February 2005Belga Café is Capitol Hill's newest hot spot--lots of Belgian beers, five kinds of mussels, and the best fries in town
Everybody Eats Well in Belgium is the title of Ruth Van Waerebeek-Gonzalez's cookbook about Belgian cooking, and judging from the full tables in Belga Café's sleek dining room, it's more than just a catchy title. Belga Café is the creation of Belgian-born Bart Vandaele, who came to the United States eight years ago as chef for the European Union ambassador; he most recently was executive chef for the Dutch ambassador.
Belga Café's modern design, with brick walls, granite bar, and open kitchen, is an appropriate setting for Vandaele's cooking, which combines traditional Belgian and contemporary "Eurofusion" dishes. Almost everything on the menu sounds appealing. Starters include little "cigars" of fried pastry stuffed with chicken and crabmeat. Duck liver is served with a fruit "tutti-frutti" and a delicious salad of arugula and julienned apple. Another good salad combination is Belgian endive with oranges and bleu cheese. The disappointments are mostly from the "classic" part of the appetizer menu. A delicious salad of little gray shrimp fills a flavorless out-of-season tomato. Gray shrimp croquettes lack flavor, as does the endive soup with curry.
Main courses, with a couple of exceptions, have been terrific. Waterzooi of chicken, a creamy chicken stew with vegetables, is textbook perfect--flavorful chicken and nicely cooked vegetables in a creamy sauce. Beef stew made with beer is satisfyingly rich. A filet of cod, perfectly cooked, is served with Brussels sprouts and a salt-cod brandade. A high point of the menu--a dish Vandaele says he learned in a two-star Michelin restaurant--is the veal sweetbreads, crisply fried and served in an intensely herby rosemary jus, accompanied by mashed potatoes and asparagus. "I know other ways to cook sweetbreads," Vandaele says, "but I like this one so much I'm going to leave it on the menu."
Another high point is a less exotic dish, fried potatoes. When they're perfect, and that has been two out of three times in my experience, they're the best pommes frites in town. The hardest part of making great fries, Vandaele says, was finding the right potato. His are from GPOD of Idaho and not generally available in stores. "I cook them the classic way," he says, "the way I learned from my dad and my grandmother." That means frying them twice, once at a lower temperature to cook them and then at a higher temperature to brown them. "You just have to watch the temperatures carefully." The resulting fries are tender but not mushy inside, crisp outside, lightly salted, and taste intensely of potatoes. They're worth a trip to Capitol Hill.
The pommes frites are included with the beef stew and the steak, and may be ordered as a side. Oddly, the traditional dish that features them--moules frites--was one of the disappointments at Belga Café. There are five mussel preparations on the menu. The mussels with garlic butter, served in their cooking pot, were overcooked with no taste of garlic. The broth, which is supposed to be one of the glories of the dish, was bitter. The fries, on the other hand, were perfect.
Two unusual desserts are worth trying. The more successful of them is asparagus fritters with asparagus ice cream. It's odd, but it works. The other is a tarte Tatin of Belgian endives. The combination of sweet and bitter is jarring but intriguing.
It's a tribute to the cooking at Belga Café that patrons are willing to put up with some hassle to eat it--long waits to order, delays between courses, mixed-up orders. Complaints are handled sympathetically. If the service is ever as good as the pommes frites, Belga Café will be a star.