I spent two years avoiding Clementine's Belgian Bistrot, fearing disappointment. There's a deluge of first-generation Belgian blood in my family, and along with it first-generation Belgian cooks and breathtaking, Belgium-grown recipes. I assumed it inevitable that Chef-owner Clementine Desmet's home cooking would let me down in the same way that restaurants let Louisianians down when the house gumbo is never as right as their mamas'.
I got a false-assumption adjustment three weeks ago, when early April's unseasonable sweater weather got me yenning for carbonnades a la flamandes, beef and beer stew. Clementine's kitchen greeted my belated arrival with a dish that was correct per my family's tastes: cubes of fall-apart beef in a thick, almost congealed gravy that embodied all the sweetness and tartness of a Trappist-style ale. Even the stew's monochromatic presentation, beside an equally monochromatic log-pile of fries, couldn't have been more trustworthy and European.
Fries are "Belgian fries" on Clementine's menu. You'd be polite to call them the same considering 1) Belgium's claim (unsubstantiated) to having invented "French fries," and 2) Belgium's widely recognized mastery of the "French"-frying technique. Clementine's fleecy fries are made from scratch -- hand-cut into irregular spears, double-fried and unevenly browned. Some may not hold up, drooping at the center like a slice of New York pizza, and they could use a hearty pelting of salt, but most batches are crisp and potato-meaty enough to have been served in a white paper cone at a Brussels frietkoet.
Belgians are indiscriminate about where they dip their fries, as long as it's not into regular catsup. Clementine's has two good, mayonnaise-based dipping sauces: Garlic and herbs over-animate one, while the pink-tinted Andalouse smacks of pimento. Order the sausage-like pork and veal meatballs smothered in a deeply smoky tomato sauce and served with Belgian fries for an advanced course in fry saucing. Despite the dish's Italian associations, swiping fries through tomato sauce makes you forget all about pasta.
The most famous eating street in Brussels, la Petite Rue des Bouchers, is a narrow, cobblestone thoroughfare of seafood restaurants, tourists squeezed against sidewalk tables and pushy maitre'ds plying Belgium's most notable fry pairing: moules et frites, mussels and fries. Clementine's presents this national dish three ways, including one I enjoyed that married a few dozen creamy-fleshed mussels steamed with onion, garlic and tomato; they were piled forearm-deep in a pot whose overturned lid served as a receptacle for discarded shells. Some Belgians seem to eat steamed mussels for the sole purpose of exposing the residual, garlicky broth, which is ideal for fry-dipping.
Chef Willy Coln (now at the Hotel InterContinental) ran a popular German restaurant in this spot in the 1980s and created the exterior's chalet look. Inside, the polished wooden tables, the heavy wooden chairs and the vaulted ceilings maintain a rustic, Alpen charm. An additional pastoral thread wanders throughout the decorative lattice work, the crawling vine wall stencils, and the metal, topiary-shaped cutouts serving as lampshades. A stunning mural of Brussels' majestic Grand Place glows along one wall.
There's a lot of space to fill, though, and the squeaky-clean rooms can feel deserted even during lunches so hectic that the lone waitress forgets you're there. Candles and French music soften the mood at night, and Clementine Desmet herself occasionally porters food from the kitchen while her son, Laurent, or husband, Daniel, mans the stove. There's something immediately warming about a mother, hand towel tossed over one shoulder, presenting lima bean soup and parfait glasses of chocolate mousse light as air.
Sometimes spicy, sometimes bittersweet, sometimes fruit-forward Belgian beers such as Duvel, Orval and Hoegaarden could generate cheer in a dungeon. These complex, sometimes challenging brews really blossom under the influence of cheesy foods, and there's no shortage of those here. Group-friendly Swiss cheese fondue is sweetened ever so slightly with raspberry liqueur and sopped up with wheat bread. Deep-fried cheese croquettes are a more typically Belgian appetizer, sandpapery on the outside and seemingly cut with potato inside. The macaroni au gratin larded with Black Forest ham isn't listed on the kids' menu, perhaps because a Chimay Red tempers its severe richness to such a delicious degree that it's no longer kid food.
Like the working-class cooking from any country, Belgian home cooking has little obvious star power. This was especially true with the dried-out slices of seared chicken breast sauced with an under-powering tarragon cream, and also in the vol-au-vent lunch special, which came with rice rather than the puff pastry shell after which it's named. My Belgian kin confirmed that both tasted like home anyway.
France and The Netherlands converge on Belgium's cuisine, its borders and its languages. You can taste this effect in Clementine's sweet and savory crepes, which range in texture and girth between the parchment-thin crepes of France and the slightly raised, dense pancakes that Dutch families eat for dinner. In presenting the caramelized apple Crepe Clementine, servers douse it with flaming Grand Marnier; the blue alcoholic blaze dies off to expose a brittle, orange-flavored sugar crust, a ball of vanilla ice cream skidding over its surface. Never miss an ending like this worrying about imaginary disappointment.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Flexing mussels: CLEMENTINE'S BELGIAN BISTROT knows its way around the moules et frites, or mussels and fries (served three different ways).