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Remembrance of Fries Past

Wednesday, Jun 20 2001
The first thing I ate on my first trip to Europe was a big platter of Belgian frites. I had just disembarked from a freighter in Antwerp after 12 days of sea-tossed dining, and after breaking in my Eurailpass on a one-hour train trip to Brugge I was ready for some authentically Euro sustenance. I strolled to the town's central square and snagged myself a canal-side table in the shadow of an 11th-century Gothic belfry, in search of the shoestring potatoes that are to Belgium what rice is to China and Frappuccinos are to Chestnut Street: an omnipresent, obsessive way of life.

Belgian frites exemplify that hearty national appetite so robustly captured on canvas by Bruegel the Elder and his Flemish colleagues. The fried potato, a modified import from adjacent France (calling them "French fries" is tantamount to calling Guinness "an English beer"), is consumed in great quantity and on a regular basis, usually out of a paper cone proffered from street-side stands. They have an unusual, buttery flavor and a silky texture that various sources gleefully attribute to either beef-kidney lard or stallion suet. In any case, this first taste of authentic European cookery was unexpected, addictive, and well worth waiting for.

Frjtz, a casual, drop-in, all-day cafe in Ghirardelli Square, does its level best to replicate the whole Flemish street-dining milieu. It's located on the second floor of the Woolen Mill Building amidst the usual Ghirardelli bustle of brickwork, tourist traffic, and serape-clad panpipers. (The first Frjtz opened in Hayes Valley in 1999; the Ghirardelli outpost opened three months ago.) The cafe describes itself as a "Belgian fries, crepes, and DJ art teahouse," and to help me wend an informed path through this labyrinth I recruited a first-generation Belgian-American, a graphic designer with a minor in Eurotrash, and a vegetarian with a fondness for tea, eggs, and (most important) potatoes. Upon our arrival we headed straight for the bar at the entrance, where a half-dozen Belgian draft beers sit ready for the tapping: a scenario with no discernible downside.

Beer has been brewed in Belgium for a thousand years. Belgians enjoyed it even before hops became everybody's favorite beer-flavoring agent, which helps explain the country's wide array of spicy, complex suds -- some 800 varieties in all. (Belgians also dine on hop shoots and have their own patron saint of brewers, St. Arnold of Oudenaarde.) Frjtz's beer selection isn't as vast as the hundred typically offered in an old country beer cafe, but the range is satisfyingly broad. The Duvel is terrific: sharp and fruity, with the bittersweet edge of a fine champagne. Stella Artois, the Bud of Belgium, is unexciting by comparison, but crisp, cloudy Hoegaarden White tastes pleasantly of curaçao and coriander, while Leffe's smooth texture bears an undercurrent of nutmeg. On the darker side there's the classic Chimay, a strong, copper-colored Trappist brew with a spicy edge; the top-fermented yet unmemorable De Koninck; and the highly alcoholic, abbey-style Maredsous, with its deep, dark texture and hints of coffee and molasses. Each beer is served in a properly inscribed goblet, and the bartender is happy to offer samples before you commit to a particular brew.

Amply fortified, we ordered some food and made our way through the airy, brickwork main room to the protected terrace, where you can sit, schmooze, and contemplate the bay. The menu is casual and to the point: salads, sandwiches, crepes, and, of course, frites. The latter arrived in the traditional paper cone, anchored for the sake of aesthetics in a tall glass. I withdrew a fry and took a bite. The buttery richness I remembered from Brugge just wasn't there; despite the buildup, these are your basic slightly soggy fish-and-chips-type fries. Like any reputable fry, they're cooked twice at two ascending temperatures, so the trouble is undoubtedly with the chosen cooking grease, soybean oil, a bland substitute for the flavorful fats of health-unconscious Europe. Perhaps to compensate for their lack of taste, the frites come with your choice of 13 dipping sauces, one dip per small order or two per large. Most of them are a bit goofy: The ginger-orange mayo resembles a melted Creamsicle, the spicy yogurt-peanut tastes like a particularly fatty Skippy's with some cayenne mixed in, and the Tabasco-chive ketchup is just plain weird. But the wasabi mayo is creamy, with a pleasant afterbite; the black olive ketchup is robust and smoky, with a nice chunky texture; and the caper-onion ketchup offers a wonderful balance of sweet and salty, with an undertone of vinegar.

The rest of the menu dedicates itself to the visual arts, naming its salads, sandwiches, and crepes after famous painters in the same way New York delicatessens invent sandwiches for the greater glory of Nathan Lane. The abundantly fresh salads include the Kahlo, a generic spring mix with tomatoes, avocado, and a citrusy dressing; the Chagall, more of the same with a hint of mustard and lots of tough chicken breast tossed in; the wonderful Warhol, with earthy spinach, puckery goat cheese, moist chicken, and briny anchovy dressing; and the Gauguin, a surprisingly tasty combination of crunchy macadamias, musky mango, and silky smoked salmon. The Pollock is a so-so choice from the minimal sandwich menu: dry tuna salad redeemed by the occasional caper and soft focaccia.

The crepes reflect France's looming southwestern presence as well as Belgium's more hearty appetite. Crisp and papery at the edges and moist and delicate inside, they're presented in pizza-size servings with a myriad of fillings. The best are the simplest: the Matisse, a creamy package of smoked salmon, chopped chives, and tart sour cream, and El Greco, in which pungent fresh spinach, sweet tomato, and feta cheese melt into an earthy Mediterranean still life. The Goya, on the other hand, is premeditated culinary overkill: chicken and onion and pesto and mayonnaise and peppers and Swiss cheese, all crammed together like an overstuffed burrito until you can't taste anything at all. The dessert crepes don't fare much better. The Magritte is burdened with the manufactured flavor of Nutella, a taste especially repugnant alongside banana. The Liechtenstein is packed with bland, watery strawberries and presents no particular character. The Vermeer is spread with an especially second-rate apricot jam. But the Van Gogh is nothing but butter, sugar, and a tart, lemony aftertaste wrapped up in a crepe, and it's sublime.

Since we were content to stick with our beers, we didn't sample any of the teas, which come by the pot in green, black, and herbal form, but we did appreciate the (nonedible) abstract art displayed on the walls. The DJ aspect of the operation proved disappointing, however. We showed up on a Saturday night, prepared to strike the proper poses at the 8 p.m. witching hour, but all that happened was an unannounced CD-player switch from Wagner and Strauss to some lounge-rave-techno hybrid. At least the combination of the beat and the breeze and the beer had pleasing Proustian consequences, and for a moment I was back in the public square quaffing a Rodenbach and contemplating my next bonbon. Too bad about the fries, though.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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