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Belgian delights

"Eating here is like eating at home." Sure, if your mom's an excellent Belgian chef, and dozens of Belgian beers line your basement shelves.

These days, when you ask a server at an upscale restaurant which beers are available, he or she may well produce a printed beer menu, complete with prices suitable to wine.

For this, you can credit Belgian ales and the pub and restaurant owners who were determined to carry them even when distributors said they couldn't make money selling high-priced beer. Way back in 1995, chef Thierry Monty of Café de Bruxelles in Manhattan discussed the beer-food connection in the Good Beer Guide to New York, saying, "We've been waiting 10 years for everyone to catch up."

Recently, the restaurants Steak Frites and Waterloo, featuring Belgian cuisine and beers, opened in Manhattan, and the founders of the two Croxley Ales Ale Houses on Long Island were making plans to open Waterzooie, a Belgian bistro with 20 Belgian-style beers on tap and 100 more in bottles, in Garden City.

New Yorkers aren't the only ones catching up. From Billy's Long Bar in Albuquerque, to the New French Café in Minneapolis, from Higgins Restaurant & Bar in Portland, Ore., to Cicero's in St. Louis, more and more bars are serving Belgian beers, often on tap. TapWerks Ale House & Café in Oklahoma City has put as many as nine Belgian beers on tap at once, quite a feat in a state best known for its 3.2 law.

While some of the places that are relatively new to Belgian beers are terrific, you can't go wrong frequenting establishments that began serving Belgian beer before it was "in." At those places, you'll likely be able to learn about the style of beer you are drinking, and there's a better chance it will taste like the brewer intended. While it's fine to note that Belgian beers may taste "funky," that's no excuse for serving beer through dirty lines, beer that has oxidized because it has been on tap too long, or bottled beer that hasn't been stored properly.

The Belgian veterans include top-flight beer bars like Toronado in San Francisco, which annually hosts a special Belgian beer tasting, the Brickskeller in Washington, DC, the Hopleaf Bar in Chicago, and Burp Castle and d.b.a in Manhattan. Others are Belgian restaurants, such as the Belgian Bistro in Livermore, Calif., and L'Estro Armonico in Austin, Texas. Still others are restaurants that have established a reputation for cooking with beer and pairing beer with food, like the Farmhouse in Emmaus, Penn.

Here's a closer look at four of the best:

Monk's Café & Beer Emporium
264 S. 16th St., Philadelphia

OK, co-owners Fergus Carey and Tom Peters only opened Monk's in March 1997. However, Peters is one of those guys who, whenever he went out to eat years ago, would ask if he could order something like Chimay with his dinner. Meanwhile, he was offering Chimay in the restaurants he managed.

Peters was instrumental in boosting the profile of Belgian beer in the United States, mostly because of his determination to offer it on draft. He succeeded only by making endless phone calls to importers, distributors and the breweries themselves. "I've been known to be rather relentless. I think they send me beer just to get me off their backs," he said in 1995. Peters managed to get draft Kwak for Philadelphia's Copa, Too! (which he ran for 11 years) in June 1995, and that really opened the floodgates for Belgian beer in the United States.

By the next spring, more than a half-dozen draft Belgian beers were available around the country, and in April 1996, Copa, Too! held a one-day special event with 14 Belgian beers on tap. Today, bars can choose from dozens of draft Belgian beers.

"In America, people have a fixation on draft beer," Peters said. "The perception is that it is a fresher product. When it comes to Belgian beers, fresh doesn't always mean better."

Peters is delighted that when he visits restaurants nowadays, they serve Belgian beers. "It's good for us," he said. "If they want to learn more (about Belgian beers), we are the destination." Most of the 19 taps at Monk's are devoted to Belgian beers, with the selection always changing. "We'll go through about 40-45 kegs of Belgian beer a week," Peters said. A few taps are usually reserved for regional craft beers, and the bottle menu is extensive and esoteric. "Monk's Beer Bible" is 18 pages and serves as both menu and beer primer.

Monk's draws many Belgian tourists and Americans recently returned from Belgium. "They really like the back room," Peters said. "We built it to look Old World." For many, food is as much of an attraction as beer. The menu is totally Belgian influenced and has evolved since Peters visited Belgium last November and spent every evening in a different kitchen.

"There's no such thing as Belgian cuisine, really; it's a hybrid," Peters said. "I guess what's really distinct is, they use a lot of beer to cook with."

The menu Monk's rolled out in March certainly reflects that. For instance, Salmon avéc Framboise is a grilled salmon with Boon Framboise-scented sauce and whole, toasted white peppercorns. The Duck Kriek is a roasted half duck basted with dried cherries soaked in Boon Kriek, and the Lapin a la Chouffe is rabbit braised in La Chouffe.

The building in which Monk's operates dates to the late 1800s and housed the Royal Oaks hotel, which had the first hotel elevator in Philadelphia. During Prohibition, it also served as a whisky drop. Customers would clip cash to a rope and the bootleggers would pull up the cash, then drop a bottle of booze out the third-floor window onto a pile of rags in the alley.

Bistrot Belgique Gourmande
302 Poplar Alley, Occoquan, Va.

