I love Europe. Each year, The Better Half and I take our Christmas savings and instead of buying each other gifts, we hop on a plane and fly to some combination of European countries. Last year, we headed to Brussels and Paris. This year, we’ll head to London and Paris. So we’ve eaten at our share of European cafes in a variety of settings, and whenever we come back to Cincinnati, we long for a similar experience. To be honest? We get a little homesick for Paris in particular, and we’re just looking for a fix for our next trip. JeanRo Bistro tried, but never quite got it right. Other places have tried as well, but at no point have I felt like I was transported somewhere else for just a little while. Jean-Francois Flechet, whose waffles I’ve been eating since he was a one-man stand at Findlay recently opened a Belgian-style cafe at the corner of 12th and Vine in Over-the-Rhine. The number one factor in making a cafe feel European? Put it in a neighborhood that has a bit of a European feel. Sure, you’d probably never see the wildly-colored Duncanson building in Brussels, but the architecture and old-world feel is there. The room combines bright white, brick, and lots of sunlight– it feels warm and familiar.
I was a bit curious about the “Belgian-style” cafe: would this be an Americanized version, as his two previous restaurants have been, or would he simply introduce Belgian cooking to Cincinnatians? Thankfully, he’s done the latter. Though there are certainly some American-style foods on the menu (Goetta crepes, anyone? Or cake pops?) there is a wide variety of not-so-familiar foods as well. Flechet takes his favorite Liégeoise dishes and doesn’t try to Americanize them; instead he makes you fall in love with them.
First, you’re probably wondering about his waffles and chicken, as they’ve been the talk of the town since he opened. This is the most American dish on the menu, and honestly, my least favorite. Though the chicken is juicy and lightly breaded, and the Buffalo-style sauce and condiments delicious, to me the combination of the chicken and the waffle is just a little much (and I love his dense, sugary waffles). The three times I’ve been at the restaurant, they’ve been flying out of the kitchen (no pun intended) so clearly they’re a best seller. When I visit, I prefer to focus on the Belgian-style dishes, personally. That will just leave more waffles and chicken for you. There are also waffle sandwich specials, which I’ve tried (the post-Thanksgiving turkey and cranberry one was good) but again, I’d rather eat the waffle alone. I’m a purist.
My favorite dish is the salad Liégeoise: a combination of potatoes, green beans, bacon and onions in a vinegar-y dressing. If you’re familiar with German potato salad, it’s very similar to this, but in my opinion, much better and fresher-tasting. It’s a wintry salad– served warm, and more substantial than the typical salad you’ll find here. I’ve had it twice: the first time was perfect, with a nice tang of vinegar to balance the bacon; the second time a bit less tangy, but still good.
Stoemp is another traditional Belgian dish: basically mashed potatoes with a variety of additions that, at Taste of Belgium, change by the day. The day I tried it, it had roasted red pepper and cilantro. Stoemp is smooth and creamy without being too buttery or cream-filled: it does not feel heavy, like American mashed potatoes.
The boulets Liégeoise, or Liége-style meatballs, are very reminiscent of dishes we’ve had in Belgium and the Netherlands (all of that Flemish influence, you see). You get a couple of large meatballs topped with sirop de Liége (which we had to look up– it’s a syrup of apples and pears. The seasoning in the meatball is unique– according to Chrissy the lovely bartender, there’s a lot of marjoram in it– and the flavor is richer than a Swedish or Italian meatball. It makes me wonder what the meat mixture is– I’m guessing it has some unexpected cuts. You simply must order the frites, cooked in beef tallow, to dip in the sirop de Liége (or the excellent chipotle mayo they come with). They are vying for the best fries in town right now– they are crispy and flavorful (and also come in a vegan version). The first two times I went in, I came out smelling like tallow (you could see a haze), but it seems that some improvements have been made to the ventilation system and the last time I was in, no problem at all.
Just recently, Taste of Belgium acquired a liquor license and now serves Belgian beers: Chimay rouge, Chimay blanche, a beer labeled “Taste of Belgium” (another Belgian wheat, I believe) and a beer that is currently only sold in the US at Taste of Belgium: blanche de Bruxelles, which you see all over Brussels and is distinctive with its tap depicting the Mannekin Pis, an impish little statue of a baby… well, urinating. It’s a really popular spot in Brussels (and I think is indicative of the Belgian sense of humor).
Service is friendly– I tend to sit at the bar and let one of the great bartenders/baristas suggest things on the menu (they haven’t steered me wrong). Expect to wait on Saturday, particularly after the Queen City Underground tours finish– I’ve seen lines out the door. Taste of Belgium will open next Tuesday with a full dinner menu, and is open this week for breakfast and lunch, Monday-Saturday. They’re closed Sunday (which is a shame, as it would be an excellent brunch choice on a block with few brunch choices).