Monday, October 15, 2007

A Burger and a Beer: The Belgian Café

Beer. Burgers. Mussels. Why mess with a good thing? Fergus Carey and Tom Peters have been at the forefront of Philadelphia’s gastro-pub movement since 1985, when Carey founded Fergie’s Pub at 12th & Sansom. The duo’s latest endeavor is The Belgian Café, recently opened in the old digs of Tavern on Green at 21st and Green Streets in Fairmount.

One couldn’t be faulted for thinking of their new spot as “Monk’s West.” Both the menu and the beer list read like abridged versions of the tomes at Center City’s Monk’s Café. There’s a strong focus on burgers and moules frites, with a prodigious selection of vegetarian/vegan options but an otherwise pared down selection of bar snacks, sandwiches and main plates. As at Monk’s, and as the restaurant’s moniker suggests, there’s a strong Belgian bent to the beer list, which is clearly dominated by a broad, careful selection of Belgian ales, rounded out by some local brews and a smattering of options from Germany, Holland, Canada and Italy. There’s already plenty to choose from, backed up by a promise of an expanded selection once additional refrigerated storage is installed.

Like the beer list, the environs at The Belgian Café are very much a work in progress. In a way, the slightly incomplete feel of the space – an unmarked main entrance, unfinished window treatments and a few other missing touches – lends an element of charm. The free flowing space in the bar and dining room, along with sidewalk seating, give it a neighborhood vibe appropriate to its location in residential Fairmount. Wide, capacious rooms afforded designer John Dorety the opportunity to create a space which is relaxed and maneuverable, with a clear demarcation between bar and dining room. The barroom looks and feels very much like a larger, brighter version of the back room at Monk’s, with richly toned, gothic wood paneling units decking the walls and echoing the presence of the bar itself, which is lined with large wooden stools and backed by beer coolers, taps and a full complement of spirits and cocktail ingredients. In contrast, the dining room is brightly lit, painted with art nouveau stenciling in sunny tones. Windows line two sides of the room, giving views of passersby on both 21st and Green, while the inner wall is hung with a quintet of paintings by Andrew Wrigley portraying sylvan visions of the female form.

After enjoying a couple of beers at the bar, I was more than ready to order up some grub once a table became available. The cyclist in me couldn’t resist starting with a small order of the Eddy Merckx mussels, petite PEI’s steamed in a broth of rice, peas, peppers, tomato, saffron and Sly Fox Pale Ale. I’m not sure what the rice was meant to accomplish; the spoonful of kernels at the bottom of the bowl wasn’t enough to satisfy The Cannibal’s post-race carbohydrate craving, nor did it seem to add any richness to the broth. The peas, though, did lend a sweet, earthy tang of contrast to the briny flesh of the mussels. The refreshing texture and citrus, slightly funky flavor of Dupont Saison farmhouse ale made for a nice pairing.

Going to the core of the menu, I opted for a burger and a beer – La Chouffe, at the recommendation of our waitress – as a main course. The Bruegel is a classic beef burger, topped with bacon and melted sharp cheddar. Though cooked a tad past the requested medium-rare, the fat content in the beef was sufficient to maintain plenty of juiciness; however, especially when combined with the cheese and bacon, the burger also teetered on the edge of greasiness.

At the moment, the kitchen at The Belgian Café seems to be running a step behind the standard set at the original Monk’s Café. With a bit of fine tuning – the mussels need just a bit more flavor concentration to their broth while the burgers would benefit from a sturdier roll, such as the stirato served at Monk’s, and a surer hand at the stove – I hope the food will rise in quality as the design of the restaurant takes its final shape. The well thought out structure, ample space and relaxed atmosphere are already enough to make The Belgian Café a worthy destination for pilgrims in search of fine ale and chow as well as a regular watering hole for the denizens of Fairmount.

The Belgian Café
21st & Green Streets
Philadelphia, PA 19102
215-235-3500
Belgian Cafe in Philadelphia

6 comments:

Taylor said...

If the kitchen is "running a step behind the standard set at the original Monk’s Café," I'm a bit scared. Maybe this newer place is at least still clean.

David McDuff said...

Ouch! Yes, TBC is definitely cleaner and brighter relative to the dark, slightly grunge encrusted environs at Monk's. That said, the quality of the burgers and sauces for the mussels are more dialed in at Monk's.

E said...

I've had a few experiences at the Belgian Cafe, all were positive. I'm a bit ga-ga over the Ephemere Apple from Canada and I thouroughly enjoyed the chicken breast stuffed with spinach, cheese and lancaster ham. It's covered with a chimay trappiste beer sauce that is so tasty I could drink a pint of it!

David McDuff said...

Thanks for stopping by, E. I didn't get a chance to sample the current batch of Ephemere but I've been a fan of the beers from Unibroue for some time now. Their other offerings are very much worth exploring.

I'll have to keep the stuffed chicken breast in mind for my next visit. Sounds tasty.

Little_Jewford said...

hey...I miss the dirt at Monk's...maybe over xmas

David McDuff said...

I'm with you, LJ. Looking forward to the possibility.

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