you, trust that the intriguing sandwiches and salads on the regular menu, crafted from seasonal ingredients, are as good as anything on any other brunch menu in Pittsburgh.

Mimosas made with freshly squeezed tangerines are a shade sour and perfectly refreshing. White peach Bellinis are sweeter, more elegant and coy.

On a recent visit, the first course was exotic fruits, ultraripe kiwi, pineapple, mango served in a footed frosted glass with a savory oat cracker. Second course was the epitome of a brunch entree, creative, seasonal, indulgent: an omelet, rolled into a cylinder and stood upright, filled with hollandaise, crisp asparagus and pea shoots, then drizzled with a balsamic reduction.

The Cafe's seating policy allows you one hour and 30 minutes at your table, so it's not a place to settle in for the day.

When making reservations, members of the Frick get first dibs, but do call ahead, as Sundays fill up fast.

Indoors or out, for ambiance and food, Cafe at the Frick is a respite from the modern world.


La Strada

620 Liberty Ave.

Weekday brunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Reservations not necessary. Smoking section.


At La Strada, it's brunch or lunch, depending on who answers the phone. Weekdays from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., the restaurant features an inexpensive and quick buffet business lunch/brunch of pastas, soups and salad, perfect for midday meetings as well as midday shopping pit stops with Mom. The white, red and black dining room is sharp, though the tables on the banquette are too close together.

On a recent visit, highlights of the buffet included simple, vivid pesto penne, an intense tomato bisque and creamy polenta with wild mushrooms. There were little rounds of red tomato topped with buffalo mozzarella, as well as spring mix and romaine for salad.

The steam table made stuffed zucchini watery, and beef carnitas, with peppers and bits of corn, was an incongruous addition to an otherwise all-Italian buffet.

Desserts are not included, and add an extra $5 to $7 to the tab, as would something to take the edge off from La Strada's attractive little list of wines by the glass and specialty coffee drinks -- which can be served hot or iced.

La Strada doesn't usually offer Sunday brunch, but on Easter they'll lay out an impressive spread for $35 per person (children under 10 eat free): prime rib, salmon, tortellini Bolognese, lamb chops, Clams Casino, chocolate-covered strawberries, apple strudel.

If La Strada is considering making Sunday brunch a regular endeavor, the Downtown pre-theater crowd is hungry for it.


Lisa Ferguson shows Salmon Tarragon Pastry and Fruit Granola Parfait at her restaurant, Ugly Duckling Gourmet Edibles, a charming setting with a lively menu at the site of the former Cafe Victoria, North Side. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

Ugly Duckling
Gourmet Edibles

946 Western Ave.
North Side

Saturday and Sunday brunch, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. High tea is served the first Sunday of every month. No smoking. Reservations encouraged, not necessary. Upstairs bathroom is inaccessible for some.

At Ugly Duckling, the food succeeds but the service fails. A colorful parade of lively courses was delivered by servers so young and inexperienced I felt I was reliving the amateurish efforts of my brother and I, as children, to serve my mother breakfast in bed on her birthday.

I wanted to stand up and teach them the proper way to serve, how to clear without stacking and dropping silverware, how to take an order without returning five times for particulars, and when to refill a coffee. We sat for long spells without liquid refreshment. This must be remedied, since bad service creates tension, and brunch is a celebration of ease.

Despite this, Ugly Duckling is charming and comfortable. The restaurant is generous with the tables in its regal front room and cute back room, and provides the most lingering of brunches. The space was once Cafe Victoria, and the decor celebrates the homey/haughty brunch vibe with jewel-tone period wallpaper and crochet tablecloths.

The price is unbeatable: $12 for two fine courses, coffee and juice, and the elegant mini cakes and tarts for dessert, plus a homemade chocolate.

First-course choices included warm green bean vinaigrette with crumbled feta, fruit and yogurt parfait made with homemade granola, and a flashback-to-the-1960s fruit ambrosia of mandarin oranges, pineapple chunks, strawberries and mini marshmallows.

Entrees included herbed salmon pastry, bread pudding, and an over-baked ham strata. Pesto frittata was chock full of vegetables and basil, every bite a surprise. Raspberry waffles were topped with healthful raspberry yogurt, accompanied by crisp strips of bacon.

With names like "Lime Twist" and "Orange Crush," the biscuit-sized desserts need a bit more explanation on the menu, but their size makes then perfect for sharing. Creamy coconut tart was the best, with Orange Crush -- orange sponge cake, drizzled with bittersweet chocolate and served with mandarin orange slices -- a moist second.

Pittsburgh brunches are cheap to expensive, lavish to spare.

There are the time-honored brunches. In Station Square, getting a hot meal at Grand Concourse's lavish and crowded multiroom buffet is competitive. Families return there, Sunday after Sunday, year after year. Downtown, prime rib at the stately Terrace Room is easier to come by, since everyone takes their turn.

Dowe's on 9th, Downtown, offers a jazz brunch complete with live music and Southern cuisine every Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunnyledge, Shadyside, is expensive and tight, but the lovely display of pastries on tiered shelves is perfectly elegant.

Casbah, Shadyside, puts together a California-style brunch heavy on freshness, fusion and vegetables, allowing the outdoors in on a screened, heated patio. Right down the road, casual Whole Foods has an omelet bar on Sundays, flirty house-baked pastries and $1 coffee. The bright, kinetic space has drawbacks: You have to wait at the regular checkout to pay for cafe food, and the crush of people does not encourage lingering.

At Quiet Storm Cafe, Garfield, you can stay all day. The coffee shop has a lived-in look, including comfy couches and a play area for small children. Monthly ethnic brunches -- soul food, Indian, Polish -- are a hit and the regular brunch has many tasty vegan and vegetarian items.

Blue, McCandless, supposedly serves brunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. When we showed up at 2 p.m. on a recent Sunday, with reservation, they were closed. It is because the basic tenets of brunch are comfort and reliability that nothing ruins a Sunday like a thwarted brunch.

Walnut Grille in Shadyside is well situated for a post-meal stroll. Entrees are meaty and robust. When I have time, I visit The Plates in Bellevue, a kicky place similar in attitude to many San Francisco eateries, where the decor is amusing and the food inventive. The staff wears Hawaiian shirts, the walls are covered with funny vintage plates, and there are at least two colors of Heinz ketchup on the table, usually purple and green. My brunch at the crepes is either crepes with berries and creme anglaise or the salty, marvelous corned beef hash omelet, with a side of crunchy hash browns.

Sarah Billingsley can be reached at sbillingsley@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1661.

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