Not even ten minutes into brunch on a lazy Sunday afternoon, the bad jokes started flowing.
"Geez, did they go all the way to Brussels for the food?"
"Nothing says Belgium like Reddi-wip!"
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5:30p.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Les escargots de Bourgogne: $12 La soupe l'oignon: $7 La salade d'endives: $9 Moules marinires: $24 La route de Bruxelles: (18 assorted mussels with a flight of beer) $28 Le petit pav de Bruxelles: $30 Le Waterzooi de poulet: $20 Les petits choux de Bruxelles: $7 Mousse au chocolat: $8 Prix fixe Sunday brunch: $18
For more on Caf Brussels, check out the following: Slideshow: A Closer Look at Caf Brussels Blog: Bring Me Beer at Caf Brussels
"Oh my God, this tastes like IKEA! Or Belgian Luby's!"
Clearly, things were not going well that day for Café Brussels, Houston's sole Belgian restaurant and purveyor of some of the best frites in town. At least it has that going for it, because aside from the thick, crispy, twice-fried Belgian frites and the piquant homemade mayo for dipping, brunch was a major letdown.
The restaurant was only about half-full at 1:30 p.m., yet our food — a croque-madame and a steak topped with fried eggs — was nowhere to be seen. Clearly the kitchen wasn't outrageously busy. How long could it possibly take to make a grilled cheese sandwich with a slice of ham in the middle and a fried egg on top?
If the sluggishness of the service is a ploy to sell more Belgian beer, then it works, because that's what we found ourselves consuming in lieu of food. Chimay Blanche, St. Bernadus, Duvel, Lindeman. Each beer was more refreshing than the last. When the food was finally placed in front of us (mysteriously lukewarm), we were no longer hungry. We'd eaten our fill of bland baguettes sliced for the table and drunk our fill of the only truly delicious item we'd found on the prix fixe brunch menu — beer.
I ate half my croque-madame, the whole time lamenting that it seemed to be made with white Wonder bread and congealed, no-longer-melted cheese. My dining companions split a ground-beef steak (we call them hamburgers, but in France and Belgium, ground-meat patties are steaks) and found it overcooked, to say the least: When they cut into it, it nearly crumbled like a mound of dirt. Were it not for the runny egg yolks on top, the meat would have been too dry to eat.
Perhaps it was the beer, or perhaps it was all the stories I'd heard about the wonderful Belgian food in Houston's past, but I found my experiences at Café Brussels thoroughly confusing. After all, the brains (and presumably the recipes) behind Café Brussels are the same that started Café Montrose and The Broken Spoke. You might even say it's a relative of the recently shuttered Jeannine's Bistro. How is this all Houston has left?
I'm told that back in the day there was Café Montrose, home of the best moules marinières and frites in town, run by Catherine Duwez and her now ex-husband, Andrew Klarman. The couple divorced, Café Montrose closed in 2008 and both restaurateurs went on to other Belgian ventures. Duwez opened The Broken Spoke, which closed shortly before the building housing it was damaged by a fire in 2012. Klarman opened Jeannine's Bistro with his sister, Jeannine, and it, too, closed, going out of business this past May. Duwez now owns the only remaining Belgian bistro in Houston with Café Brussels, which opened shortly after The Broken Spoke closed.
Are you keeping up? Good. Here's one final quandary for you: How is it that with all the talent that went into those various restaurants lingering in Houston, there's still no good Belgian cafe in town?
Want to go behind the scenes at Café Brussels? Check out our slideshow.
Before we go any further, I want to make one thing clear: Belgian food is not an offshoot of French food. There's a saying that it's just French cuisine served in German-sized portions, but it's really much more than that. Belgium makes some of the best chocolate in the world. It invented french fries (contrary to what the name suggests). It invented Belgian waffles and popularized Belgian endive. Belgium has a lot going for it.
