Last month I had a chance to check out BEL, the newish Belgian gastropub. Around 8pm the bar and lounge tables were filled with folks drinking, but few seated at the tables to dine. The man in chef's garb was standing to the side surveying the room.
We were off to a strong start with the day's special appetizer, housesmoked sable fish, $9, served with herbed cream cheese. Cut in generous slabs, the sable was rich and moist with a velvety mouthfeel and perfect salting. The buttered croutons and crisp veggie accompaniments set it off quite well. And it paired nicely with my Saison Dupont, $8. Excellent all-round.
Salad Ardennaise, $11, caught my attention on the menu due to the duck gizzard confit. However, cutting them into chunks that I first mistook on sight for mushrooms made them near inedible. The warm kale base of the salad was barely wilted, leaving it quite chewy as well making this dish too much of a mastication work-out. Flavors were good with plenty of bacon, pickled onion, cranberries, and seared potato croutons. But this could have been much better with some judicious knifework slicing the gizzards more finely and breaking down some of the whole kale leaves.
Moules frites with green sauce, $18, was a big misstep. The menu says, "the freshest available mussels". However, as soon as the lid from the pot was removed, the overpowering stench of these mollusks told me otherwise. This was confirmed by their shriveled state, shrunk to near nothingness inside the shells, and too strong of taste. The chef came over to investigate, took a sniff, then asked if we wanted something else instead. This batch should never have made it out of the kitchen.
Meanwhile, we tried the cone of frites. These were a mixed bag. Some were crisp. Some were soggy. Some were tough. They seemed like they were from different batches and thrown together. The tarragon dipping sauce was excellent though.
Our replacement dish was Seafood Waterzooi, $24. In my haste to order something else, I'd forgotten that this probably had mussels in it too. The chef brought it to the table himself and announced that he selected mussels that had been delivered that day. These were indeed in prime condition, and one has to wonder why they were not served in the first place. The chunks of firm white fish, prawns, and mussels were all cooked on point in the creamy leek and fennel soup base. A bit undersalted, the liquid grew tastier the longer the dish macerated at the table.
Final dish was Spaghetti Bolognese, $16, mostly to satisfy my curiosity about the uniquely Belgian style made with minced lamb and bacon. The tomato-meat sauce was oddly sugary. Yet after a while the combination of softish pasta and cured meat did grow on me, making me think of elementary school cafeteria fare. It made a good leftover reheated for lunch the next day. While I'm glad I tried it once, I can think of many other places where I'd spend rather my pasta money instead.
So, kind of a mixed bag. The menu did not offer much in the way of snack-y type things that I would have with a drink. The sablefish was outstanding, but the frites were a letdown. The two larger plates were good enough but not compelling. The staff were responsive to our complaints and did the right thing.
What else have folks tried here?
3215 Mission St
San Francisco, CA 94110
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