For a minute there, we were almost out of French restaurants in Pittsburgh. Not that we ever had many, but for most of American culinary history, fine dining was defined by French cuisine and French-style cooking, dominated by rich sauces and luxe ingredients prepared just so. Was it a sign of the times that, in 2017, there were only one or two holdouts, plus a smattering of creperies, in the entire region?
Or is it a sign of the times that a new, formal French restaurant just opened and it’s bucking every current restaurant trend? Bruneaux is in Sewickley, where the stalwart Café des Amis has done a brisk business in Gallic lunches for years, and a sweet little café, Cocothé, recently expanded into a full-service French-ish restaurant. But Bruneaux is the closest we’ve come in years to classic French dining, from the formal yet accommodating maître d’ to the knowledgeable server to the unobtrusive busboy.
In a time when the (admittedly, very French) mania for chalkboards seems to have spread to render the interior of every new restaurant dreary charcoal gray, Bruneaux’s shades-of-white decor is a beacon of light and elegance. Silver and glassware sparkle against white tablecloths; palest gray and oyster walls, upholstery and even floors reflect the perfect lighting, which is bright enough to see your food, but dim enough for intimacy without the aid of table candles. A mirror enhances the silvery effect while artfully refracting the deep, narrow dining room, laid out with a banquette along one wall and bar and semi-open kitchen opposite. Even the servers wear white.
The menu, too, is formal and traditional, but not mired in the past. Sometimes it’s just the use of a boutique ingredient, like the quail egg on steak tartare, that sets a dish apart. Other moves are more boldly au courant, like beurre blanc flavored with burnt citrus on salmon.
The house winter salad was a classic combination of beets, arugula and citrus, prepared to perfection. Both red and golden beets were cubed and piled with greens at one end of a long plate, while creamy chèvre, smeared directly on the other end, was scattered with crushed walnuts, encouraging us to combine bits from both sides for each bite. The nuts provided more texture than taste, but the blood-orange vinaigrette was reinforced with neatly trimmed pieces of orange.
We eyed both the escargot and the butter-poached lobster, but our server recommended the bouillabaisse, and rightly so. A broad, shallow dish of saffron-colored (and -flavored) broth contained a meticulously arranged trio each of clams and mussels, and a piece of halibut filet surmounted by a pair of head-on prawns. Bouillabaisse is often served with croutons and a sort of mayonnaise made with sea urchins, but here the urchins were incorporated into the silken broth, giving it a deep, yet mellow, seafood flavor. The fish and shellfish were all cooked to succulent perfection, and we mopped up the broth with plenty of warm baguette placed with tongs onto our plates from a pleasing wooden box.
The entrée list is elementally organized by sea, land and air; Angelique stayed in the sea for her pick — seared sea scallops with butternut-squash risotto and bacon-apple relish. She expected the standard restaurant portion of three scallops and was amazed to be served five, lined up liked a row of buttons atop a plinth of risotto. Like the seafood in the bouillabaisse, the scallops were excellent, lightly browned and translucent, at the peaks of their flavor and texture. The finely diced bits of apple and bacon that garnished them did not add up to strong flavor in the relish itself, but enhanced the native sweet and salty notes already present in the scallops and the squash.
Pommes frites, ordered a la carte, were truffled, but not too strongly, and had that perfect tender-crisp variance in texture that makes French fries the best, well, fries in the world. They made a sound complement to the veal chops, which were served without a starch. Instead, the chops were accompanied by wonderfully roasted florets of indigo cauliflower and tender oyster mushrooms served in a savory, slightly thickened pan jus. More importantly, the veal was a fantastic cut of meat: utterly tender and with just enough fat around the rim to add extra savor to this beautifully cooked chop.
Tres bien, Bruneaux! Let’s not say goodbye but au revoir: till we meet again.