Saucy, satisfying and sometimes deep-fried, Belgian cuisine isn’t for those on a diet
Tucked into a busy side street across from Tan Dinh Market, La Belgique (17 Tran Quoc Toan, D3) is small and welcoming, with checked tablecloths and faux-brick wallpaper. The beer is from Belgium, the meat is perfectly cooked, and the portions are big.
We arrived at La Belgique during the holidays, and cheery fairy lights greeted us from the window. We started with drinks: a glass of crisp French rosé (VND90,000) and a Belgian Chimay Tripel beer (VND180,000). We had not been initiated in Chimay beer before and were bowled over by the floral flavors of the brew, the work of dedicated Trappist monks. It was not easy to decide which appetizing dishes to order. The menu contains sections dedicated to classic French dishes, Belgian specialties and an inviting selection of international foods like pasta and couscous. To tempt us further, there were weekly specials written on the chalkboard.
For starters, we chose the limed salmon tartare (VND185,000)—perfectly cubed salmon marinated in olive oil and lime. The deftly knife work of dicing the salmon, red onion and chives was worthy of a sashimi chef. The presentation of this dish was not to be outdone by the flavors. It was at once creamy and light, the olive oil ideally balanced with the lime.
Next, we embraced the FrenchVietnamese setting by ordering frog legs with parsley butter (VND175,000). The generously-portioned frog legs were fried in butter with a hint of flour and lots of garlic. Frog meat is a pleasant halfway point between chicken and fish. Think of pan-fried white fish in the shape of a chicken wing, and you can understand why we quickly polished off the heaping plate. We sopped up the leftover garlic butter with crusty home-made bread.
Our first main was the aptly named couscous royal (VND285,000), a steaming plate of couscous with grilled chicken, merguez sausage, lamb meatball and lamb chop. A result of North African influence, couscous ranks in the top three favorite national dishes in France. It may not be the first dish visitors associate with France, but a glance at our fellow patrons as the couscous royal was brought to the table, told us that this was true French comfort food. The fluffy couscous was accompanied by a rich spicy vegetable stew. In each spoonful, you get a mix of flavors and textures from the stewed eggplant and carrot, grilled meat and mild nutty couscous.
Next up was a true showstopper: the ham hock with honey sauce (VND255,000). A sizeable chunk of pork leg, the braised hock shone gold in the light. Nestled on a bed of lettuce and crispy bacon potatoes, and with a side of honey sauce, the dish looked like something a medieval king would eat on his throne. The hock was crisp on the outside and tenderly flaked off the bone, made all the more succulent with generous pours of honey sauce.
Far too stuffed to manage two desserts, we settled on splitting a tarte tatin (VND85,000, seasonal) to end our meal. The caramelized apple tart is one of our favorite desserts, and the kitchen at La Belgique truly did it justice. With plenty of butter (of course) and caramelized apples, the latter maintained their integrity while absorbing the sugar from the caramelization process. Complemented by crème anglaise and ice cream, the dessert almost made us forget how full we were.
After our dinner we lingered awhile longer at La Belgique. From classic Belgian and French comfort food to the soft music, the small restaurant has an invitingly homey feel. It is one of those few places that feeds the soul as well as the stomach
IMAGES BY NGOC TRAN
TEXT BY SONIA GREGOR & MARTIN ZORRILLA