By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, January 16, 2005
At many of the restaurants I visited on a trip to Brussels last spring, I could predict what my options would be without even looking at the menu. Inevitably, there would be croquettes made with tiny gray shrimp from the North Sea and salads of (what else?) Belgian endive. I would usually also find steamed mussels, served with a side of hot fries, and a cream-based stew of chicken or fish, the classic waterzooi. There would a long list of beers to mull over and at least one chocolate dessert.
The menu at Belga Cafe reminds me very much of that tour. The croquettes, the beers, even the chef's accent -- much about this newcomer to Capitol Hill brings back pleasant memories of dining rooms, humble or grand, all over the Belgian capital. The neighborhood seems pleased to have it, too, judging from the SRO scene that plays out nightly and a wait as long as 30 minutes for lunch if you've failed to reserve a seat. Forget about privacy; the tables are so close together that you almost feel selfish not sharing some fries with the stranger whose shoulder keeps rubbing your own.
The chef, Bart Vandaele, who was born to parents who were also chefs, comes to his new roost from the Dutch Embassy, where he cooked for 3 1/2 years. The 34-year-old's latest act -- in a long room with exposed brick walls, modern art and a semi-open kitchen -- is not strictly Belgian; amid the classics are some more eclectic combinations of ingredients, what Vandaele refers to as "Euro-fusion."
I tend to like Belga most when the chef stays close to his roots. His croquettes, an appetizer, are a treat, their nubby crumb coating giving way to a molten center of cheese and shrimp. They come with an attractive green salad and a garnish of fried parsley, nice contrasts to all the richness. Small shrimp appear again, bound with mayonnaise, in the hollow of a tomato that is framed in greens and set off by a long, airy breadstick. Endive soup is delicate with curry and enriched by a drift of creme fraiche that slowly melts into the liquid. Yet it begs for something crisp to break up its soft textures.
Steamed mussels can be explored half a dozen ways, presented, as they are in Belgium, in double-decker pots. Whatever version you choose, you'll be enveloped in a cloud of steam as the bowl-like lid of the vessel is removed (this part of the pot becomes a receptacle for the empty shells). I'm partial to a meaty heap of the shellfish flavored with celery, bacon and a heady broth of mussel juice and beer. Like all the steamed mussel options, it turns up with a golden cone of twice-cooked fries that are best eaten without the accompanying thick, dull mayonnaise.
Of the meat entrees, the best is a light beef stew -- tender cubes of protein in a wash of dark sauce -- flanked with red cabbage and those scrumptious fries. This dish surpasses both the juicy but bland steak, which needs every speck of its herbed butter pat to give it some life, and the waterzooi made with chicken, which is watery rather than creamy. You're in better company with the seafood, be it an appetizer of salmon tartare, punched up with capers and glistening with flying fish roe, or a main dish of seared scallops, tender and sweet. The latter are presented with crisp snow peas and both pureed and diamond-cut carrots spiked with cumin.
Vandaele's plates are often dressed to the hilt, some presentations more harmonious than others. Gently seared cod rests on a crackling wonton poised atop halved Brussels sprouts, the whole construct surrounded by potato-cod puree flecked with chives (a twist on brandade) and threads of fried beet. The entree is appealing, if a tad busy. Even artier is duck staged on a long white plate, the dimples of which hold a few bland slices of bird on celery root puree, a hash of roasted vegetables with tart cherries and (I'm saving the best for last) spring rolls filled with duck meat. After spending what seemed like minutes describing one particular dish, a waiter smiled and said he shouldn't promise so much because "they're always changing things in the kitchen." ("They" should start with the foie gras appetizer, which is smoked and poached -- and acrid, as if it had been scorched in a bonfire.) With one notable exception -- when lunch took as long to get to the table as it takes to get through airport security the day before Thanksgiving -- the service here has been upbeat, bright, attentive and personable.
The dessert selections are as erratic as the other courses at Belga. The high note is a rich and elegant flourless chocolate tart, as good as you'd find anywhere in town. Several rungs below it on the pleasure scale, though, is a thick waffle served with diced apple and a pumpkin-flavored custard sauce that does the famous Belgian waffle a dishonor by showing up cold.
Asparagus fritters are such a bad idea that I'm surprised they survived their debut. A friend described the dessert as "the single most revolting thing I've eaten that I've been able to hold down." I wouldn't go that far, though asparagus bundled in sheer pastry and accompanied by asparagus ice cream proved both vegetal and sweet, akin to eating a salad sprinkled with sugar.
Washington could use more Belgian cooking, and the Hill could use more places to dine. Considering its pluses and minuses, Belga Cafe is a small step in the right direction.