Day 92: Belgium
After a lot of days of planning, scheduling, negotiating and wrangling— tonight, I’m quite literally just along for the ride. The meal itself is being set up by our new friend, the great chef Pascal Olhats of France Day fame and, more importantly, the excellent Newport Beach restaurant Tradition by Pascal. Beer is being handled by former Father’s Office manager Christina Perozzi, who is currently the resident beer sommelier of Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica, and one of the two women behind BeerForChicks.com. But why does that mean I’m literally “along for the ride”? Because she’s even picking me up from my house for the drive down to Brussels Bistro in Laguna Beach. I sure got off easy on this one, didn’t I?
After some heavy traffic and the requisite tardiness that comes along with it, Christina and I arrive at the restaurant and meet Pascal, who is his usual jovial and passionate self. Pascal, who has been here a lot, greets the staff with a firm handshake and some pleasant French words, then a few minutes later, the first course arrives. Creamy, seductive Chimay cheese (washed in Chimay beer) arrives with three Chimay white triple beers, served in the proper Chimay stemware. The beer and cheese, obviously, go really well together, and Pascal tells us that he “…spent four years in Belgium. I was a student, so all I drank was beer. No wine. We used to walk around holding mugs, asking for beer money. And it worked!” Then Christina and Pascal proceed to geek out about beer, discussing monks and words like “Trappist”, while I wash another bite of cheese down with the beer, then say something like “This is really good,” which it is.
Pascal orders our next dish, as Christina picks the beer pairing, and soon after, we have tomate aux crevettes (tomatoes stuffed with shrimp), big, crispy french fries and Karmeliet Triple beer, served in the proper Karmeliet Triple glasses. “This is a cute dish,” says Pascal. The tiny North Sea shrimp elevate this creamy seafood salad into something much more delicate than what most people are used to. The Karmeliet lies nicely in the middle, keeping any of the components from dominating the pallate, all while Pascal explains the importance of glassware in Belgium. “In Belgium, when you go to someone’s house, you always know how much they like you by how nice the glass is that they give you.” The kitchen sends us one of their specials, a Belgian style onion soup, served with a cheese croquette and a shrimp croquette. The white, gruyere laden soup is a bit of a revelation, tasting both rich and refreshing. Pascal sums it up perfectly, calling it “cheesy elegant”, then takes a bite of the cheese croquette, holds it up and says, “Who would have thought to make a cheese croquette? No French person would have invented this,” as he goes on to tell us that croquette de parmesan was the first dish he learned to make in culinary school.
And the hits keep on coming. We are each poured full glasses of Orval as our kind server showers us with a trio of beautiful dishes. Mussels cooked in white beer (served with more fries, and thus becoming the famed Belgian dish “moules frite”), slow cooked beef with vegetables in a thick gravy, and a beautifully golden pork chop in a mustard sauce, served with a creamy Belgian endive salad and potato croquettes. Christina tries the mussels, then orders a small taste of the Hoegaarden Blanche beer. She has us eat a delicious mussel, then follow it with a sip of the Hoegaarden. “Wow,” says Pascal, “clean.” It’s an amazing combination, seeming to make the flavor of the mussel gently evaporate, then leaving the whisper of a smooth aftertaste on your tongue. The beef is flavorful and well cooked, the pork chop is juicy, the potato croquettes soak up the mustard sauce brilliantly and the bitterness of the endive really undercuts the creaminess of the dressing quite well. I notice Christina faltering a little at the prospect of how much food is left on the table, so I turn to her with a Cheshire Cat grin on my face and say “Getting full?” then add deviously, “welcome to my world.”
Soon the plates are cleared, our stomachs are engorged, and then, the server brings us fresh napkins and silverware. “Uh-oh,” I say, “I’m worried.” “Don’t be worried,” he says, “it’s just something sweet.” Christina orders two kinds of Lambic beer— a sweet, crisp peach varietal, and my new personal favorite type of beer: gueuze (most easily pronounced “gooze”). Christina has actually written a great explanation of gueuze on her website, calling it “funky”, but in the positive James Brown sense of the word. It’s got that active, powerful, almost dirty kind of soul to it— as opposed to, say, a Joni Mitchell kind of soul. It really is my kind of beer. The gueuze goes extremely well with the crispy, sticky sugar tart, which is devoured by the three of us within minutes. The apple tart, meanwhile, lacks a lot of the complexity of it’s sugary neighbor, but once paired with the pêche lambic, the two elements really fill each other’s gaps. The refreshing fruitiness of the peach reinvigorates the more muted, darker flavors of the cooked apples, while the lambic, which lacks any heavy undertones, is given foundation by the crispy dessert. If there’s a more precise example of what pairings can do for each other, I haven’t experienced it. A few minutes later, I notice that there’s a Belgian chocolate mousse on the table as well, and take a bite of the rich, dark concoction, then tie it all together with one last exciting sip of the gueuze.
This meal had been circled on my calendar for a while, and I’m very happy to say, it did not disappoint. After what turned out to be three and a half hours together, we exchange hugs and handshakes as Pascal picks up some Belgian take-out for his wife. Pascal, whose passion for food seems insatiable, talks to Christina about joining together for a multi-course meal with beer pairings, I proceed to invite myself to whatever event that might be, then we say goodbye as Christina and I get in the car and start heading back.
On the way, I get a call from Pascal, who says “Hello, Noah. I forgot to tell you why American beer will never be as good as Belgian beer.”
“Why’s that?” I ask.
“The water. You just don’t have the right water here.”
“Aha,” I say, grinning. We say goodbye one more time, Christina turns on some music and I sit back, relax, notice that the clock says “12:14”, then say with a laugh, “Oh look. It’s already Sweden Day.” Indeed it is— here we go again.
Here’s Christina’s Write-Up!
Beer For Chicks
222 Forest Ave
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
Food Breakdown: 11 beers, 4 starters, 3 entrées, 3 desserts
Price: “Taken care of” thanks to Chef Olhats.
Distance From My House: 58.4 miles