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A pile of creamy white mussels in shiny black shells sits in a big steaming pot in the middle of our table at Cafe Montrose. The tender mussels have been scalded in white wine and decorated with scads of well-cooked onion slices. My dinnermate and I dip chunk after chunk of buttered baguette into the milky-colored wine-and-mussel broth.
Each of us has a steel bowl full of hot frites (a.k.a. french fries) and a little pot of mayonnaise to dip them in. (It's a Benelux thing.) There is a dish of braised Belgian endive between us that we're sharing. And we're both drinking exotic Belgian beers. It's a perfect light summer supper and quickie Belgian food excursion.
Cafe Montrose is located in a forgettable strip center across the street from Hugo's Mexican Restaurant at Westheimer and Mandell. The exterior is easy to ignore, and the interior, with its acoustical ceiling tiles and concrete floor, is nondescript -- until you tune in to the nationalistic fervor. The menu, the imported beer glasses, the posters on the wall -- it's all about Belgium. Hey, I'm fond of Belgian street food. But oddly, it took me three visits to order right.
Houston, TX 77006
Category: Restaurant >
Large mussels and fries: $16.95
French fries: $2.50
German cucumber salad: $5.95
Salmon, shrimp and mussels in cream sauce: $16.95
Hot fudge sundae: $4.75
The first time I ate here, I ordered way too much. First, my dining companion and I split a pot of mussels and some coarse country-style pâté, then we had two entrées. I got Flemish beef stew cooked with beer, which turned out to be a plain plate of stewed beef in dark, sticky sauce that got old fast. She got waterzooi de poulet, a stew of chicken and vegetables in a rich cream sauce that was only slightly more interesting.
But the main reason we pushed our entrées away half-eaten was that we were so full from our hearty appetizers, which we had each enjoyed with a glass of delicious but filling Belgian beer.
The Belgians are the world's most eccentric brewers. While German beers are subject to the famous Reinheitsgebot, a purity law enacted in 1516 that limits beer ingredients to malted grain, hops, yeast and water, Belgian beers are famously adulterated with all sorts of flavorings.
On my first visit, I quaffed a refreshingly citrusy Hoegaarden White. It's the granddaddy of Celis White, the Belgian-style beer from the late, great Celis Brewery in Austin. Both of these Belgian-style whites are tart, cloudy wheat beers flavored with orange peel and coriander. My tablemate got a Chimay Red, that classic dry Trappist ale with the yeasty aroma that weighs in at a whopping 8.5 percent alcohol. Cafe Montrose is probably the only restaurant in town that carries three varieties of Chimay, one of them on draft.
After our mussels (which came with fries), the half-loaf of bread we dunked in the broth, a serving of meaty pâté and two Belgian beers, it's no wonder we didn't have room for the entrées.
I attempted to correct that mistake on my second visit. That time, I limited myself to an endive salad and an order of "escargot mussels." No, there aren't any snails in the pot, the waitress explained. The mussels are flavored with garlic butter, like the stuff escargots are cooked in. I love the mussels flavored with chorizo and cream at Bistro Moderne, so garlic butter sounded like a reasonable additive. My tablemate ordered a German-style cucumber salad and a seafood dish.
While we waited for our orders to arrive, I sampled an Orval, a dry ale that is served in a chalice-like glass. It's made at the oldest of the six Trappist monasteries that brew beer in Belgium, and because of its extremely yeasty aroma and dust-dry hops flavor, it's considered the wackiest. I love the stuff, but many beer drinkers loathe it.
My salad of chopped-up bitter Belgian endive leaves went particularly well with the austere flavor of the beer. My dining companion's cucumber salad was topped with a whole lot of dill-seasoned sour cream. She thought it was too much and scraped off some sour cream before each bite. Maybe she was counting all the calories.
Her entrée turned out to be even more excessive. The salmon with shrimp, mussels, mushrooms and cream sauce reminded me of that over-the-top seafood-and-cream-sauce classic, lobster Newburg. On top of the sour cream salad, it was way too much dairy for one dinner.
When my escargot mussels arrived, I thought there had been some mistake. There weren't any shells. No pot of broth to dunk your bread in, either. Instead, the shell-less mussel meats sat in a pool of garlic butter on a dinner plate. I put some french fries on the plate with the mussels in garlic butter and swished them around, but the combination of fryer grease and butter was a tad overwhelming to the palate. (A real shock to the serum cholesterol level too, I bet.) But at least I finally figured out how the mussel section of Cafe Montrose's menu works.
There are seven choices of mussels. The first six are mussels served without the shells in a sauce. The sauces are escargot butter, tomato sauce, curry sauce, Roquefort cheese, cream sauce and Parmesan. Only the seventh selection, mussels steamed in white wine, comes in a pot with broth. I was regretting my lack of ordering prowess when a couple sat down at the table next to us.