I didn't plan on writing about the beer. I planned on writing about the food, but when the food isn't quite as good as the beer, well...
That's what I discovered at Café Brussels, the subject of this week's cafe review. The place has a lot going for it. It's in a cute building, the décor is lovely, the Belgian beer selection is one of the best in town, and the recipes come from Catherine Duwez, who crafted excellent Belgian food at Café Montrose and The Broken Spoke before moving on to this venture.
And yet, the food at Café Brussels doesn't live up to that of Café Montrose or Jeannine's Bistro, opened by Andrew Klarman, Duwez's ex-husband and former partner at Café Montrose. Presumably, with Duwez's talent behind it, Café Brussels could be just as good, but something gets lost between the concept and execution.
And so, instead of filling my belly with mediocre food, I drank.
Belgian beer is, in my opinion, some of the best in the world. It was first brewed back in the middle ages, when monks sold it to fundraise for the Crusades. Beer was also safer to drink than water was back then, and the low alcohol content made it possible to drink a lot of it and still be more or less functional.
There are more than a dozen different styles of beer brewed in Belgium, but it's known for Flanders red ale, a sour beer made with red malt; pale lager, originally produced in Bavaria; and lambic, made by exposing the beer to wild yeasts and bacteria in the air, creating a slightly sour, cider-like beer.
Café Brussels has ten Belgian beers on draught and another 13 in bottles. If you're looking to get a good feel for the beers, ask for a flight of four of them on tap. You'll likely get some St. Bernardus in the mix, as well as Kwak, and perhaps even some Delirium. I swear I'm not making these names up.
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St. Bernardus is labeled on the menu as a Trappist-style beer, but Trappist refers to where it's made (in a monastery in Belgium, the Netherlands or Austria), not the style. It was originally made using recipes from monks though, so we'll give 'em that. It's a dark, moody beer that's slightly sweet and has undertones of figs and sweet red fruit. Pair it with something sweet, or just drink it in lieu of dessert.
Kwak, when ordered on its own, not as part of a flight, is served in a branded glass with a unique shape, almost like an hourglass. The Kwak comes from Bosteels brewery, which has been in operation since 1791 and is still owned by the same family. It's a strong amber ale that's a bit malty and caramel-y and pairs well with a steak topped with Roquefort sauce.
Delirium is a bit more common in the United States than are the previous two beers, but no less refreshing. It's brewed with three different yeasts and was named the best beer in the world by The World Beer Championships in Chicago in 2008. It's a strong, citrusy blonde with bitter hops that I enjoyed with the restaurant's spicy and sometimes creamy mussels in several different sauces.
Then, of course, there are the Chimays, the Lindemans and the Duvels, each unique and each indicative of Belgian beer. I recommend you try them all, just, please, not in one sitting.