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Daniele Francoise Johnson has heard customers pose the question often enough that she’s developed a schtick for answering it. First, she’ll drop clues: Waterloo. Battle of the Bulge. NATO. When those hints produce nothing more than blank stares, Johnson lays out the geography: “It’s tiny,” she’ll explain, “and it’s stuck between Holland—the Netherlands, if you want to be politically correct—and France. That’s what we’re made of. Some provinces from France, some provinces from the Netherlands, and a couple provinces from Germany.”
The beauty of Johnson’s short tutorial is that it answers not just where Belgium is but also a little about what it is, and her customers generally are interested in both. For most of the seven years that Johnson has run Bistrot Belgique Gourmande, the restaurant was the only one in the Washington region serving traditional Belgian cuisine. The niche is unique in more ways than one, because it demands that Johnson serve up context alongside her estimable roti de porc dijonnaise. Unlike a great many ethnic restaurateurs, Johnson and her bistro are the product of chance (she followed her husband/business partner to America after meeting him at a Chinese restaurant in her native Brussels) as opposed to cultural upheaval; she can’t count on a sizable community of similarly displaced locals to help re-create the place that they’ve left. So her Belgian waffles, pillowy and decadent as they are, don’t exist to satisfy any nationalistic cravings.
Still, Belgian cuisine’s idiosyncrasy and isolation have obvious advantages. Primarily, they help Johnson fill her out-of-the-way space. Belgique Gourmande is located in Occoquan, Va., which is a nice riverside town. Would you trek the 20-odd miles for tacos? But what if the bounty is a cauldron of mussels steamed in wine with leeks and celery? The mollusks are a signature of the restaurant as well as the country it represents, and Johnson says she has customers who travel from Philly to get their hands on some. Orders are so generous that they come in two batches, each containing at least a fleck of sand to remind you that the shellfish once inhabited someplace besides your plate. During her busy, all-you-can-eat celebrations, Johnson will steam 40 pounds of mussels until their meat is suggestively swollen. And the frites that come alongside are peerless—fried twice to acquire a kind of two-ply crispness.
Before setting up shop, Johnson searched for a space reminiscent of home. The building she choose, wedged into an alley in downtown Occoquan, must have seemed like some kind of gift. The town is one of those historic and well-preserved Virginia locales that’s ancient by American standards; viewed through the prism of one of Gourmande’s rickety dining rooms, it feels vaguely European. If you need to go to the bathroom, look for the sign that says “W.C.”
Johnson, who often doubles as a server, is the sole member of the kitchen staff, and her work space is a vision of controlled chaos shrouded in water vapor. Through the kitchen’s doorway and window, the chef can see many of her customers; listen to her voice over the clatter of banging pans and you might find out that it’s you she’s actually talking to. The restaurant’s hours are quirky. It’s open only Thursday through Sunday, and even on those nights Johnson reserves the right to remain closed if she feels ill or if reservations are down. A line on Gourmande’s Web site reads: “We are not a real restaurant.”
Johnson laughs when I tell her that the demand for Belgian restaurants in New York has actually spawned a chain. Her native cuisine, a cross-breed frozen between German heartiness and French refinement, is meaty, warm, and rich—but not particularly photogenic. Johnson got her gazpacho written up in Bon Appetit, but it’s a summer dish, and now is the season for the hearty dishes Gourmande thrives on: beef Burgundy, creamed mushrooms served over toast, beer-braised beef, and waterzooi, a delicious Belgian classic composed here (some waterzoois are made with seafood) of chicken, leeks, and heavy cream.
A Belgian meal, of course, would be incomplete without some deftly spiced beer to wash it back. (A group of Gourmande regulars call themselves BURPers—Brewers United for Real Potables.) Johnson persuasively argues that no one understands beer quite like a Belgian, and she credits the 60-odd varieties that she stocks for much of her restaurant’s success. “When we opened the restaurant,” she explains, “not only did people not have a clue what kind of cuisine we were serving or where on earth we were from, but there were only eight Belgian beers on the market. There are now more than 100. That’s in seven years. We ended up opening at the right time, right when there was an interest in beers other than Bud.”
Finding the right time to close Gourmande may require just as much luck as she had in its opening. Johnson’s let on that her dream is to move with her husband to North Carolina, but she assures her customers that the move is still a few years off and that she doesn’t intend to let her restaurant die in her absence. A message on the restaurant’s Web site lays out her objective in no uncertain terms: “[W]e will turn the operation over to a Belgian Chef who would like to build on what we have started.” Following that is a parenthetical, which reads, “If there is such a person reading this, let us know.”
Bistrot Belgique Gourmande, 302 Poplar Alley, Occoquan, (703) 494-1180.
Last spring, Le Mannequin Pis joined Gourmande in its niche and made D.C.’s sub-suburbs the place to be for moules and frites. While supplies last, anyway: On a recent Wednesday, we arrive to find that the bistro’s kitchen has run out of mussels—a fact made more depressing when a batch is brought out to a table of diners who arrived after us. The service in the comely, filled-to-capacity dining room continues on as if we don’t exist, so we’re particularly thankful that chef-owner Bernard Dehaene has given his special attention to our food; his pastry-wrapped salmon is perfectly executed, and his pork tastes as if it was raised to be stuffed with figs and spinach. I have to return to experience the chef’s convention-busting take on mussels: The batch I try is cooked in lamb stock, and I don’t regret making the trip.
Le Mannequin Pis, 18064 Georgia Ave., Olney, (301) 570-4800. —Brett Anderson
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