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High Time in Low Country 

Belgian food and an epic beer list work in tandem.

Wednesday, Jul 30 2008

It's not entirely surprising that in a third-millennium universe of easily derailed attention spans and quickly consumed info-nibbles, the ancient cuisine of Belgium, jewel of the North Sea, should be reduced to beer, fries, and mayonnaise. While this may be the ideal diet for our ruling class of trend slaves nostalgic for the frat houses and keg parties of yore, the reduction process can be misleading. What of the eels, endive, and juniper berries that make Bruges, for instance, such a lovely Belgian town to get bloated in? The culinary heritage of the French, the Spanish, and other marauding auslanders? The abundant accessibility of mussels and oysters and shrimp and carp and perch and pike? The fragrant hochepots, the thrush flamed with gin, the whole Bruegelian cheese-and-sausage fandango? The chocolate, for God's sake?

This isn't to say that Belgium has exactly commanded the attention of the culinary world across the centuries. When Time-Life put together its magisterial Foods of the World series of 27 cookbooks a few decades ago, the Low Countries were consigned to one-fifth of a single volume with the damning observation that Belgium and company didn't have "what could be described as a large or infinitely varied repertoire of food." The country's flat, marshy terrain and amorphous national identity have not been a breeding ground for either grande cuisine or even a whole lot of lively proletariat comfort food, it's true.

Consequently, the menu at La Trappe, a newish Belgian restaurant along the Mason Street cable car tracks, is on the abbreviated side. Mussels are a recurring motif. So is Belgian endive. There's lapin à la Flamande and waterzooi à la Gantoise and the occasional Belgian waffle. But honest effort and more than a few culinary successes notwithstanding, the place is primarily about the beer.

La Trappe is located deep in the subterranean recesses that for many years housed Buca Giovanni, arguably once the best Italian restaurant in North Beach. Off a tranquil dining room with half a dozen marble-topped bistro tables is a circular wrought-iron staircase leading down to the center of operations, a vaulted, candlelit, stained-glass-and-brick–enclosed retreat with a burbling fountain, mosaic floors, and the rustic charm of a Provençal wine cellar. Here squadrons of the thirsty and convivial gather at plank tables and benches or the small, inviting bar and quaff goblets of Belgian beer in infinite variety, noshing on high-end burgers, artisanal cheeses, and, primarily, moules frites, the specialty of the house.

Mussels are to Belgium what lobster is to Maine or Dungeness crab is to San Francisco: not simply a briny source of pleasure and protein but also a time-honored symbol of the locale's culinary identity. Cultivated in the country's prodigious northern waters, the plump and luscious little critters are prepared and served in a variety of ways — baked in the shell with garlic and breadcrumbs, simmered on a bed of fresh herbs, onions, and shallots — but the classic mussel-consumption method is to eat them out of a big silvery steamer bucket redolent of garlic and wine with a paper cone of fried potatoes on the side (more on them later). At La Trappe, mussels are treated with the respect they deserve, their sweet, succulent nature enhanced in an array of complementary presentations. The Provençal (white wine, garlic, tomato, and pastis) is light and lovely, the jalapeño-lemongrass-coconut-cilantro extravaganza offers a pleasant kick to the tastebuds, but our favorite steaming sauce involves lemon, saffron, and gueze ($12), a tangy, citrusy lambic-style beer that lends a bracing, puckery flavor to the richness of the mussels.

The bivalve's classic companion is frites, and woe betide the unwary rube who calls them french fries. Belgian fries are a cherished national dish (invented far from the kitchens of Gaul, according to unbiased Belgian historians), notable for their twice-cooked texture and succulent flavor. The potatoes are cut nice and skinny, fried in fat for just under 10 minutes, then fried again at a higher temperature for a minute or two. The result is a hot, crunchy snack with a wonderfully creamy interior. While La Trappe's fries aren't as silken and richly flavored as the Belgian originals (the apocryphal secret: rendered kidney lard), they are tasty and irresistible just the same. Frites come with a selection of dipping sauces: mayonnaise laced with chipotle or Dijon or (best of all) wasabi, a nice housemade ketchup, or another with a pleasant afterkick of Indian spice.

Endive is another ubiquitous ingredient in the Belgian kitchen, and La Trappe serves it as an appetizer ($9) in which its leaves are piled with lush avocado, juicy bits of grapefruit, and filets of smoked trout: a pleasing mosaic of contrasts to the vegetable's bitter, crunchy character. Stews — hochepots — are integral to Low Country cuisine as well, and braised rabbit with bacon and prunes ($21.50) is a particular specialty. The house version is rich and complex, its thick, hoppy Gulden Draak Triple Ale base interacting nicely with the shards of smoky bacon; the lush, barely sweet prunes; and the rabbit itself, although the lapin yields far more skin and bone than meat. Best of all is waterzooi ("water on the boil"), the thickened soupy stew (or stewy soup) that is a hallmark of Belgian cookery. The chicken variety ($18) served at La Trappe is comfort food exponentialized, a silky, soul-warming plate of tender chicken breast in generous slices; light, barely spiced cream; strips of al dente zucchini; and green-topped baby carrots with all their earthy sweetness intact.

The ever-changing dessert menu might feature a triple-layer tiramisu that's one part rum cake and three parts mascarpone, all of it dreamy, or a wonderfully thick and crunchy Belgian waffle ($6) dolloped in strawberries and cream with a chunk of sugar in the center that melts and spreads its sweetness through the batter as it cooks. There's a brief wine list of eight whites and nine reds plus a few aperitifs and dessert wines, all in the $20 to $30 per bottle range and all available by the glass, but, as noted, you don't go to La Trappe for the wine. Its Belgian suds list is epic, a carefully annotated, ever-evolving compendium of 200-plus beers spanning the entire breathtaking range of the country's brewing tradition. Twenty are available on tap on any given night, several new bottles are introduced each week, and two dozen Belgian-style beers from around the globe are available as well. Breaching the cellar's mysteries, in other words, is a daunting yet pleasurable ambition. A few suggestions: Radermacher's Rader Blonde ($7), a bright golden brew with the unexpected flavor of a bracing gin and tonic; Abbaye des Rocs' Grand Cru, rich, sweet, creamy, and mellow as a fine dessert wine; Lindemans' Lambic Pêche, a sweet-then-tart bellini in a bottle with the refreshing sparkle of champagne. Turns out beer can make a perfectly fine foundation for a restaurant after all, especially if there are mussels and waterzooi on the menu.

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Matthew Stafford

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