The Belgian Cafe

The brews - a dozen on tap and 250 bottle labels - are just about everything an ale hunter could want, but the dining is dicey.

Posted: December 23, 2007

I've long operated under the belief that there are few ills in life that a chalice of high-octane Belgian beer can't cure.

That, of course, was before I met the vegan "scallops" wrapped in "facon" at the Belgian Cafe. These marinated tofu plugs come ringed in a crisp jacket of soy bacon, and they are something to behold, topped with orange beads of faux caviar. But eating them is an unsettling adventure into the synthetic unknown.

I'm as open as any omnivore to fake-meat cookery. I even gave three bells to Horizons, Bella Vista's pioneering vegan eatery. But this creation tasted like peppered white mush wrapped in pig-flavored cardboard. And no matter how much we let the triple ale flow - at that moment, a very fine Slaapmutske Triple Nightcap - it refused to improve.

Unfortunately, neither did most of the other food groups, be they mammal or mollusk, on the menu at this 3-month-old Belgian successor to Tavern on Green in Fairmount.

I dove into four different varieties of steamed mussels - the definitive staple of any Belgian pub - and found them swimming in such watery gray broth, they were indistinguishably bland. JalapeƱo and orange zest? Apples and Swiss cheese? So said the menu. But there were more empty shells and closed mussels than vivid flavors. The best was the paella-inspired "Eddy Merckx" topped with saffron broth and peas, but I could have done without the addition of Uncle Ben's brown rice. (Don't they have real rice back there?)

My dinners here were such a rude surprise considering that the owners of this restaurant - Tom Peters and Fergus Carey - are the team behind two of my favorite resto-bars, Monk's Cafe and Grace Tavern. These guys are as responsible as anyone for cultivating Philly's current Belgian boom and, indirectly, for inspiring a heady draught of competition from the likes of Zot, Teresa's Next Door, and the Beneluxx Tasting Room from Old City's Eulogy.

Certainly, the beer aspect of this restaurant, displayed in a dozen taps and about 250 bottle labels behind the gothic wood-paneled bar, where they are stashed inside in a wall of glass fridges, is everything an ale hunter could need.

Though slightly smaller than Monk's selection, it shares the same smart mix of classics (like Chimay, Dupont and Westmalle), spicy seasonal brews (De Dolle Stille Nacht), esoterica (the super-bitter Fantome Bris BonBon), and numerous American craft brews (Flying Dog Gonzo Porter; oak-aged Jolly Pumpkin).

The Belgian Cafe's staff, meanwhile, knew the beers well enough for sound advice, a fair consolation for attitudes that ranged from friendly but ditzy to downright brusque.

The kitchen has more serious issues to resolve, far more elemental than deciding whether or not the freshly fried frites should be thick-cut (as they have been), or slimmed down to Monk's-style laces (as they recently resorted to).

Let's start with the handful of items that are worth eating should you find yourself hoisting a glass of St. Bernardus 12 and suddenly get the munchies. Any of the burgers would be fine with that dark, licoricey abbey-style ale, but I was particularly pleased with the "Chimay," which was a well-cooked quality patty topped with Lancaster ham and Chimay cheese.

But you'll have to order a side of frites with the burger (and they're great when hustled out fresh; our second-night batch was chewy from sitting around). The burger's complimentary side salad was a wilted pile of 11 micro-greens.

The veal a la Kriek with beer-steeped dried cherry sauce isn't as leaden as some of the other meats, our sweet draft of fruited Lindemans perking it up with a fizzy echo of that funky wild cherry.

The smoked trout platter was a lovely smoked fish platter to begin (great with tangy saison ales), but this kitchen didn't cook that pre-smoked fish. Likewise for the perfectly good desserts made by Old City's Tartes, which bakes an excellent little pecan tart.

It's when the Belgian Cafe's cooks get ambitious that the trouble really starts. The "Rubens" with house-cured organic corned beef and sour ale endive kraut sounds great. But the dried-up and chewy shreds of brown beef looked more like scraps of a Yankee pot roast than any corned beef I've seen.

The basic beef stew cooked with Urthel Vlamese Bock ale was inexplicably chewy. The real seared sea scallops bounced like rubber disks in a citrus Duvel butter sauce that was thin and unpleasantly sour. The roulade of chicken stuffed with Chimay cheese and ham was actually tasty, but it was welded to the plate with a tepid brown sauce so gelatinized, it sprang back unmarked when I pressed a finger in.

It is the cafe's obsession with homemade vegan dishes, though, that is most perplexing - especially because they are so awful.

The corn-crusted seitan chicken wings are spongy blobs coated in sticky barbecue sauce, no more appealing than mystery leftovers from a Chinese buffet. The vegan spring rolls filled with tempeh and ginger are reasonably tasty (despite their greasy pan-fried shine). But our mushy slice of vegan meatloaf should never have seen the dining-room light. Made of shredded tempeh, mushrooms and walnuts, then streaked with a thin puree of acidic marinara, it had the bristly consistency of a squashed hedgehog on a plate.

In the name of the Order of the Brewer's Mashstaff (of which Peters is a Knight): Why? Why?

The Belgian Cafe's only worthy reply flows forth by the bottle and glass. And it would be unfair not to consider this major new beer cellar as something worth saluting. It won't cure most of the pub's kitchen ills. But it has saved it - by the frothing head of foamy Duvel - from becoming the city's first "No Bell Belgian."


Next week, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews the "Year in Bells." Contact him at claban@phillynews.com.

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