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Dining with Woodene Merriman

Current Review
Past Reviews
Best of the brunch

From child-friendly to elegantly grown-up, restaurants lay out some fine spreads for the midmorning meal

Friday, April 07, 2000

By Woodene Merriman, Post-Gazette Dining Critic

For years, The Grand Concourse Sunday brunch has been known as the best in Pittsburgh. The numbers say it is so: Every Sunday some 800 people show up at the renovated P&LE station to gorge on rib roast, bananas Foster and more. That's surely the biggest Sunday brunch around. But is it the best? Pittsburgh has many different Sunday brunches served in hotels and restaurants. Some are buffet style, at others you stay seated and are served, and still others are a combination of the two. Some cost less than $10, others well over $20, after you add beverages. They're popular. Previous generations went to Grandma's for Sunday dinner; we go out for Sunday brunch. Two of the biggest brunch Sundays are coming up: Easter and Mother's Day.

The name brunch indicates a combination of breakfast and lunch. But many serve dinner foods, too. And after all that Italian sausage, pork tenderloin and cheesecake, who's going to go home and have dinner?

His Honor and I checked out five high-profile, but very different Sunday brunches in the city to try to determine which one is best. We found it's like comparing apple pie and orange smoothies; you can't. Each one has some pluses, some minuses.


The Grand Concourse

It has atmosphere, thanks to the beautifully restored old railroad station. It has an enormous selection of food. Even proprietor Rick McMaster doesn't know how many choices there are on any given Sunday. It's a good place to take out-of-town guests who want to see a little of old Pittsburgh, and it's nice for children. It's relaxing; nobody seems to mind if you linger awhile at the table and talk.

H.H. and I arrived a little after noon and didn't have to wait. In a few minutes we were seated in the River Room, looking across to Downtown Pittsburgh.

Foods for brunch are scattered throughout several rooms. At the server's suggestion we went first to the grand staircase, where an array of first-course items -- from fruit to salads to smoked salmon -- are ready for the taking. Or should be. We felt like Mother Hubbard's children. Except for a few cold mussels deep in a bowl lined with lettuce, some very good fresh pineapple chunks and a sliver of salmon, the staircase was bare. I picked up the plastic tongs to reach for the last of the salmon, and the handle was sticky.

We moved on to other rooms and other foods, but I kept watching the staircase. It was 20 minutes before it was refilled. That's too long.

The Grand Concourse brunch has labels on some foods. That's an improvement since the last time we were here. But they could use more.

A children's table, just the right height for youngsters, has foods little ones usually like. When we went through that room, two adults were piling their plates at the children's table, and a couple of grade-schoolers were trying to reach up and into the grown-ups' containers of sausage and bacon.

In other rooms, one cook was making blueberry pancakes and omelets to order. Others were carving roast beef and making bananas Foster.

We found the liver pate (when the first station finally was refilled) was excellent, soft and creamy. We liked the roast beef, pork tenderloin, salmon, beef stir-fry and the cold fish buffet, especially our favorite smoked bluefish. For dessert, the cheesecake squares were good, the dumplings soft and limp, and the English trifle tasted better than it looked. The big bowl of trifle was three-fourths empty and messy, thanks to all those who had gone through the line before us.

The Grand Concourse Sunday brunch has many fans. Some people go straight to the Italian sausage and peppers, or whatever else they like, and skip all the other lines. The menu doesn't change much. Probably bananas Foster will always be there. McMaster says he took it off the menu once and got so many complaints he had to put it back.

Whole families, including many from out of town, will get together here the day after a wedding. Some families have made it a custom to come to the Grand Concourse after church on Easter and have their picture taken (a Grand Concourse bonus that day for 13 years). One grandmother stopped McMaster one Sunday and told him she has all those Easter photos lined up on her mantel, so she can see how much the grandchildren grew each year.

No, the Grand Concourse Sunday brunch is not perfect. Food that sits in buffet steam tables and is pawed over by people in front of you is never the best. But with all the variety, everyone should be able to find something he or she likes. So if you can overlook slow service when it comes to refilling stations and tidying up, it's a pleasant place for a family brunch.

Grand Concourse, Station Square, 412-261-1717, Sunday brunch 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Seats 500. No smoking, except in Gandy Dancer Saloon. Adults: $17.95; Children 12 and under, $7.95; under 4, free. No reservations.


Casbah

If fine food and fine wine is most important to you for Sunday brunch, Casbah is a good choice.

