[from September 2005 issue]
Just about everyone else in town has weighed in on or eaten at Capitol Hill’s super-busy Belga Café, so why not this The InTowner? The restaurant is slightly off this newspaper’s north-of-M Street (NW) path, but with so many people swooning over its Belgian mussels and general mayhem, this not-quite-new city hotspot demands some attention.
As with most new and almost-new places, the buzz creates crowds, and nowhere else in town is that as evident as at Belga Café. True, its seating is limited, but even in hot weather, the alfresco sidewalk café just doesn’t quite accommodate all the folks wanting a beer and frites. A fellow foodie and I dropped by several weeks ago, naively guessing that the furor had died down. A two-hour wait, said the hostess, as we asked about getting a table.
No go. But we were far cleverer the second time around. Reservations plus punctuality won us seating--albeit right in front of the noisy, steamy kitchen and directly in our neighbor’s lap. It’s cheek-by-jowl table arrangements, and we inadvertently learned about the couple’s vacation plans…and why couldn’t Dad come along?
What’s so intriguing about a bucket of steamed mussels (Belgium’s signature dish) to endure the crowds, you may ask? Lots, but that’s not the whole story here. The chef, Bart Vandaele, worked extensively in Belgian restaurants and has won himself recognition as a rising culinary star here and abroad. After he left his chef post at the Dutch Embassy in DC to open this place, his star power has only intensified. That must be what happens when your very new restaurant garners two RAMMY nominations for best new restaurant of the year and neighborhood gathering place of the year--though it didn’t win, by the way. (RAMMY, the annual awards handed out by RAMW, the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington.)
But give credit where it’s due, for the menu at Belga Café is certainly one of the city’s quirkiest. Billing its fare as Belgian and “eurofusion,” Belga offers some mighty unusual dishes: We puzzled over the Witlof “Sushi” Salade and the equally baffling Foie De Canard, a tidbit of smoked and poached duck liver with tutti-frutti and Flemish brioche.
If you are not up to playing culinary games, however, let me recommend the more traditional Kazen Kroketten, a medley of four cheese croquettes with melting cheese interiors wrapped in a crunchy coating and served with a salad of bacon and frisee. We actually fought over this, in preference to the Shrimp Spring Roll with the ginger-mayo dressing. Sorry to say: the Vietnamese really do it better.
And no matter what else, at least someone in your group must order one of Vandaele’s seven different versions of steamed mussels--classic, marinière, with garlic butter, with curry cream, “Werner and Greta,” and with white ale and bacon or red ale, and bacon and asparagus. Served in the traditional two-tiered pots, the mussels come to the table right from the kitchen, ready to envelop you in a mist of mussel fragrance. Of course, the mussels arrive with a side of paper-wrapped frites, which are Belgium’s answer to our French fries.
Mussels or not, you’d also be wise to consider an order of one of Vandaele’s classic Belgian entrées, the best of which may be the Flemish beef stew composed of richly flavored beef cubes simmered until the meat literally falls into shreds. Potent and memorable, this dish is probably a winter-weather must, but it’s really weather-impervious: You’ll love this even if the thermometer tops 100 degrees. Of course, this, too, comes with the requisite side of frites.
Other Belgian options: Waterzooi, a stew of chicken and vegetables; Belgian steak with frites; leg of rabbit with Rodenbach beer; and hanger steak with roasted veggies and a purple potato confit, which actually sounds more like California cooking. Other “classics”--which don’t sound Belgian at all--include steamed salmon on a bed of leeks and cauliflower with a squid ink sauce, and an herb-crusted halibut.
As a matter of course, beer or ale is the beverage of choice at Belga Café, and if you don’t drink, you may miss out on some truly unique tipples. My friend knew his Belgian beers--the lights, the darks, and all others--and remarked on the restaurant’s extensive beer list. Indeed, as it turns out, Belga Café’s beer collection is rated highly by the beeradvocate.com website.
Desserts, too, are shrouded in some mystery: For example, what should one think about asparagus beignets? On the other hand, you can opt for Bart’s flourless chocolate cake, or a serving of crème brûlée. But if in doubt, just order the “Brussels” (really, Belgian) waffles, obvious treats and which apparently are also star players for the weekend brunch.
Copyright (c) 2005 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Alexandra Greeley. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.
Belga Café, 514 8th St., SE; tel.,544-0100; web, http://www.belgacafe.com. Hours: lunch, Tue.-Fri., 11:30am-3pm; dinner, Mon.-Sun. 5:30pm-10pm; Brunch, Sat. & Sun., 11:30am-3:30pm. Entrée prices: $16.95-$23.95. Major credit cards.
Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, editor, and restaurant reviewer. She has authored books on Asian and Mexican cuisines published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, and Macmillan. Other credits include restaurant reviews and food articles for national and regional publications, as well as former editor of the Vegetarian Times and former food editor/writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.
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