I've never before had Belgium food and I've never been to Belgium. As many times I have imagined going there, I've always wondered what the food would be like. Is it French, Flemish, or German? What really is Belgian food? Really it's all of the above. It's a melting pot of the best of western European cuisine with some very popular specialties. After eating Belgian cuisine in Washington, DC, I can say it's very hearty and immensely pleasureful. On my recent press trip to DC, I was invited to dine at Belga Café, a small Belgian restaurant that has been dishing out neighborhood favorites since 2004. Run by Belgian chef Bart Vandaele, the restaurant is a reflection of authentic Belgian fare, continental cuisine, and the chef's signature Eurofusion food, which comprises of a little bit of Europe and Asia.
That night the chef was on hand to create our five-course tasting menu with each course paired with Belgian beer. Just the night before I had enjoyed a beer-themed tasting menu at Birch & Barley. Would I be able to handle all beer again? I must mention that the restaruant has a menu offering more than 100 beers. Each beer is served in the appropriate glass, and many times the glass features the name of the beer. That's a lot of glasses—and beer—to have on hand for any size restaurant. Luckily we were seated by the open kitchen where we could watch the chef and his team in action. At one point there were four of use trying to capture a photo of Chef Vandaele, but he was almost too quick to catch on camera.
Before our first course even arrived, we were treated to a choice of beers, either a Stella Artois or Hoegaarden. I'm familiar with both beers—they're probably the most well-known Belgian beers here in the states. I chose a glass of Hoegaarden, which I haven't had in a long time. What more could you ask of a pale wheat beer than it be refreshing? And that's exactly what I like about it. Our first course arrived and it looked like such an art piece that I didn't know from which direction to begin. I decided upon left to right, first the traditional and very tiny Belgian gray shrimp tucked into a cherry tomato served with a frisée and seaweed salad and miso dressing, in the middle, a chilled avocado soup with crab meat, and on the right, a crab and chicken cigar with two dipping sauces. This presentation showed off the chef's Eurofusion angle. I especially loved the avocado soup. Avocado seemed to have been a theme during my stay in DC. I couldn't avoid being served it in one form or another at all the restaurants I visited.
For our second beer pairing, we were served the Goudon Carolus Hopsinjoor, a golden yellow beer with a noteworthy bitter taste, which I love. Soon after came a plate of gratineed mussels to be shared among our table. Even so I greedily managed to have my fill of my favorite bivalve. Note to self: must try broiling mussels at home. Next came a very light beer served in a tall tulip glass. It had one of the funniest names, Houblon La Chouffe, an unfiltered pale ale with a fruity taste. The beer is categorized as a tripel, which in Belgain and Dutch beer-making terminology denotes a strong pale ale. What I consider to be one of the most unique things I have ever eaten came next. It was a single rib that, as the chef explained, was braised first and then deep-fried. If I had to name one word to describe it: succulent. With that was a very nice house-made barbecue sauce and fried onions.
The next course included Rodenbach, a beer from the chef's hometown. I was surprised to smell cherries from this Flemish red ale. It had quite a sour or tart taste. The chef likened the beer to a French Bordeaux. I'm sure he took the red color and tart taste into account when he created the dish of seared scallop and escargot popover with red-wine reduction. Many of us were surprised to see red wine paired with scallops, but it worked wonderfully well. My favorite was the crispy hollow puff that revealed tender and garlicky escargot inside.
You can't go to a Belgian restaurant and not have a dish that the entire nation is most famous for and that is its beef stew and pommes frites. And they should not be called French fries, because in fact fried potatoes were invented in Belgium. These potatoes are characteristically fried twice. They thus become pillows with soft plush interiors and crunchy outer coats. At this point I was so full that I could barely touch my stew except for a few bites of sweet, tender beef. The beef was paired with Westmalle, a tripel originally brewed by Trappist monks. It has a golden color, with a fruity aroma of hops, and a slightly bitter taste. I really liked the fishbowl-like goblet the beer came in not to mention the beer itself. But I almost forgot that we still had dessert to follow, a course that would include the other foodstuff that Belgium is famous for, waffles.
Unfortunately I couldn't take a picture of the waffles because they were pretty much attacked by the time I got to try a piece. Let's just say they were fluffy and crispy and covered with a snowfall of powdered sugar. The chef presented us all with a different dessert. In front of me was placed a macerated fruit salad with sherbet. If only you could see the look on my face when I realized I hadn't gotten the waffles. The chef must have sensed it and next thing I knew he handed me a waffle. What was disappointment was quickly transformed to joy. Also nearby was the signature flourless chocolate cake, a lot like the famous molten cake. It's highly recommended for the chocolate lover. Also there was a crème brûlée trio, which included a perfect chocolate one. We ended the evening with three different flavors of Lambic: raspberry, apple, and black cherry. I loved them all, but the raspberry was my favorite with its amazingly realistic aroma.
When a restaurant like Belga Café, which has been around now for 6 years, still hustles and bustles, then you know it must be good. On my Saturday night there, the restaurant was full inside and out. And it's not hard to guess why. The restaurant is a neighborhood gem in the historical Barracks Row area of DC. Chef Vandaele chose well when he decided to open his restaurant in an area that had begun to see a revitalization. It certainly is now a fixture of the area and hopefully will continue to be a magnet for DC's foodies. I couldn't have had a better first experience with Belgian food and beer that at Belga Café.
514 8th Street SE
Washington, DC 20003
Open daily for dinner, Monday through Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m., Friday through Saturday, 4 to 11 p.m., and Sunday, 4 to 9:30 p.m. Open daily for lunch, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Friday from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Open Saturday and Sunday for brunch, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Appetizers range in price from $8 to $14, and entrées from $20 to $27.