Belgian Sans Nonsense

Il Rifugio's Belgian Fare Delightful in Its Simplicity

Il Rifugio

621-A E. Sixth, 236-1617
Lunch: Mon-Fri, 11:30am-2pm;
Dinner: Mon-Thu, 6-10pm; Fri-Sat, 6-11pm

Il rifugio
Il Rifugio

photograph by John Anderson

Although Austin has for years supported a fine-dining establishment proudly bearing the country's name, the cuisine of Belgium remains unfamiliar ground, even to the city's most affirmed epicures. Il Rifugio, a relatively recent arrival at the eastern end of the Sixth Street entertainment district, hopes to help dispel some of the mystery surrounding the country's food, exposing diners to Belgian and Italian fare prepared and served in the European tradition.

Sandwiched as it is between France, Germany, and the Netherlands, Belgium boasts a cuisine that, not surprisingly, bears some resemblance to the cuisines of its neighbors. After several years spent living in Europe and a decade of informal study the continent's foods and cultures, I am able to name only two dishes that I would confidently characterize as distinctly Belgian: a heaping bowl of mussels afloat in a delicate broth of wine, garlic, onion, and herbs, and its traditional accompaniment, a pile of just-crisp-on-the-outside, inappropriately named "French" fries. No doubt native Belgians could rattle off a more significant list of national specialties, yet given the country's geographic positioning in addition to its role as an administrative and financial center for the European Community, Belgium provides the perfect natural backdrop for a national cuisine I'd best describe as "Euro-fusion."

In restaurants from Bruges to Brussels, diners enjoy meals that are truly "continental," feasting on dishes that blend techniques from the kitchens of Italy, Germany, and France. Yet in spite of this fusing of traditions, Belgian food remains uncomplicated. In fact, one of the best ways to describe the food of the country might be straightforward. Standard Belgian food is no-nonsense fare, much in the way the country's people are no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is people. One of my most memorable meals in Belgium illustrates this spirit of solid simplicity. It was in Bruges, at a cozy, red-brick restaurant overlooking one of the city's canals on a picturesque side street. It was a drizzly, early spring evening, and the restaurant's fireplace served both to warm customers and cook dinner. A beautifully lettered, if surprisingly short menu offered varying cuts of meat and potatoes, all of which were to be cooked to order before my eyes. The beef I selected came off the wood coals seared to perfection, as did the earthy, pale-skinned potatoes. A simple salad of shredded celery root and carrot provided a change of taste, and a hearty Trappist beer washed the meal down.

Although Il Rifugio's menu features a number of more refined offerings, as well as a prominent Italian component, the spirit of timelessness and simplicity that I encountered that night in Bruges seems to apply here, too. Menu items may sound fancy or fussy at first glance, but my experience at the restaurant has proven that in spite of their "dressed-up" descriptions, the dishes that generally arrive at the table are solid presentations lacking flamboyance or artful flourish.

Of course, I couldn't resist an order of mussels and "French" fries on my first visit to Il Rifugio, but in an odd twist, the restaurant offers its mussels "a la Provencale" — served in a tomato-based broth — rather than the traditional white wine concoction. The big white bowl overflowing with bivalves ($11.50) was indeed reminiscent of those I'd enjoyed in Belgium and northern France, and the mussels were fresh and full. Unfortunately, the broth, better characterized as a thin sauce, fell somewhat flat. Yet washed down with a rich, frothy Chimay beer, the brew of Trappist monks, the meal nonetheless took me away. That same visit I also sampled a daily pasta special of penne with vegetables and shrimp ($7). Again, an oversized white bowl was laid before me, this one packed full of pasta laced with skinny French green beans, julienned carrots and zucchini, fresh chopped tomatoes, and diced onions, all of it lightly dressed with a thin tomato sauce spiked with a suspicion of garlic. Fresh parsley patches on the dish's rim acted as the only decoration, and the entree was delightful in its simplicity, the fine haricots verts a nice departure from the norm. Little room was left for dessert, but I rallied for an order of the chocolate mousse ($3.50), a generous parfait glass of dark chocolate topped with a dollop of whipped cream and a pretty piroutte cookie. I was glad I'd made room, as the dense mousse, paired with a tight little espresso ($1.75), was the perfect finale.

In addition to traditional Belgian standards and more Continental "Euro-fusion"-type offerings, Il Rifugio's menu leans heavily on Italian fare, with pastas and pizzas — the latter prepared fresh from the crust up by owner Silvano Valmi — making up a majority of the offerings. French-influenced Belgian fare also features prominently, especially when it comes to fish dishes and daily specials. Those in search of heartier German-styled Belgian fare won't be disappointed either, with dishes such as the veal cordon bleu ($13.75), a breaded veal cutlet layered with ham and cheese, exiting the kitchen well-executed.

Visit #2 to Il Rifugio explored the restaurant's lighter Italian lunch fare. First came an appetizer of beef carpaccio ($8), a platter of wafer-thin beef garnished with radish rounds, artichoke hearts, and tiny mozzarella triangles piled on a tangy green salad — a refreshing summer opener. Next up were two of the restaurant's dozen or so signature pizzas, the 4 Stagioni ($8) and the Ortolan ($10). A wood-fired brick pizza oven dominates one corner of Il Rifugio, and the restaurant serves crisp-crusted pies with modest doses of cheese and sauce fresh from the oven. The 4 Stagioni mixes ham and artichoke hearts with a handful of fresh mushrooms, while the Ortolan paired bell peppers (both yellow and red) with eggplant sprinkled with minced onions and fresh garlic. Both pizzas were tasty, although I suspect many would expect a bit more in the way of toppings for their money.

It's been said that Il Rifugio lacks atmosphere, but I disagree. There may not be much in the way of decoration beyond the travel posters and kitschy little tile-roofed bar, but something about the place feels authentically "bistro" to me. Could be the French music or the little bowl of marinated, stuffed olives that comes out before you even order, or maybe even the crisp table linens and unassuming manner of the restaurant's staff. At any rate, something about it works for me. It's a nice spot for a meal without pretension, and while the food may not "wow" everyone, Il Rifugio is the kind of place you can count on for simply rendered, "no surprises," straightforward fare.

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