You can eat outdoors many weekends, with electric heaters to keep you warm, if needed. Or you can eat indoors, seated at a table or at one of the big banquettes by the bar. Either way, the decor is minimal, there is no view and no entertainment.

Also, there are no lines, no steam table, no buffet. You sit down and are served at your table.

It's a relaxing spot to spend an hour or two on Sunday. Some people arrive casually dressed, the Sunday Post-Gazette under one arm. The ones who are gussied up must be coming from church, we figure.

The brunch menu has first courses, second courses and a selection of "sides," all priced individually. Or you can have the fixed-price brunch, one first course and one second course of your choice, plus muffins and breakfast breads, for $12.95.

First courses, ranging from $4.25 to $6.75, are all innovative and interesting. Hickory-smoked salmon is served with herbed creme fraiche and sliced, toasted Ciabatta bread. Arugula salad comes with chopped crimini mushrooms and crumbled goat cheese. Very good and, for a change, not Pittsburgh huge. Just enough.

Other first-course choices might be cinnamon-ricotta cheese crepes with raspberry jam and orange marmalade, a field green salad with fresh herb vinaigrette and Parmesan crisp, and whole-grain and mixed-nut granola with restaurant-made yogurt and fresh fruit.

Some of the second courses are traditional breakfast fare -- eggs Benedict, buttermilk pancakes with real maple syrup and sausage, a three-egg omelet with your choice of fillings. Everything is made to order. If this is lunch or dinner for you, there's a spicy grilled chicken breast with fresh fruit and a raspberry-mint yogurt sauce.

A good choice is the spinach, tomato and asiago cheese frittata served with hash browns, toast, and fruit -- grapes, a piece of orange and piece of melon are typical. Sometimes escarole is used instead of spinach. Either way, all those colors make it pretty as well as delicious.

Omelets are nicely done, too. H.H. had crimini mushrooms, asiago cheese and Canadian bacon in his, but -- if he were a little more adventurous -- he could have had spicy merguez sausage, pancetta, roasted red peppers or several other choices. Second courses vary from $6.50 to $8.75. Light eaters can have just a first or a second course if they prefer.

Not us, of course. We both went for the fixed-price brunch at $12.95. That includes a selection of house-made breakfast breads and muffins. We had only one complaint: The hash browns were greasy.

The wines are a big attraction to Casbah's brunch. One of the city's biggest selections of fine wines by the glass is offered -- wines like the Trimbach pinot blanc and Raymond private reserve sauvignon blanc.

Take the children to some other brunch. This one is for grown-ups. Enjoy

Casbah, 229 S. Highland Ave., Shadyside, 412-661-5656. Brunch Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Smoking area in the lounge. Reservations.


Victoria Hall

The only time you can eat at Victoria Hall -- unless you are part of a private party there -- is Sunday brunch. That's the only time it is open to the public.

Here you can sit at a table, order from the a la carte menu, and be served. Or you can start with a mimosa, load your plate at the full buffet, and eat until you drop. The full buffet, with mimosa, is $18.95, half price for youngsters 5 to 12, and under 5, free.

On most Sundays, Victoria Hall does not have entertainment. "The house is the entertainment," says Bambi Morton, director of special events. The house is the former Ursuline Academy, and diners are urged to spend time looking around the building.

We featured Victoria Hall in Weekend Mag last December, when it was decorated for Christmas. Dishes vary from Sunday to Sunday, but I remember liking the chicken stir-fry, the crisp and colorful carrot, yellow and green bean combination, poached salmon and rice salad with chicken and mandarin oranges. Now there is a new entree that's becoming popular: a portobello mushroom stuffed with mixed vegetables. "Even non-vegetarians like it," Morton says.

But most popular of all is the signature peaches-and-cream French toast. The rich, puffy toast is topped with canned peaches, with bacon or sausage on the side. It's on the buffet, or you can order it a la carte. The French toast is $4.50; side orders of breakfast sausage, bacon, eggs or home-fried potatoes are $2.

A choice of three desserts -- chocolate mousse, cranberry orange trifle and apple tart are typical -- is served to your table. A la carte, dessert is $4.50.

Brunch is served in a bright put plain long room probably meant to be the ballroom when the house was built. Some guests are seated in that room, some in the other, smaller rooms on the first floor. Usually the old billiard room is designated as the smoking area.

Aside from the Sunday brunch, the house is used as a "celebration center," the site of many weddings, office parties and similar events.

