The Hot Plate: For the Joy of Moules-Frites

Finding the Best of Belgium

Posted September 17, 2008 at 4:23pm

It’s almost impossible to open a menu in Washington these days without facing the option of a big bucket of mussels and a dizzying array of Belgian beers.

Belgium, a country cobbled together from parts of France and the Netherlands in 1830, has just 10 million people, and its cuisine has had an outsized influence — particularly in Washington.

Its signature dish of moules-frites can be found in countless D.C. eateries, while nearly a dozen area restaurants claim a Belgian pedigree.

For starters, there are several already-established choices: Brasserie Beck, Belga Cafe, Granville Moore’s and Mannequin Pis. The invasion continued this spring with Et Voila! on

MacArthur Boulevard in D.C.’s Palisades neighborhood. [IMGCAP(1)]

Belgian food is a good thing. While we Americans love continental cooking — who can resist all that butter, cheese, good wine and crusty bread? — we also love hearty portions.

Belgian cuisine covers both bases. Some call it the flavor of French food matched with the heartiness of German dishes.

Mannequin Pis, which opened in 1999 way out in Olney, Md., is one of the area’s oldest. (Check out the Web site — mannequinpis.com — just for the fun of hearing Jacques Brel sing in his gravelly voice.) It’s also known and long loved for its moules-frites, beef stew and traditional atmosphere.

Then there are the restaurants that admit to a Belgian influence: Marcel’s (a self- described as a “French restaurant with a Flemish touch” at 2401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW); Marvin (2007 14th St. NW, named in honor of the two years that Marvin Gaye spent in Belgium and serving Belgian fare alongside Southern cooking); and dozens of French restaurants like Le Chat Noir in Friendship Heights (4907 Wisconsin Ave. NW) and Bistro du Coin (1738 Connecticut Ave. NW) that can’t resist the lure of the moules.

With all this wealth, how is a diner to decide?

For consistent and delicious Belgian food, the overall winner is Brasserie Beck at 1101 K St. NW in McPherson Square. It’s hard to go wrong there with most choices: The Flemish-style beef carbonnade ($26 for an entrée) is tender and flavorful, the mussels ($20 for entrée size with Belgian frites) are some of the best in town, and the grilled trout in a lemon caper sauce ($24) is delicate and tasty. And then there is the restaurant’s famed pear tarte tatin with cinnamon honey ice cream ($10). Save room.

Et Voila! also offers some decent options for the Belga-file. The cozy and narrow restaurant at 5120 MacArthur Blvd. NW looks as Belgian as many a bistro in Brussels. Its mussels are a bit smaller and less flavorful than Brasserie Beck’s, but Et Voila! does make decent frites and a delicious butternut squash soup ($8).

It also offers creative variations on the tradition dishes: Instead of coquilles St. Jacques, there’s “poelee de st. jacques aux chicons et gingembre, sauce Hoegaarden,” or sautéed sea scallops with gingered Belgian endive in Hoegaarden sauce ($22.05). [IMGCAP(2)]

But be warned: The service at Et Voila! is spotty. On a Saturday evening, we were a group of six with some familiarity with Belgian cuisine. One of our party asked our waiter what the “lambic” in Belgian beer referred to. The waiter didn’t know. (We learned later that the term is Belgian beer 101— a basic reference to beer made with spontaneous fermentation from wild yeast floating in the atmosphere.)

And — in a move that would be horrifying to anyone who’s spent any time in European restaurants — we were made to feel rushed that evening. It was clear that our table was needed.

Almost as soon as we sat down, and even before we had ordered drinks, our waiter appeared, interrupted our conversation and asked, “Are you ready to order?” Most wait staff in D.C. are trained to ask diners whether they have any questions about the menu, or at the very least, to offer an aperitif.

Even so, we would be willing to give Et Voila! another chance, if only because the spot opened in April, and it often takes some time to work out the kinks.

The restaurant’s grilled salmon “au vert” with mashed potatoes was tender, if a bit on the salty side. The waterzooi de poulet (basically, a chicken stew in a cream-based sauce) was uninspired ($16.95), but then again, waterzooi has never been the most exciting of dishes. It’s more like home-cooking with a bit of a European twist.

Belga Cafe (514 Eighth St. SE on Capitol Hill), which claims “traces of Belgian cooking” with more of a “Eurofusion” influence, also has a mixed record.

There are several very traditional Belgian dishes: tomatoes stuffed with baby shrimp for an appetizer ($14.95), hangersteak ($22.95), waterzooi made with fish ($22.95) and Belgian-style asparagus ($8.95).

Unfortunately, not every traditional item was well made: The asparagus appetizer (“Poached asparagus with a light egg-parsley-butter sauce, Flemish style”) was bland and overcooked. The waiter graciously offered to take it off our bill.

On the positive side, the roasted chicken with braised Belgian endive and fingerling potatoes ($21.95) were delicious, as were the frites and an interesting appetizer, a “cigar” of chicken and crabmeat ($8.95).

It’s tough to assess Granville Moore’s at 1238 H St. NE. The restaurant doesn’t take reservations, and on a recent Friday evening, there was a three-hour wait for a table.

If the crowd is any indication, that’s obviously good news for the food. But no matter how good, D.C.’s Belgian restaurants still have a ways to go before they reach Belgian quality.

Even at top-notch Brasserie Beck one night, the waiter didn’t know what one diner meant when he ordered “escargot” for an appetizer. “Oh, snails!” he responded when we explained.

Maybe next time, we’ll try ordering in Flemish.