So, too, does Café Brussels, in theory at least. It's housed in a quaint little brick building near the intersection of Houston Avenue and Crockett Street. There's a small but welcoming patio out front, and ample seating in the warm, cozy interior, which is decorated with Belgian clocks and posters of Belgian beer and Belgian airlines. It's a flattering shrine to the country, right down to the ornately carved wooden bar, a remnant from the previous tenant. Sitting inside, I almost felt as if I were in Brussels, just your average tourist there for a Stella Artois and some frites.
If that were indeed all I was there for, I would have left a happy customer. The frites are some of the best in Houston. They're different from French frites: The potatoes are cut thicker, and unlike most Americanized versions, these are fried twice for an extra crispy outer shell, while the inside remains soft and smooth.
Belgian frites are served with mayonnaise, never ketchup. Though I wonder just how homemade some of Café Brussels's food is, the mayonnaise is most certainly made in-house. It's a revelation for those like me who are convinced that mayo equals Miracle Whip and that it should rarely if ever find its way to a plate in a restaurant. The simple oil, egg yolk and lemon juice mayonnaise at Café Brussels is so smooth, creamy and delicious that I could have forsaken the fries altogether and eaten it with a spoon.
Other condiments and sauces at Café Brussels are similarly alluring. Though the moules themselves seemed small and underdeveloped, the four different varieties of sauces I ordered on my mussels sampler were full of depth and flavor. La route de Bruxelles features mussels in a spicy tomato sauce, a more mild tomato and herb dressing, a creamy curry and a thick Roquefort cheese sauce. Each topping had a unique flavor profile, and I found myself unable to choose a favorite. One moment it was the Roquefort, then as soon as I had another bite of the spicy tomato sauce that became the one to beat.
The menu at Café Brussels contains far more than mussels and frites, however, and I suspect this overly ambitious menu is one of the restaurant's problems. There's a long list of meat dishes — from steak tartare to meat loaf to stews — none of which are particularly thrilling, and all of which, I suspect, would benefit from a generous dousing of the same Roquefort sauce that's served on the mussels. The meat itself isn't bad at all, but it tends to be overcooked, as do the vegetables served with it.
The petits choux de Bruxelles (Brussels sprouts) were so mushy I could have whipped them into a Thanksgiving side dish, and the haricots verts (green beans) were similarly soft and lacked the crispness of ripe, springy bean pods.
And then, of course, there's the brunch, which became for me — and, it seemed, the other diners in the restaurant who were downing pint after pint of Belgian brews — much more about the beer than the food. Between the desiccated steak and the croque-madame reminiscent of school-lunch grilled cheese, nothing I tried that day except the beer allowed me to mentally escape to Belgium.
The shrimp croquettes covered in some sort of unidentifiable brown sauce and oozing a similarly flavorless white sauce prompted one of my dining companions to launch into an ode to the food at IKEA, which he considered comparable, in that both resemble international diner food. My other dining companion gave up eating altogether after he tried an overly salty and dry slice of toast topped with marinated mushrooms (even they couldn't save it). Dessert was no better, with a Belgian waffle — a food I love so much when it's made properly — tasting like dried-out Bisquick topped with quickly melting canned whipped cream.
"Why am I wasting calories on this?" I thought. "Bring me more beer!"
In a study conducted by Forbes magazine, Belgium ranked high on a list of the happiest countries in the world. It has a rich cultural heritage of brilliant artists such as Jan Van Eyck and scientists like Gerardus Mercator. An estimated 99 percent of its population is literate. Gouda cheese was invented there, for goodness' sake. No wonder the people are happy.
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And yet, something about Café Brussels strikes me as sad. The restaurant isn't full. The servers seem to be phoning it in, leaving water glasses unfilled and plates uncleared. The food is hit-or-miss. An hour before closing time on a Sunday, the staff started lowering blinds and stacking chairs, as if in defeat.
But in those moules marinières and frites I see a glimmer of hope. Someone with a stove, a fryer and some spices knows what he or she is doing. Someone understands flavor and texture and the basics of European cuisine. Someone has the means to make Café Brussels live up to its potential and to rival the quality of the wonderful, authentic Belgian cafes that came before.
It's already got an impressive selection of some of the best beer in the world. Now it just needs the culinary chops to match.