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.
1609 Westheimer, 713-523-1201.
Lunch hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner hours: 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.
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.
They were both people of admirable heft. She was wearing a cotton dress, and he was in shorts, a T-shirt and a bright red Super Bowl XXXIX ball cap with his shades balanced on the brim. They ordered brilliantly: a pot of steamed mussels, french fries, red cabbage and two different Belgian beers that were selected only after considerable conversation. She also got the curry mussels, which may have been too much, but I'll give her the benefit of the doubt. If I had to guess, I'd say they were beer geeks who'd hired a baby-sitter to keep an eye on their home brewery while they went out for a night on the town.
I'm emulating the beer-loving couple on this, my third and final visit to Cafe Montrose, by taking the less-is-more approach to ordering. Fellow Houston Press staffer Keith Plocek and I are splitting one large pot of mussels. We got an extra order of fries and an order of braised Belgian endive. The bitterness of the cooked lettuce is a nice complement to the bivalves and fries, although it's a challenge to cut through the tough leaves and get the slippery green stuff in your mouth.
Since Plocek visited Belgium and Amsterdam a couple of years ago and ate moules and frites there, he can vouch for the authenticity of Cafe Montrose's fare -- which comes as something of a shock to him, since he drives by the place almost daily and never realized they served Belgian food until now.
If you ask a Frenchman about the fried potatoes we call french fries, he will explain that frites aren't French, they're Belgian. In fact, they're so tied up with that country's identity that Belgians are referred to as "Frites" in much of the rest of Europe.
Plocek is particularly fond of the frites-and-mayonnaise combination. The Belgians take great care in making outstanding frites from fresh potatoes. Fast-food stands there serve the hot, fresh frites in a big paper cone with a glob of mayo on the side.
The combination of mussels and fries is known in French-speaking Brussels and France as moules frites and is an extremely popular order at bars, sidewalk cafes and other casual dining spots. If you don't like mussels, you might get "steak frites" instead.
But while steak and potatoes sounds pretty natural to Americans, shellfish and fries sounds odd. On my second visit to Cafe Montrose, I asked the waitress, a native of Belgium, why mussels and french fries, two foods that seem to have little to do with each other, are so often consumed together in that part of the world.
"It's traditional," she explained in that sage European tone.
Plocek gets a draft of Maredsous, a dark and sweet beer with a malty aftertaste. It's too heavy for the weather, if you ask me. This time, I order the beer with the bizarre name of Kwak. It's a Belgian ale that is both very strong (8 percent alcohol) and very expensive ($15). Golden-colored, with a creamy head and a fruity, sweet aftertaste, it's served in a tall glass without a base, like an English yard of ale. The glass comes to the table supported by a wooden stand with the name of the ale inscribed on it. Only one section of the stem fits through the opening, so getting the glass back into the stand after each sip is like trying to solve a Chinese puzzle.
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Plocek orders an ice cream sundae for dessert and generously allows me a bite or two. Cafe Montrose has three great but simple sundaes. The Dame Blanche ("White Lady") is vanilla ice cream topped with whipped cream and served with a pitcher of hot Belgian chocolate fudge on the side.
Plocek pours the hot fudge over the ice cream a little at a time so the ice cream doesn't melt too fast and the fudge stays hot. The other two hot fudge sundaes are called the Black Lady (with chocolate ice cream) and the Green Lady (with pistachio).
As the waiter clears our plates, I can say I have finally figured out how to eat at Cafe Montrose. Splitting a large pot of steamed mussels and a vegetable, getting an extra order of french fries, a couple of funky monk beers and a hot Belgian fudge sundae for dessert leaves us feeling satisfied, but not overfull. And we're out of there for something like twenty bucks apiece. Meanwhile, we've hit all the highlights of Belgian cuisine.
Too bad this strategy wouldn't work at lunch. The strong Belgian beer at Cafe Montrose is too good to pass up, but I'm afraid it would make me too sleepy to go back to work.