Café Belge restaurants seem to be slowly advancing across Kent. The latest to open is in West Malling and on Friday night Nick and I joined some friends for dinner there to check it out. I mean, how can you resist a place that advertises 80 different Belgian beers and a menu featuring 50 (FIFTY, count 'em) ways of serving mussels? Sounds like paradise on a plate to me.
There is nothing particularly Belgian about the interior – in fact it is structurally pretty much English with Tudor beams and a pub-style carpet presumably inherited from the previous incumbent of the premises. But this is not the fault of the owners as the building is a listed building, meaning nothing can be altered without obtaining planning permission from the local council first – a rather onerous process. What they have done is to put up a host of advertising posters for Belgian beer & merchandise and tons of HUGE Tintin posters – illustrations from the various books enlarged hugely & framed. The atmosphere is cosy and pleasant and the tables are reasonably well-spaced. The menu was the interesting bit though – there really were 80 beers and our experience in the beer taverns of Bruges stood us in good stead as we knew the difference between most of them! I had a Früli strawberry beer (smelt like strawberries, tasted like strawberries, finished cleanly like beer – if you don’t usually enjoy beer, like me, this is a good place to start!) and Nick asked for a Rodenbach Grand Cru – which turned out to be the only beer not available that night – damn! Instead he had a Delirium Nocturnum.
Once you get past the mammoth beer menu, there’s the food to consider. Café Belge have decided to focus on what they do best – mussels. In fact, an entire page is taken up purely by their 50 variations – mussels with curry, chilli, bacon, wine, beer, cheese (baked), Pernod, dill, cream… I could go on but you’ll be bored and I’ll be drooling! Apart from the mussels there is a limited menu (maybe 10 each of starters and mains – which feature some Belgian dishes – plus specials), most of which sounded delicious. For starters I ordered a goat's cheese Caesar salad, Nick a warm artichoke salad and our companions opted for warm potted crab and a tower of avocado, prawns and strawberries (suspend that disbelief!). The constituent parts of my salad were lovely but the whole was suffering from a severe identity crisis. At the bottom, it approximated a Caesar salad – greens, croutons, anchovies and a lovely creamy Caesar dressing. It had no Parmesan – I guess the goats cheese was in lieu of. So on top there were 2 rounds of goat's cheese, oven baked till the outside was almost crisp & crumbly, but still soft in the middle, topped with sweet caramelized red onions. The goats cheese was absolutely sublime – the taste was perfect, the texture perfect and with a mouthful of onions it was close to heaven. But it in no way played nicely with the anchovies below!! So the salad was fine if you kept its halves apart, but was distinctly odd when you tried to put a little of each ingredient together in your mouth. Nick loved his artichokes though, and the avo-prawn-strawberry tower not only looked lovely (lettuce base topped with avo, then prawns, then sliced strawberries) but was pronounced delicious – apparently prawns & strawberries are a very happy marriage.
Then came the mains – we had all gone for mussels. I had mine in coconut milk with red Thai curry, garlic and chilli (as did one of our companions); Nick his with garlic, tomato and chili; and our other companion had his with pesto and pine-nuts. All the mussels were served in Belgian style enamel pots with the lids to be used for discarded shells and came with a bowl of thin fries topped with a dollop of good mayo. My mussels were delicious – not the huge New Zealand green-lipped mussels which you always seem to get in South African restaurants but smaller and tastier Scottish mussels. The coconut milk & Thai curry complemented the sweet flesh of the mussels perfectly and made a great mopping-up liquid later when all the shells were empty. I was too scared to taste Nick's as I could smell the chilli rising from it (!!), but had some of the pesto & pine nut mussels – absolutely heavenly. I think they won our vote for best of the night in the end. Something which we didn’t order but saw being brought to the table behind us was the 12” wild boar sausage – the diners’ faces when their HUGE and disturbingly phallic sausages arrived were a picture – the women just went bright red and started giggling uncontrollably. Food and a floorshow, all in one – what more can you ask for?
Eventually the desert menu was brought round & although the men declined, both Lesley & I could not say no – we each ordered a Belgian chocolate mousse (this had stiff competition from the Toblerone fondue, I must add). Ramekins duly arrived and we dug our spoons in. Once you get past the whipped cream topping, you just hit… a solid wad of chocolate – approximately the consistency of peanut butter & quite unexpected. And then came the first taste – melted dark chocolate prevented from resolidifying totally by the addition of a little double cream – the most sinfully delicious thing I have ever tasted!! I'm afraid I have now been spoiled for other chocolate mousse for life. After that, it was back to the drinks menu – the owners kindly brought us each a complementary Jenever – a Dutch and Belgian speciality: distilled grain spirit flavoured originally with juniper berries, but now flavoured with all kinds of things. We were brought chocolate, vanilla, hazelnut and passionfruit. I think the sweet ones suffered by comparison to the mousse and the palate-cleansing passionfruit won hands down, but given a less chocolatey dessert, things might have turned out differently. As a grand finale we were persuaded to try the “dessert beer” (purely for scientific reasons, of course!) – Gulden Draak – together with some chocolates. Initially the beer is like a sweeter version of Guinness – dark, sweet and heavy, even cloying. Then you have a chocolate and taste the beer again and it seems to be crisp and light – completely different beer. I must admit though that I would be inclined to drink the beer in lieu of a dessert, not to counteract it.
All in all, it was a very, very pleasant evening in comfortable surroundings with good (and occasionally great) food. I like the fact that Café Belge sticks with what they do best (beer and mussels) rather than extending the menu and losing focus, and despite the fact that they are part of a chain of 4, you do not get the mass-produced, slickly packaged feel of Belgo’s. The other pleasant surprise was the bill – around £130 for 4 people including about 8 beers and a bottle of wine, and service. Definitely well worth the trip to West Malling or one of their other locations.