Interesting experience. We went specifically for dinner. As many know, the recently (July) renovated room has been expanded to include a "smoke-free" environment in the back room. The front room is still quite smoky though at least it appears to have some form of ventilation now. (My last visit some long time ago made me wonder whether the smoke was a featured item. It didn't move and seemed to have been a nearly primordial haze.) It is still a bit heavy going in the bar but there is now the occasional hint of fresh air.
The back room is brick-walled with some decorative accents. Tucked into one corner, the kitchen (or at least its serving area). Although the ventilation is a marked improvement here and the air mostly fresh, one need not strain to imbibe smoke drifting back from the front, either. The long passageway leading from the front just ain't long enough or the ventilation wasn't on high. Or something. I did not find it offensive (though I concede it was noticeable); the esteemed dinner companion was not quite as pleased on the subject.
On to dinner. The menu is, as others have reported, not extensive. They got mussels. They got four sandwiches (including salmon, duck breast, ham, and an egg salad concoction.) They got about half dozen other entrees from steak to chicken to rabbit. There were a few-really few-other choices. Dessert is a cheese plate. Prices are moderate to occasionally expensive. The special of the day was a halibut for $19. All in all, I found the selection a bit skimpy-though that may be in part a function of the fact that the kitchen is still relatively new. Then again, maybe not. Time will tell. (And you can read more of our thoughts on the subject at the end of this review.) However, beyond the number of items, what really counts is the quality and therefore, on to our experience.
We started with a brandade-a combination of potato and dried salt cod, pan-fried. It was served with what appeared to be a generous dollop of garlicky sour cream and a green chopped something in olive oil. (According to the menu, a gremolata-but then the menu also described a citrus accompaniment that did not appear anywhere on the plate.) We both loved the brandade which we chose to accompany by an order of the frites. As reported multiple times here previously, the frites are beautifully cut and crisply fried. They are accompanied by a garlicky aioli, though I thought it a bit ordinary. Good, but ordinary. And for the price of a side dish ($4), the portion size is too small. (C'mon guys. We're talking about potatos, here.)
The lovely dinner companion (LDC) chose what the menu described as summer squash stuffed with basmati rice, roasted almonds, figs and garbanzo beans. It was supposed to be floating in a lake of herbed tomato broth and a spicy chutney,. In fact, what appeared was not what was described. A number of small grilled zucchini, floating in the promised broth, yes. The rice was there too (although LDC wonders whether it was really basmati) as were the almonds. Figs were replaced by currants (without announcement or explanation). Chutney and garbanzos were completely missing in action. The broth also contained a healthy helping of spinach leaves-completely unannounced (but nonetheless welcome). All those discrepancies notwithstanding, LDC reported herself quite pleased with the portion and taste. Though not so much to my taste, I do agree that what arrived was, in fact, tasty and appropriately sized. The puzzle is why the dish served was so at odds with what was promised in the menu description. (Inquiries of the server were unavailing. More on the service below.)
Your devoted reporter ordered the roasted half chicken, served on a bed of fresh fava beans, sweet corn, cherry tomatos, and new potatos. (In fact, the potatos served were-again-different from what the menu description promised.) I frankly cannot remember being served a juicier, tastier chicken in a long, long, long time. I am most definitely not a partisan of fava beans, but this presentation-in a garlicky broth (they must buy garlic by the truckload here)-was superb. (There was also a whole mess of arugula leaves on top.) Really outstanding chicken. It was pressed and nearly, but not totally deboned. Just wonderful, exquisite chicken.
A mysterious unasked-for second order of frites appeared with the dinners. The menu did not describe either of our dishes as being so accompanied (especially since LDC's had rice and mine had new potatos). Still, why look a gift potato in the mouth? And so we finished the second serving as well. My second take on the aioli was the same as the first: garlicky, but ordinary. LDC's view: "it was okay."
A word about the service. One young woman was responsible for the entire room (with the assistance of a nearly silent male server). There are approximately a dozen tables; during our stay, perhaps five were occupied at any one moment. She was not overburdened with work. More to the point, we both found her quite pleasant and friendly. We recognize that this may vary entirely with the server but we had no complaints whatsoever with the service.
Dinner for two, without dessert and with two drinks (a soda and a moderately-priced beer) came to $47 plus tip. That strikes me as a bit over what it might be but not out of line. For someone looking to sample Belgian beer (and the descriptions of the beers are truly outstanding) but also hungry for food, you won't find much better in the city, I don't think. For someone looking for a great restaurant and/or for someone not interested in the beer (LDC, truth be told), then this may not be the right choice.
Our greatest disappointment was the breadth of the menu. It's clearly many steps up from bar food-I would like to re-emphasize my happiness with my chicken-and very well-prepared. We found our feelings balanced between happiness with the high quality of the food and disappointment at the small number of selections. If you go with the right level of expectation, I cannot imagine that you would be disappointed. The issue, I guess, is what kind of audience are they aiming at? The food is far better than you have any reason to expect in terms of quality. But it just isn't quite up to snuff for an "independent" restaurant. The draw at Hopleaf is, as it has always been, the truly extraordinary-one might even say world-class-selection of Belgian beers (over 200 beers, including other European and high quality American brews). With that caveat, well recommended.
Gypsy Boy and LDC