Fond of French

Eating Well at The Belgian

photograph by John Anderson

The Belgian L'Estro Armonico

3520 Bee Caves Rd., 328-0580
Mon-Fri 11:30am--2pm; Sun-Thu 6pm--10pm; Fri & Sat 6 pm--11 pm

Like Agatha Christie's fictional sleuth Hercule Poirot, the cuisine of Belgium is often mistakenly assumed to be a product of France. But as Ruth Van Waerebeek writes in her new cookbook, Everybody Eats Well in Belgium, the French are just one of sundry peoples to have had an influence on Belgian cooking. Over the ages, the Vikings, Romans, Spanish, Germans, and Dutch, in addition to the French, have all invaded the tiny coastal nation, each bringing with them techniques and styles that, combined with a native hankering for potatoes, seafood, game, fruits, beer, and, of course, chocolate, have culminated in a cuisine that the author describes as "the meeting point of the Germanic cultures of northern Europe and the Latin cultures to the south."

The perception that Belgian food is merely an offshoot of French cuisine is not likely to be challenged by a visit to The Belgian L'Estro Armonico, however. Despite its moniker, The Belgian actually serves a predominance of country French dishes, and this is unfortunate because its best offerings are those featuring the flavors of its namesake country. With this caveat in mind, however, visitors to the Westlake restaurant can expect to enjoy simple, wholesome food, served in a charming atmosphere by an able and affable waitstaff.

Although the restaurant is open for both lunch and dinner, evening is the time to dine there. The dinner menu features more exciting options and a wider variety of Belgian preparations, and the eatery's cozy interior -- a snug 15-table dining area surrounded by decor that imparts the feeling of a small country inn -- shines at night, when darkness allows patrons to forget that they're eating in a mini-stripmall.

With the soothing tones of live classical guitar inundating the space, we began our dinner with a Belgian classic, Potato-Leek Soup ($4). Belgians consume potatoes in one form or another at nearly every meal, so it's not surprising that they consider themselves aficionados of the spud. (Belgian fries, in fact, are the national snack, served everywhere from street corners to fancy restaurants.) The basic, flavorful puree required just a touch of cream and some chicken stock to bring out the savory amalgam of its main ingredients. And though not quite as impressive as the soup, the Scallops Provençales ($6.50) -- sweet and tender in a mild herbed tomato sauce -- made a pleasant second course.

Interestingly, the waitstaff at the Belgian does not have assigned tables, which explains why, before we had received our entrees, one of our three waiters began to clear our wine glasses and asked us whether we'd decided on dessert. Fortunately, the miscommunication proved harmless, and the error was forgivable in light of the overall attentiveness of The Belgian's employees, whose congeniality augmented the restaurant's ambiance.

Pairing the Duck Cherry ($15.75) with a bottle of Chimay Red ($5.50) proved a convincing example of the Belgian penchant for complementing gourmet food with beer instead of wine. The choice, cherry-topped duck breast, was baked to perfection and served with a simple stock-based sauce just sweet enough to stand up to the floral bouquet of the ale. On the other hand, pairing the Pork Tenderloin Adrennais ($13.50), a moist braised tenderloin in a mild juniper-berry sauce, with a Celis White ($3) turned out less successful. Although the meat was expertly prepared, there was no evidence of the resinous juniper in the jus, allowing the powerful witbier to overwhelm the lightly seasoned pork. The Celis did find a suitable partner, however, in the mashed potatoes, whose touch of nutmeg countered well the coriander-spiked brew.

Although Belgians are perhaps best known for a love of chocolate, this affection reflects a national sweet tooth for desserts of all sorts. Served in an almond tuile over a strawberry coulis, the Champagne and Lemon Sorbet ($3.75) was a light and refreshing alternative to cacao, and the Bavarois ($3.75), an eggless white chocolate mousse, hit the spot for this admirer of the other chocolate. I must admit, however, that the best of The Belgian's desserts -- which closed a later lunch visit to the restaurant -- was a sumptuous cheesecake covered with a rich Belgian chocolate sauce ($2.75). The combination of dark chocolate, airy cheese filling, and exquisite crust made each bite a delight.

The other standout of the lunch was the Estro Salad ($2.75), a superb balance of sweet and salty flavors that married raisins, walnuts, and Swiss cheese with greens and a tangy mustard vinaigrette. On the other hand, the Endive Salad ($3.25) -- chopped tomato, Belgian endive, lettuce, and lemon juice served over a bed of whole endive leaves -- was a bit austere, the bitterness of the greens and the acidity of the lemon juice dominating the other ingredients. Overall, the selection of lunch entrees was disappointingly non-Belgian, and my dining companion and I settled for two fair but uninspired dishes -- an herb-rubbed fillet of rainbow trout ($6.95) that tasted heavily of tarragon, and the Bouchée à la Reine ($6.95) -- chicken and mushrooms cooked in pastry and served with a thick sauce, reminiscent of a pot pie.

Perhaps the folks at The Belgian do not believe that Austin diners are prepared for a menu that features solely Belgian cuisine. But considering the way that fine dining has boomed in the capital over the last few years, it might behoove them to consider offering more dishes of their native country. Among the many intriguing recipes in Van Waerebeek's book are roast pheasant with carmelized Belgian endive and apples, fillet of cod with mustard and gingered carrots, eels in cream sauce, monkfish in beer sauce, and the national meal, steamed mussels with Belgian fries. One can only imagine how fabulous dishes like these would taste seasoned by the wonderful atmosphere of L'Estro Armonico.

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