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May 25, 2007 | Belgian taverns debuting all over


HOLD ONTO your frites, Philly, we've got another batch of Brussels sprouting.

Already home to four Belgian-style taverns, the city will see another three, plus two more in the near 'burbs, by the end of the summer.

If you haven't been paying attention, what's happening is a perfect storm of three trends:

1. Belgium is producing the most exciting, flavorful and exotic ales in the import market.  We're not talking about the ubiquitous Stella Artois, a fairly run-of-the-mill industrial lager; these are craft brews with complex, often challenging flavors, some costing more than $20 a bottle.

2. Beer has suddenly rediscovered food. Breweries worldwide are encouraging beer-drinkers to match their favorites with a wide array of cuisine.

3. The hottest thing in restaurants is the gastropub. I hate the term but love the concept: a joint with decent food and excellent drinks in a tavern atmosphere. Standard Tap in Northern Liberties is the prototype.

Monk's Cafe (Center City), Eulogy Tavern (Old City), Bridgid's (Fairmount) and Abbaye (Northern Liberties) long ago gave this city its reputation as Brussels, U.S.A. This new batch makes you wonder if we'll be converting to euros.

The first is already open. It's Zot, just off Headhouse Square in the space once occupied by Le Champignon (122 Lombard St.). This large, handsome restaurant has an upscale menu that beautifully reflects Belgium's reputation for French cuisine with hearty German portions.

Zot (rhymes with "note") takes its name from the Flemish word for "zany" or "eccentric," which might explain the presence of kangaroo and ostrich on the menu.

The place greets you with a well-stocked wine bar in the front, but you're here for the beer, so keep walking. Farther inside, you'll find a second bar with a handful of taps (plans are to expand to two dozen) and lots of bottles. Beyond that is a trim, quiet dining room.

The menu has a spreadsheet look to it - two columns of appetizers, soups, mussels, meats, etc., with almost no descriptions. But the bareness is deceptive. Main courses are yours to build; choose your meat or fish, pair it with one of about 20 sauces, then add a starch.

Simple, but superb.

I've made only one visit so far, but each dish was a hit. I chose the restaurant's namesake, Bruges Zot pale ale, to wash down a small kettle of succulent mussels flavored with lavender and honey.

A bottle of St. Feuillien Triple paired nicely with duck breast under a spinach-garlic sauce, and leek stoemp (bulky mashed potatoes with leeks).

Mrs. Sixpack was more daring: She went for the 'roo filet with caper sauce. Obviously that dish demands a hoppy beer (ba-dum), but she opted for a Three Philosophers from New York's Brewery Ommegang, a powerfully satisfying quadrupel flavored with cherry lambic.

The two of us dropped a hundred bucks on the meal, which should tell you this isn't bar food. Indeed, what's notable about the newcomer is that it's not Monk's Cafe or Eulogy or one of the city's other fine Belgian taverns.

Zot pushes the idea of Belgian cuisine to another level while holding firm to its beery roots.

Belgian invasion

What about the other four Belgians? Get ready for:

Teresa's Next Door is expected to open in early June next door to, yes, Teresa's Cafe (124 N. Wayne Ave., Wayne). Though it's not being marketing specifically as a Belgian tavern, about half of its 24 drafts and 160 bottles (and some of its menu) will be Belgian.

The Belgian Cafe (21st and Green streets, Fairmount). The folks behind Monk's Cafe are expanding northward. Expect a smaller but well-stocked, Belgian-style bar. Should open by mid-June.

Beneluxx Tasting Room (33 S. 3rd St., Old City) is a spin-off of Eulogy, the Chestnut Street Belgian tavern, to open later this summer. Owner Mike Naessens will serve small three- and six-ounce tasters of beer (and wine) and match them with cheese and chocolate, a nice way to discover some of these offbeat Belgian flavors without spending an arm and une jambon. He's also planning to install nifty water sprayers in each table to clean your glass between samples.

Possibly the most interesting of the bunch is Naessens' third spot, Beneluxx at the Broad Axe Tavern in Blue Bell, Montgomery County. Established in 1681, the tavern is arguably the oldest in America, opened before William Penn arrived in Pennsylvania. It's being gutted and is expected to open sometime this summer.




© Copyright 2006 Joe Sixpack