Belga Café Hits the Ground Running
On a rainy Tuesday evening, the bar at Belga Café is filling up, and by 7 p.m. the hostess is regretfully turning away people without reservations. Just a few weeks after its late October opening, the Barracks Row restaurant is already one of the hottest tables in town.
If the overwhelming enthusiasm with which Capitol Hill residents have embraced the fledgling restaurant is any indication, the neighborhood is eager for better dining options. And Belga Café is rapidly distinguishing itself as one of the best bets on the Hill.
In the restaurant’s comfortable dining room, subdued cream walls and exposed brick give way to a deep crimson-colored alcove in the back, where the view of the open kitchen is best. A seat at the sleek granite bar also affords a view of the bustling kitchen and puts you in the heart of the dining room action.
The collection of Belgian beer glasses crowding the shelves behind the bar is the first sign that the restaurant takes beer very seriously. Following custom, many of the 35 beers — five on draft, the rest bottled — are poured in their specially designed barware. The lengthy beer list provides a tour of Belgian varieties, from fruity lambics to Trappist ales, and even includes a handful of American Belgian-style brews.
The focus on authenticity continues on the table, where hefty pots imported from Belgium hold mounds of steaming mussels. Of the six or so mussel choices, go for the flavorful white beer and bacon or the classic mussels marinière. Accompanying the hearty portions are cones of excellent fries, crisp and salty, served with tiny cups of housemade mayonnaise.
Belga’s mussels and frites make an excellent meal and rival some of the best in the city, but don’t overlook the well-rounded line-up of entrées, where chef Bart Vandaele’s talent shines brightest.
The thick Belgian steak, seasoned and seared to perfection, is elevated by a pat of herb butter melting over its already savory outer crust. Lamb loin “PH” delivers a pleasing contrast between the tender, medium-rare lamb and the crackling, crêpe-like coating wrapped around it. (The “PH” stands for Piet Huysentruyt, the chef in Belgium who mentored Vandaele for more than five years.)
Looking for an antidote to a chilly fall evening? The hearty rabbit stew, boasting two plump rabbit legs bathing in red ale, prunes and quince, makes the change in seasons almost a pleasure.
One of Vandaele’s great strengths is his knack for presentation. The plates parading out of the kitchen turn heads with their unconventional shapes and artful food arrangements. For example, tender veal sweetbreads, nicely accented with rosemary, steal the spotlight in an undulating dish with an elevated bowl in the center. The chef’s take on the classic coquilles Saint Jacques arrives on a teardrop-shaped plate with plump scallops nestled beside a light carrot mousse and soft baby carrots.
Sweet and sour duck breast appears on a narrow, three-part plate, which separates crisp duck cigars, a tangy relish of beets, cherries and celery, and the moist, thinly sliced duck, fanned out across creamy celery root purée.
When time comes for dessert, it’s hard to ignore the asparagus fritters with asparagus ice cream, which seem to taunt curious diners, daring them to order what sounds like an unpleasant combination. Much to the contrary, the dish works quite well. The fritters — crisp dough wrapped around whole asparagus stalks — smells of state fair, and the ice cream, though unmistakably asparagus flavored, is creamy and sweet.
On the other end of the dessert spectrum, chocolate mousse in three colors — a creamy white and milk and rich dark chocolates — is a delightful end to a meal. The trio of mousse-filled cups rests on a long plate whimsically adorned with pomegranate seeds and crushed pistachios.
Lunch service, which began last week, centers on savory waffles and light sandwiches. Don’t miss the velvety salmon tartar appetizer, complemented by tangy sour cream and celery waffles for scooping.
A weekend brunch starring chocolate and Belgian waffles is still in the works.
Even though the restaurant is barely a month old, missteps from the new kitchen are few and far between. Belgian endive soup with curry, served in a modern square bowl, needs salt and reveals only a hint of curry powder lingering behind the mild taste. The curry cream mussels don’t live up to their spicy name either.
But overall, it’s hard to go wrong, and with food this good, word has spread quickly and wait times on the weekends stretch over an hour. Some nights it seems the café’s overwhelming popularity may have taken the new staff off guard. The black-clad servers move at warp speed to accommodate the crowded dining room, and at times the bar appears understaffed.
The service may not be polished, but the staff is warm and friendly and shows more tact with customers than you’ll find at more seasoned restaurants. Waiters are eager to guide diners through the menu and offer helpful tips on the beer list.
Sometimes it’s the smallest things that set a restaurant above the competition, and Vandaele and his team have obviously paid a great deal of attention to the details. From the attractive place settings to the beautifully arranged food, it’s clear you’re in gifted hands. Even the restrooms are handsome, with rustic copper mirrors, flickering candles and fresh flowers.
Belga Café has hit the ground running, successfully avoiding many of the flubs and inconsistencies that are typical of new restaurants. It’s not perfect — some menu items aren’t available yet, and complaints of flustered service and odd reservation policies may be legit. But if its strong start is a sign of things to come, Belga Café is well on its way to winning many loyal fans.