Two weeks after opening last October, Belga Cafe was turning people away at the door. A month or so later, the crowded restaurant added lunch hours. One Friday afternoon, I sat pressed up against the far brick wall with a friend, unable to move. After several aborted attempts at making eye contact with my server, I finally flagged him; he angled his body between the tables like a matador, negotiating a path with a battery of “Excuse me”s and “Thank you”s. It was as claustrophobic a circumstance as I’ve seen since riding one of those five-buck Chinatown buses to New York.
I’ve always been a little baffled about the lemminglike rush of customers to a new place—Where were all these people eating before?—but the hordes at this Euro bistro on Barracks Row are not surprising if you know anything at all about the dining landscape on Capitol Hill.
What dining landscape? you may be asking.
For all the affluence of its residents, Capitol Hill has long been a culinary wasteland. There aren’t even a handful of restaurants I could reliably recommend to people who don’t live nearby. So Belga’s early success can be chalked up, in part, to its captive audience.
But only in part. I’d be willing to guess that what has sustained the buzz all these weeks is the allure of exoticism. On a street lined with fading neighborhood restaurants, all turning out variations of pub grub or familiar middlebrow fare, Belga is a showy arriviste. The room is sleek and long and white, with recessed lights, clean-lined tables and chairs, and a devotion to minimalism so complete that the biggest decorative touch is a trio of wreaths made from mussel shells.
For the most part, though, the cooking is not as unfamiliar as the Dutch/English menu might suggest. (Desserts—represented in part by a caramelized-endive tart and a plate of asparagus beignets—are about as unusual as it gets.) Chef Bart Vandaele, who cooked for the Belgian ambassador, has fashioned a slate of dishes that are not so different from what you might find at any French or French-leaning bistro—in both price (most entrees are under $20) and selection. Besides the roast chicken, there are sweetbreads and a pan-seared duck breast; a Flemish beef stew takes the role usually assigned to short ribs.
That’s not to say that Belga doesn’t present its share of challenges. I’m usually not inclined to take more than a bite of bread, but I made short work of the baskets here, reacquainting myself with the talents of Firehook Bakery as I waited, interminably, for my main courses to arrive.
And you can spend the better part of three visits, as I did, trying to figure out where on the menu it’s best to train your attention. Other than the duck-liver pâté, I wasn’t enamored of the appetizers. A dish of poached asparagus in a parsley-butter-and-egg sauce required a bit of unexpected double-doctoring; liberal salting failed to wake up the flavors, and I was left to crib a lemon half from my water to do the trick. An endive soup suffered from too much cream. The crab-meat-and-chicken cigars are intended to call to mind the delicate charms of the East, but they tasted as if someone had looked to the nearest happy hour for inspiration.
Mains, divided between traditional Belgian fare and “Eurofusion” dishes, are stronger, though Vandaele succeeds best when he doesn’t attempt too many competing effects in a single plate. The firmness and sweetness of the roast cod were accentuated by a handful of hardy caramelized Brussels sprouts. By contrast, an Asian-inflected concoction of scallops and crisp snow peas, set atop a pool of carrot-cumin mousseline, was a chorus of unsynched voices, with sweetness making a roguish attempt at snatching attention. And a dish of lamb—thick plugs of meat wrapped in puff pastry and set atop a too-salty reduction—tasted like the kind of impersonal cooking you come to an intimate bistro to avoid.
The best navigational clue I can offer is to treat any reference to beer the way a literature student would treat a reference to water—as language pregnant with significance. Many of the best dishes here are beer-based, from the sporadically tender beef stew, lent a great depth of flavor by its stout reduction, to the leg of rabbit with “red beer ale.”
And my favorite dish is the mussels steamed in white beer with bacon, one of five excellent preparations of the bivalve. Too often, you find shriveled little bits inside their inky shells, the steaming liquid your only compensation. Not here. These are meaty, plump mussels, as sweet as any in the city, and the little black kettles are filled to the brim with them. They could hardly be improved upon, but Belga goes ahead and throws in a paper cone of its terrific fries and a cup of rich Belgian mayo.
Of course, the beer list, which precedes the selection of wines on the menu, includes the whole range from ales such as Duvel and Delirium Tremens to dark beers such as the mellow, sweet Maredsous.
In the end, as much as the stylish Belga would seem to represent something new and different for the neighborhood, and as much as the nightly swarms reinforce that impression, it’s really not so much a departure as another place to go for a good cold one and a plate of simple, hearty cooking.
Belga Cafe, 514 8th St. SE. (202) 544-0100.—Todd Kliman
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