- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Capitol Hill just got its best restaurant, the Belga Cafe.The Belgian restaurant, which opened just before Halloween, combines quality ingredients with excellent and innovative preparation. The space is elegant, yet cozy. The service is friendly and knowledgeable, but stretched a bit thin.

Owner-chef Bart Vandaele, who is from the Flanders area of Belgium and was a chef for a Dutch ambassador to the United States, says he wanted to bring a unique restaurant to Capitol Hill — and Washington.

Many people associate Belgian cuisine with waffles, chocolate and beer. Though these three staples are available, they do not dominate the menu, which consist of lots of Flemish as well as Euro-fusion dishes, a term Mr. Vandaele uses to describe dishes he has created by merging his favorite Belgian foods with the best of Asian and North and South American cuisine.

A scrumptious entree example is the eendeborst, a sweet-and-sour duck breast.

A tasty example of the Flemish influence is the gray-shrimp croquette starter. The tiny and sweet gray shrimp are a Flemish specialty, our waiter said, and they make a darn good croquette.

Another nice starter is the kruidensalade met knoflookwafeltjes — baby greens and herbs served with yogurt dressing, garlic waffles and tomato sherbet. The greens were fresh and the garlic waffles and tomato sherbet a nice touch and unique flavor combination.

Other appetizers include a terrine of tuna and couscous, wasabi cream and marinated seaweed salad (another Euro-fusion dish), baked asparagus and salmon with coriander butter, and a gratin of Belgian endives with ham and cheese. Asparagus and endives appear frequently on the menu, even in the dessert section.

Another reflection of Flanders — the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium — is the large number of seafood dishes on the menu. The steamed mussels, which come in six preparations, including garlic and white-beer seasoning, are a very good choice. The mussels are large and flavorful and perfectly prepared.

The waterzooi, a stew of free-range chicken and vegetables, is also delicious, consisting of a creamy sauce, very tasty, tender chicken and fall vegetables done just right.

The steak with frites — Belgium claims to have originated “french” fries — was a little disappointing. Priced at less than $20, it couldn’t be tenderloin, could it? No. It’s millennium steak, a cheaper cut that was prepared nicely to order — rare — but just wasn’t as thick, tender or tasty as its more expensive counterpart.

The fries, served stylishly in a white parchment paper cone stuck into a stainless-steel wire vase, were delicious and served Flemish style, with homemade mayonnaise.

While the food is rich — butter, cream or mayonnaise seems to be involved in most creations — the servings are small enough to allow room for dessert, a must because delicious Belgian chocolate plays a starring role. Belgian chocolate mousse in three colors is divine and shouldn’t be missed. The creme brulee, which also comes in three flavors, including hazelnut, is also very tasty.

Another chocolate pleaser is Bart’s flourless chocolate cake. The tarte Tatin of Belgian endives, however, was just OK — an endive drenched in sugar and topped with pastry is still a vegetable.

The beer list includes several Belgian varieties, many with wild names such as Delirium Nocturnum, whose symbol is a pink elephant. Mr. Vandaele says introducing Americans to Belgian beer is a way to introduce them to his beloved homeland, which he sees as part of his mission. Some of the listed beers, unfortunately, are still not available.

It is clear that presentation and high quality are important to Mr. Vandaele. The bone china is sparkly white, thin and angular for the Asian-style dishes and round for the European-style dishes. The silverware is nice and weighty.

The space, which seats 86 people, has an exposed brick wall on one side, while the other side is painted white. Dark wood tables and comfortable faux-leather chairs crowd the floor. Even the restrooms are doted on, with fresh roses and hand-blown glass vases and candle holders.

Belga Cafe’s weakest showing — though friendly and skilled — is its service. Many guests, even those with reservations, end up with a long wait before being seated and then another wait before getting their drinks and other orders. Mr. Vandaele says he never expected such crowds and now tells people to make reservations one or two days in advance.

Apparently, Capitol Hill, which recently has become home to more families with young children, was in dire need of another adult dining experience.

Belga Cafe tends to get a little loud and may not be the ideal place for lovebirds or young children. If quality food, creatively prepared and served in an elegant but comfortable setting sounds appealing, Belga Cafe is a Capitol Hill best bet.

RESTAURANT: Belga Cafe, 514 Eighth St. SE; 202/544-0100; www.belgacafe.com.

HOURS: 5 to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; weekday lunches and weekend brunches to be added later.

PRICES: Starters $7:50 to $13.25, main courses $15.95 to $21.95, dessert $6.50 to $8.50

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Street parking

METRO STOP: Eastern Market

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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