"Eating here is like eating at home," said the Washington Post in a review of the Bistrot Belgique. Sure, if your mom's an excellent Belgian chef, and dozens of Belgian beers line your basement shelves.

The Bistrot (Belgian spelling) does indeed have a homey atmosphere, however. The building resembles a house, and there's only seating for about 40. It's a place for dining, drinking and conversing, and the overall feeling is comfortable.

This is the perfect place to take your time and work your way through a beer list. Steve Johnson, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Danièle, keeps as many bottled Belgian beers on hand as he can get, at last count about 45 on a consistent basis. Many of the beers are served with their own glass, bearing the brewery's name, as well. Steve, who is with NATO, spends more time in Belgium than the United States, and he has toured many of the breweries whose beer he serves.

Danièle, who hails from Wezembeek, near Brussels, is the chef, and the menu features traditional bistrot cuisine. Special events include all-you-can-eat mussels nights at least two Thursdays a month (the regular menu is also available), and a bimonthly Fête Gastronomique à la Bière, for which every dish is cooked with beer. A recent feast included potato-leek soup made with Blanche de Bruges; asparagus steamed with a butter-Hoegaarden sauce; pork loin served with a sauce of apricots, cream and Boon Geuze; and passion fruit mousse cake with a strawberry-Lindeman's raspberry sauce.

Although it does almost no advertising, the Bistrot is losing its reputation as one of the DC area's best-kept secrets in the wake of positive reviews and enthusiastic word of mouth. "Seventy percent of our customers are regulars, and they bring people," Steve Johnson said.

The March issue of Washingtonian magazine voted the restaurant's fries tops in the area. Calling them "fries" is almost an insult, however. These are pommes frites, the fluffy, crispy, souffle-like delicacies that most Americans can only dream about.

The Bistrot is usually open Thursday through Sunday for lunch and dinner, and for Sunday brunch, featuring scrumptious Belgian waffles, as well. Reservations are a must, since Danièle does all the cooking. "If she gets sick, we have to call and tell people 'don't come,' " Steve Johnson said.

Archer Ale House
1212 Tenth St., Bellingham, Wash.

What food the Archer serves is excellent, but co-owners Rick and Lisa Schessler don't aim to run a restaurant. "We see ourselves as a pub," Rick Schessler said. "We're here for conversation. Belgian beer is the perfect lubricant for conversation."

Because Northwest alehouses and their customers support regional craft brewers so strongly, imports are not always easy to find. "There's so much local pride that sometimes people don't look beyond those beers," Schessler said. "I think Belgian beers are the next step."

Belgian beers account for perhaps 8 percent of beer sales at the Archer, where nearly 90 percent of sales are draft, but they set the pub apart. There are more than 50 Belgian and Belgian-influenced bottled beers available, with an occasional offering on tap.

"It's as much a hobby for me to have them as it is a business decision," Schessler said. "You start tasting them, they become like your friends." When a distributor recently told Schessler he would be discontinuing a few Belgian brands, the publican bought the rest of the stock, knowing the bottle-conditioned beer would age well in his cellar. "I don't want to be without them," he said.

The pub is surprisingly bright and airy, considering that it's located in the cellar of a circa-1900 building with stone-and-brick walls and a stamped-steel ceiling. The stand-up bar (there's seating at adjoining tables) was last used in 1906 in a San Francisco restaurant that was destroyed in the earthquake.

Schessler surveyed the pub one day last spring. "There's a painter and a carpenter at one table," he said. "One has a bottle of Blanche des Honnelles, the other Duvel.

"The carpenter only drinks Duvel."

Cadieux Café
4300 Cadieux, Detroit

Belgian immigrants never flocked to the United States with the fervor of those from other European countries; after all, Belgium is pretty small. Many of those who did emigrate were farmers who ended up in the Midwest, particularly northern Wisconsin, and they spread out quickly. The largest single colony settled around Detroit. Cadieux Café came to life before Prohibition as a Belgian feather bowling lane and is the only one left in the country.

Cadieux was a speakeasy during Prohibition and became a café after Repeal. Robert and Yvonne Devos, who emigrated from Belgium to Detroit because they had family in the area, bought the restaurant in 1962, and today their son, Ron, and a nephew run the place.

"When they had the place, you couldn't get Belgian beer," Ron Devos said. Whenever a Belgian beer became available, he stocked it. "Now there are so many, you have to watch what you add."

Today, one of the eight taps may pour a Belgian beer, with most of the others serving imports and regional craft beers. The bottle menu includes many Belgian classics. The menu is a mix of Belgian favorites and American cuisine, with mussels a specialty. They are prepared a half-dozen different ways, with Mussels Creole (mussels in the half-shell with Creole sauce, onions and garlic) one of the favorites.

The restaurant is decorated with old pictures of Belgium and bicycling pictures, posters and gear, and the two dirt feather bowling lanes are through a door on the side of the dining room. Devos said the surrounding neighborhood isn't really Belgian anymore. "Most of the people kind of 'made it' and moved out to the suburbs," he said.

However, they come back often, particularly on Thursday nights for league bowling. Then the smell of mussels will be mixed with the sounds of French, German and Flemish, and all of it washed down with a beer such as Corsendonk or Chimay.

This story originally appeared in the September 1998 edition of All About Beer magazine.

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