Victoria Hall, 201 S. Winebiddle, Bloomfield, 412-363-8030. Sunday brunch 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Reservations encouraged, but not necessary.


The Terrace Room

This Sunday brunch is more like lunch, or perhaps, dinner.

The fixed price includes soup, salad, a choice of five entrees, and dessert. Everything except dessert is served at your table. A roving bartender comes around to take your drink order (mimosas, $5), and a strolling violinist will play requests.

We said "yes, please" when the waiter offered to start us off with orange juice. A little later, when we had finished the salmon and barley chowder and were well into the Grecian marinated lentil salad, the waiter volunteered: "You could have had a three-egg omelet instead of the soup and salad." We wish he had mentioned that earlier -- the very thick, bland chowder had a lot of corn and was barely warm. The lentil salad, with artichoke and hearts of palm, is different and very good. But I like lentils; H.H. doesn't. "Not for me," he says, pushing his salad plate in front of me.

Entrees change from Sunday to Sunday, but you call always expect to see seafood, beef, poultry and a vegetarian choice. Every second Sunday there is a prime rib special.

H.H.'s coq au vin rouge is a light version of that classic French dish, with chicken not especially tender, served with a rice blend. The accompanying green beans are beautiful, but almost raw. The so-called "traditional" seafood bouillabaisse has scallops, shrimp and salmon in a light saffron broth. The Ciabatta crouton has an excellent pesto topping.

The William Penn has always been known for its cheesecakes and pastries. And they don't hold back at the Sunday brunch. Peach Melba, fresh fruit, lots of hotel-made cakes, ice cream and my favorite -- a wonderful, slightly chunky, two-layer carrot cake, with butternut cream icing sprinkled with nuts. This is the only part of the Terrace Room's regular Sunday brunch that is buffet style.

The big, dark-paneled Terrace Room seats 145, but manager Michael O'Donoghue says they often serve 300 at the Sunday brunch. It's popular with families celebrating birthdays, groups on their way to a performance in the Cultural District and hotel guests. O'Donoghue says some people regularly come to the city for a Saturday night performance, stay at the hotel and have brunch before leaving.

We had a reservation, but had to wait an additional 15 minutes to be seated because they were so busy. The rush was reflected in the service, too. Napkins guests dropped on the floor stayed there unnoticed, and we couldn't get clean forks between courses. Undaunted, H.H. got up and took forks from an empty nearby table.

The Terrace Room, William Penn Hotel, Downtown, 412-281-7100. Sunday brunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Adults, $21.50; children 5-12 $10.75, and under 5, free.


Sunnyledge

Sunday brunch at Sunnyledge -- like Sunday brunch at the Grand Concourse -- provides a glimpse into the city's past. But there the similarity ends.

Sunnyledge, which once was a fine home, can seat only 34 for brunch, and 15 more when the weather is warm and the patio is open. Even 34 is crowding it a bit. We were seated in the bar, where the tables are close together. After our orange juice was served, we had to sidle out carefully on our way to the buffet table.

The buffet of first courses is temptingly arranged in the library -- smoked salmon with capers, chopped egg and onions, cold tortellini with vegetables, thin slices of Cheddar and spinach quiche, jumbo chilled shrimp with cocktail sauce, muffins, bagels and other breads. There was more, but there's a limit to how much even a dining critic can try.

This is the only part of the brunch that is buffet; entrees and desserts are served to the table. You can go the breakfast route and have an omelet, French toast with caramelized bananas, or flapjacks with blueberries and maple syrup.

If you prefer lunch dishes, the best choice I've found is the spinach, mushroom and goat cheese strudel, flaky triangular packets stuffed with spinach and served in rich sauce. The lobster club sandwich is popular, too. But H.H. was disappointed in his lobster salad with tiny lobster croquettes and caviar. The lobster seemed water-logged.

Desserts are small, but who needs more at brunch? The little chocolate profiteroles, miniature cheesecakes and tiny brownies were just enough. The brunch, including the orange juice and coffee or tea, is $22.

The Sunnyledge brunch menu stays basically the same, but new items occasionally are added. A new Tuscan salad and bite-size rugelach have been recent hits.

This is not the best brunch for children. It's too confining. And it's not the best brunch if you want to linger awhile and listen to the piano soloist or just talk. People constantly come and go, and you feel sure someone must be waiting for your table.

Sunnyledge, 5124 Fifth Ave., Shadyside, 412-683-5014. Sunday brunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Reservations necessary.



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