LOOKING AHEAD ON THE HILL: Bart Vandaele, a former chef for the Dutch ambassador to the United States, is poised to open a place of his own later this month on Capitol Hill, and he's eager to show diners that there's more to Belgian cuisine than mussels, beer and chocolate. He even has a name for his innovative style: "Euro-fusion."
The phrase will translate on the dinner menu as a couscous terrine with fresh tuna and sweet-and-sour duck breast. Traditionalists needn't worry, however. The chef's menu also will include plenty of familiar, if lightened, dishes from the Belgian repertoire, including shrimp croquettes, beef stew and six different flavors of steamed mussels. The beer list stretches to some 40 Belgian-style labels.
Belga Cafe (514 8th St. SE; 202-544-0100) takes the place of a flower shop and looks as if it could seat people right this moment, dressed as it already is with new chairs and fresh paint on the walls. In the rear, a communal table that can accommodate 14 diners sits in front of an exhibition kitchen. Finding a vacant location on this stretch of the Hill was "pure luck," says the chef, who likes the European feel of the neighborhood (whose denizens conveniently include his girlfriend).
No stranger to the stove, the 34-year-old Vandaele was raised in Belgium by parents who were both chefs; he began formal cooking instruction at age 12. Before leaving for the United States in 1997, Vandaele worked at Restaurant Scholteshof, where as sous chef the establishment garnered a coveted two (out of a possible three) Michelin stars. Prior to joining the staff of the Dutch Embassy, Vandaele was executive chef at the residence of the Delegation of the European Commission in Washington.
The chef's whimsical streak runs right through dessert, a course that will incorporate two popular Belgian vegetables: Belgian endive takes the place of apples in a tart tatin, while asparagus finds its way into beignets. Dig in!