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Food

What's Cookin' Behind the Curtain - Sorry Belgium, It's Still About the Beer

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Every Friday, LAist is taking you on a trip down to Orange County to uncover the unique dining experiences that await adventurous eaters willing to explore beyond the county line.

If you were to give me a word association test and prompt me with “Belgian cuisine”, I would immediately answer waffles. Then beer. The chocolate. Then French fries (despite the misnomer, I’m in the fries originated from Belgium camp). Then a big fat blank stare.

What is it about Belgian food that is so unremarkable, so unmemorable? Perhaps it is the fact that the cuisine draws heavily from the nation’s larger neighbors, France and Germany. Or maybe it’s just the lack of standout ingredients to give the food a distinctive flavor or aroma. And quite possibly, it’s the fact that Belgian waffles, beer, and chocolate are so good, they overshadow everything else.

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I actually think one of the biggest reasons why Belgian food is oft-forgotten out here (at least in my mind) is that there are virtually no authentic Belgian restaurants throughout the Southland, and a paucity of quality non-French European restaurants in general. When I lived in Chicago, all sorts of European cuisine were readily accessible, which is no surprise given the contrasting immigration patterns of Chi-town relative to LA (let’s just say the Chinese food out there is, um, suspect). I’ll admit, I’m also somewhat predisposed against Belgian food because I like more robust, spicy flavors and lighter ingredients.

But in order to give Belgian food a fair shake, my food buddy Amy and I decided to wander over to Brussels Bistro in downtown Laguna Beach. The subterranean restaurant features a modern décor to match the artsy vibe of the area, but has a menu with faithful representations of classic Belgian dishes, as well as live jazz during the week and DJs on weekends. Though to be honest, we were mostly interested in feeding our craving for some good French fries than experimenting with the entrees.

Of course, being a Belgian restaurant, I made sure my first course was a beer. Brussels Bistro has a solid selection of brews, with standbys such as Stella Artois and Hoegaarden Blanche amongst the six beers on tap, alongside a wider variety of bottles like Lindemans and Chimay. Our server suggested the Maredsous 8, which had a nice brown body but also a hint of sweetness that gave it a lighter taste. Probably a little too sweet for my taste but still a good starter drink.

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As for the food, the menu offered a nice mix of choices. Starters included Chimay cheese, white asparagus and mimosa eggs, and a tomato and saffron fish soup. The entrees were similarly diverse, with a beef stew in Stella, a parsley-crusted salmon with Kriek Lindemans (cherry) sauce, and chicken meatballs in a tarragon mustard sauce amongst the options. Most of the dishes are served with fries, although you can also get fries as an appetizer, accompanied by dipping sauces.

I decided to go traditional and opted for the moules frites, or mussels and fries, steamed in a white wine sauce. The mussels came out in a humongous pot, filled with at least 50 mussels. In fact, there were so many that I couldn’t finish my meal, not because I was full, but because I was too damn tired from pulling them off the shell to eat any more. The sauce was not particularly noticeable at first, but when I got closer to the bottom of the pot, the mussels that remained submerged had definitely absorbed the broth, allowing the flavor from the onion and celery to deaden some of the taste of the mussels. Amy had the chicken and mushroom sauce in puff pastry. This dish was a bit disappointing, with the sauce relatively bland so that it tasted more like the chicken and dumplings dish from Cheesecake Factory; the taste of the mushrooms seemed to be lost within the cream.

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Yet, all this was secondary to the fries. We watched excitedly as other tables were served their glass cup. But when the fries finally came, they didn’t taste particularly fresh, as if they had been sitting under a heat lamp. However, the more we ate, the more they grew on us. They were crisp, but not crispy, and also not too potatoey. I particularly enjoyed adding sea salt to the fries for a fuller seasoning. I think we suffer from French fry fatigue in the States, desensitized by the omnipresence of fast food, so it’s hard to judge fries objectively (though for my money, McDonald’s fries with their beef extract are still tops). From what I’ve been told, real fries in Belgium are amazing, though the whole mayo thing throws me off. So the fries here were not amazing, but certainly passable.

I’m sure Brussels Bistro will be highly appealing to some folks that love this type of cuisine. Even though the food costs bistro prices, you’ll get a dining experience that you can scarcely find anywhere else in LA. It didn’t quite make me a convert to Belgian food, but that’s OK, just fill me up another pint and I’m a happy man.

Brussels Bistro
222 Forest Ave.
Laguna Beach, CA 92651

Photos by Amy Yang for LAist