I've choked on my own snobbery a couple of times this year. When I drove cross-country in March, I discovered that the faded Deco glamour, natural beauty, and Bi-Rite-esque markets of Hot Springs, Ark., make it one of the loveliest towns in America, so I stopped bashing Arkansas. Similarly, when I went to Belga the first time, I thought, "Will I be the only person not wearing a branded startup fleece?" and "Will I be seated next to Big Buck Hunter?"
If you're the kind of person who only ventures to the Marina to get your visa stamped so you can legally leave San Francisco and enter Real America, you too might have to reconsider your preconceived notions after dinner at Belga. It's easily the peer of the Monk's Kettle. Executive chef Freedom Rains and, above all, bar manager and certified cicerone Ryan Murphy, have created something truly special — a reason for people who never eat north of Hayes Valley to do so.
After two tipsy meals, I can confirm that Belga is all about the beer, of which there is more than anyone could sample. (Considering the industry's slim profit margins, it's a wonder so few restaurants have a "celebratory" section on the beer menu, stealing higher-end wines' thunder with 750-mL bottles of Duvel Golden for $130.)
On my first visit, I had Almanac's tart Farmer's Reserve Pluot, Brouwerij Drie Fonteinen's oddly light and clean Zwet.Be (a sour porter), and the exceptional and cherry-forward Cuvée de Jacobins Rouges from Brouwerij Bockor. I gravitate towards staff picks, and while I love funky beers, I was afraid some might curtail the enjoyment of certain dishes. After a bit of back-and-forth, I went with the Allagash Victoria and Allagash Victor ($48 each), two versatile wine-and-strong-pale-ale hybrids. Apologizing for being "gendered," our female server went on to describe Victor as the "boy version: bolder-flavored, with red grapes, and a little more masculine."
Victor was abrupt and old-sock-like (but somehow pleasantly so) before mellowing out at the back. Gender politics aside, I preferred the peppery Victoria. Whatever you pick, choosing a beer at Belga is an odyssey, dizzying but fun.
Ordering food is considerably simpler. A Bibb salad ($9) was, if slightly overdressed, bright and alert and full of palate-cleansing radishes. Going full Neanderthal, my companions and I dived into the roasted marrow ($12), hot bones served with a satisfying onion marmalade. We then went straight to its polar opposite (no pun intended), the comparatively delicate, Genever-cured arctic char ($15). Like a deconstructed bagel-all-the-way, this was a beautiful pile of pickled things, although the toast was too thin to sustain the toppings, and there wasn't enough of it.
A flatbread ($15) with a beautiful jungle cat char on the bottom was a little too lemony, although redeemed by thyme and squash that was even thinner than the radishes on the Bibb salad. And the dry-roasted mussels with clarified butter (at great deal at $15) are unmissable. When Belga opens earlier in the day, as it plans to at some as-yet-unscheduled date, sharing those two over beer would make a great lunch.
A couple of sides ranked just above mediocre, particularly a spaetzle ($9) that was mustard-y but far too dry, and a vadouvan cauliflower ($9) that cried out for salt when eaten alone. That particular curry seasoning has been showing up everywhere lately, from almonds at AL's Place to lamb shoulder at Aster — and pairing Belga's take with a duck leg confit ($19) that was almost too tender to cut and share brought out the vadouvan's sweet side. Disappointingly, the steak frites were merely fine, closer to medium-well than medium-rare, and so thin there was hardly any room for pink. ("For the bros in the neighborhood," one of my dining mates said.)
I'd stick with les moules over les frites in the future, but fortunately that wasn't the signature dish. Nothing could compete with the carbonnade ($23), a traditional Flemish stew that's like boeuf bourgignon but made with beer in lieu of red wine. With that day-after richness that comes from letting it compose itself overnight, but without the vegetables going to mush, it was absolutely flawless, and I strongly suspect it'll pop up on a lot of end-of-year lists.
In dessert land, the warm chocolate cake served with crème fraiche ice cream ($9) was fine enough, but the beer float flight was the way to go, especially the highly carbonated Rodenbach Grand Cru and vanilla. My other dinner date found it contrived, but I countered that since the entire menu is so thought-out, Belga is not going to gratify you at the end without at least a challenge in the form of porter and coffee ice cream. While we were arguing, the ice cream melted and we all agreed it was better that way: Just drink 'em.
One thing about this Belgian brasserie that surprised me was that there was barely any garlic, anywhere. Another surprise was the noise level. As I approach 35, I'm getting crankier with respect to loud restaurants, but I try to leave the shouting to my parents' dinner table at Christmas. I've complained about other places recently, but if, say, Lord Stanley was a jet engine, then Belga is a Concorde breaking the sound barrier. The din deadened by 9:30 on both visits, but it's a large room thrown open to the street, so not much can be done. Still, glorious food and phenomenal beer outweigh everything. To hell with Marina haters! Stuffed as I was from dinner at Belga, I could hardly find room to eat my snobbery but managed to cram that down, too.