So it is with the pride of Columbus, who discovered an ancient world and called it "new," that I will share the secret of Cafe Montrose and (some fanfare, please) Belgian cuisine.
Next door to a neighborhood launderette, Cafe Montrose occupies the ocher-painted premises of a former "funk art" shop in a tumbledown shopping strip on lower Westheimer. Tidy lace curtains screen the small tile-floored dining room, scrupulously neat and clean, from the patched and gritty parking lot. "American and Continental Cuisine" advised the grand-opening flyer; my heart sank at this threat of deadly culinary sameness.
Now imagine, instead, a cuisine with very French attention to detail and freshness served up in Germanic-size portions. A bill of fare that ranges from delicate wine-steamed mussels to hearty beef stew brewed in beer to french fries that I can describe only as transcendent. And then there's Belgian chocolate -- does the name "Godiva" ring a bell? -- for dessert.
"In Belgium, we speak and cook in French, German and Dutch," explains one of the Cafe Montrose family members, Catherine Klarman, born in Brussels. "We have been invaded so many times, by so many different people, we managed to learn the best from each." Her American husband, Andrew, spent a summer cooking with her father, a well-known Brussels chef, and now does most of the stove work at Cafe Montrose. "I couldn't even find Belgium on a map before I met Catherine," says Jeannine Pettas, Andrew's sister and business partner in the cafe. "I mean, besides maybe the chocolate, who knew they had such wonderful food?"
The steamed mussels are identified as "La complet Belge" on the menu and offered in "natural, white wine or Provençal" styles, and at $12.75 are the priciest item on the menu. "The mussels are sort of the national food of Belgium," Catherine explains. What she failed to mention is that her serving is a full two pounds, brought steaming to the table in a glossy blue Dutch oven. Even better, these are cold-water mussels straight from Maine, small, briny and intensely flavorful, ours tenderly steamed in white wine scented with thyme and jumbled with still-bright chunks of celery.
The mussels come with the sort of fried potatoes that I can't help but call "french" but that Catherine insists are really Belgian: They're the familiar shape but incredibly golden and crisp outside, soft and tender inside, and arrive at the table already perfectly salted. Catherine watched us closely as we sampled them. "Ah, you see!" she exclaimed with a sly grin, satisfied with our goofy expressions of bliss. "These are not what you're used to. Our secret is we fry them twice."
I liked the fries so much that I decided I needed more, and so substituted them for the "natural" potatoes that ordinarily accompany the carbonade ($9.75). Carbonade is a traditional Flemish beef stew -- "It will remind you of beef stroganoff," promises Catherine -- cooked in Belgian beer. Large chunks of tender beef and slivers of sweet, soft onion swam in a thick, rich gravy the color of finely tanned leather, resonant with a dark undertone of ale and just a hint of brown sugar.
Later I did get to try the natural potatoes along with the salmon Ostandaise ($11.95); these are cut larger, like home fries, but with the same divinely salted crisp jackets. I think I prefer the skinnier fries, but it's a close call. The salmon fillet was poached and flaky, topped with a garlic-scented cream sauce and fresh, fat jumbo shrimp. "At home, we would use the tiny shrimp the French call crevettes for this dish," Catherine told me. "But here we can't get those little shrimp fresh enough, so we have decided to use the large ones." The salmon also comes with a vegetable, which on this visit turned out to be Belgian endive. I am grateful for my luck. The endive was tenderly braised with lemon and garlic; not bitter, but with an authoritative hint of browning I loved.
I regret that I haven't yet had time to try the chicken in waterzooi ($8.75), another national dish of Belgium. (How many do they have, I wonder?) Although the menu tersely translates this as "chicken stew," and waterzooi is apparently just a Dutch phrase for "boiling water," Catherine paints a more intriguing picture of an herbed chicken dish rich with cream, eggs and butter. "This," she says pointedly, "is not a place to diet."
Which is not to say that everything on the Cafe Montrose menu is either cream-based or Belgian. One of my friends tried the pasta Vincent ($8.95) and was quite pleased with the perfect pile of pasta topped with a light, fresh tomato sauce, and the gargantuan, well-seasoned meatballs. Those same meatballs also make an appearance in a noteworthy hero sandwich, the "Marquis d' Meatball" ($5.95), under a thick blanket of chewy provolone. Why, there's even a Philly cheese steak adaptation sporting a grilled rib eye, sauteed onions and green peppers ($5.95). These heroes and the obligatory burger are all served with more of those fries, which is really all I need to know about them.
Catherine carefully described the four dessert offerings, including profiteroles, a sort of ice cream sundae called a "dame blanche," a cheesecake and a flan caramel. "If you could have only one dessert, which would it be?" I asked her. "The profiteroles," she said, without hesitation. "Mostly because you must try our Belgian chocolate." So be it. The profiteroles, tiny puff pastries filled with cream clustered around a mound of vanilla ice cream ($4.25), were accompanied by a tiny silver pitcher of melted chocolate; and oh, what a chocolate. Eagerly, Catherine tried to impress the name of the chocolate upon us: Callebaut, which I didn't recognize. "Trust me, if you were a chocoholic, you'd know this brand," said Pettas. "It's some of the best cooking chocolate in the world." The thick, glossy chocolate sauce has deep, dark dimensions of rich flavor I've never encountered anywhere else, even in the Mexican chocolates of Oaxaca. By contrast, American chocolate is thin and one-dimensional; it's like the difference between skim milk and whole. Next time, perhaps I'll just drink the pitcher.
Catherine also tried to tell us about Belgian beers, with a slightly fanatic light of pride in her eyes. Since Cafe Montrose does not yet have its beer and wine license, I'll admit I didn't listen. I didn't realize how dead serious Belgians are about their famous beers, both for drinking and for cooking. My mistake: I've since learned that Belgium is like the buckle on the European beer belt, producing a profusion of at least 500 different lagers, beers and ales -- what is that, one brand per capita? I mean, I like Duvel, and I've tried Chimay (and can't stand Stella Artois), but who knew there were treats such as Kwak, Forbidden Fruit or the Beer of the Devil in store?
"Well, we don't know yet what we'll be able to get over here," said Pettas with a laugh. "But stay tuned: We hope to get the license in another week or two, and then we'll see." Indeed. I guess I'll be waiting on the doorstep.
Cafe Montrose, 1609 Westheimer, (713)523-1201.