The Gateway Quarter is hopping. Just in the last few months here at CityBeat we’ve given rave reviews to Abigail Street and A Tavola. Senate’s got lines out the door, and there are rumors that Bakersfield, the taco and whiskey bar, is opening any minute. Lavomatic’s menu has changed but looks good, and there’s a coffee and wine bar with a good pedigree coming to 1215 Vine St. So who was lucky enough to land the big, bold location with wrap-around windows at the corner of Vine and 12th, right next to the Ensemble Theater? I’m glad to say it’s Taste of Belgium Bistro. With their origins in Findlay Market, Jean Francois Flechet’s Taste of Belgium is an Over-the-Rhine original, and they deserve this spotlight location in the hottest dining district in town.
When I wrote last spring about Taste of Belgium opening at the Freedom Center, owner Jean Francois Flechet was optimistic about the opportunity to be the first food venue at The Banks. Turns out that it wasn’t a perfect match, and after waiting several months for a liquor license that never materialized and relying on a lunch crowd that never developed, he was forced to close. Flechet learned from the experience, and those lessons have made the new venture more coherent.
The menu feels intentional. The food is actually quite Belgian, as opposed to the Midwest American offerings at the museum. I had to ask what several of the dishes were. What’s a Waterzooi? A Stoemp? It was fun finding the answers. And let me just say up front that if you like beer, you will be extremely happy at Taste of Belgium.
Sure, Taste of Belgium started with a waffle. It’s a great waffle, too — I’ve only ever come across one person who is not a fan, and he’s just an old-fashioned, American roadside diner guy who likes his waffles to be old-fashioned and American. And, even now, the Liège waffle is the star of Taste of Belgium’s menu. The Waffle and Chicken ($8 at lunch, $14 at dinner), with a fried boneless breast paired with a waffle and topped with Ohio maple syrup spiked with hot sauce, is the bistro’s best-selling dish.
On my recent lunch visit, I wanted to transcend the waffle, so on my server’s recommendation I tried Boulets Liégeois — French for “meatballs from Liege” — Jean Francois’ hometown and capital of the French-speaking region of Belgium. They were outstanding. Two hefty, hearty meatballs ($9) flecked with onions and peppers, well-browned and glazed with a sweet syrup that was a perfect contrast to the savory meat. The French fries (frites) (add to any dish for $3) are popular, but could have been a little crisper. Not to worry, though, when the Blanche de Bruxelles beer was so perfect. There are six Belgian beers on tap at the bistro, two of which are exclusively theirs. And the macarons I had for dessert were honestly as good as any I had in Paris. Absolute jewels.
So what’s a stoemp? It’s mashed potatoes seasoned with flavors like bacon and leek, ham and scallions, or even goetta. And waterzooi (which roughly translates to “watery mess”) is basically Belgian chicken soup, a perfect antidote to winter. Crepes ($7) are extremely popular on the lunch menu at the bistro, along with the composed salads — Arugula ($7), Nicoise ($9) and Liégeoise ($8) with potato, parsley, bacon, green beans and shallots.
When I come back for dinner, it will be to try the Carbonnades à l’OTR ($19), beef stew braised for six hours in Belgian ale. I’m also drooling with anticipation for the caramel toffee flan ($6).
Chef’s tables are areas set aside near the restaurant kitchen where diners watch the chef work, often asking questions, chatting and enjoying a more personal experience of the restaurant. To be honest, I’ve never much wanted to try dining at one. I worried that it might be awkward and I’d feel like I was interfering in the kitchen’s work. I remember kitchens I worked in — line cooks yelling and general chaos, or my own kitchen, Wussy blaring and windows open even in the winter to let out the heat. But as soon as I saw the chef’s table at Taste of Belgium, I thought, yeah, I’d like to try that. Everything at Taste of Belgium seems delicious and approachable — even the hot seat.
Go: 1133-1135 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine
Hours: Breakfast/Lunch: 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Saturday; Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Entree Prices: Breakfast/Lunch: $5-$10,
Accessibility: Fully accessible