Belgians makes the finest, most complex beers in the world. There can be little argument about that. They’ve been perfecting the craft — many would call it an art — for centuries. But just because these brews have a tradition dating back to the era of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, that doesn’t mean they don’t belong just as well in the new millennium.
By the same token, just because countless generations of Flemings and Walloons have accompanied their daily quaffings with prodigious quantities of sausages, steamed mussels and pommesfrites, that doesn’t mean these are the only foods you can match with gueuze, lambic or those rich Trappist beers.
What’s to stop you pairing them with recipes of rather greater distinction and sophistication?
This, at any rate, is the admirable philosophy behind Les Hydropathes, the latest branch of the excellent Brussels group, which has done more than anyone over the past decade or so to introduce Tokyoites to the beers of Belgium. Set in the basement of the newly refurbished Parco 1 building, this cafe/dining bar looks anything but rustic or Olde Worlde. In fact, with its cool monochrome interior, you would be forgiven for thinking you had wandered into some chic, Scandanavian-style cocktail bar in New York.
The long, curving counter is fashioned out of see-through perspex. The tables are of shiny, lacquer-look black, and the seats are all ergonomically formed blobs of semi-soft white urethane that are rather more comfortable than they look. The designer lighting and quietly insistent beats of the nu-jazz soundtrack only serve to reinforce this 21st-century image.
But anyone who is familiar with the drinking customs of the Low Countries will be immediately put at ease by the gleaming glassware arrayed behind the bar. In Belgium, breweries all have their own special glasses, not just with their names emblazoned on them, but in distinctive shapes and sizes. Les Hydropathes stocks 60 different beers from a score of small, specialist brewers — most of them imported directly — so there are at least that many different styles of glass on display.
The beer menu is as long as the wine list in most restaurants. It covers the whole gamut of beers — some rich and malty, others thin and sour, and many redolent of wild yeast and ferments. It would have been a useful service if they had provided more information about each entry. But at least their alcoholic strengths are given, which is a major consideration, given that these range from 5 to as much as 12-13 percent.
You don’t chugalug these babies. They are connoisseurs’ brews, to be sipped and appreciated. They are as complex and heady as fine wine, and they have prices to match — as much as 2,600 yen for a 750-ml bottle of Chimay Grande Reserve (Blue Label), and the others are not far behind.
Don’t bother to ask for lager. What they do have, though, is Grisette Blanche on draft, a light, thirst-quenching wheat beer, as white in color as the better-known Hoegaarden, but not so fizzy and less heavily laden with underflavors of lemon and coriander. This is also the beer that works best alongside the food at Les Hydropathes.
Chef/manager Nobuyuki Takaishi knows how to turn out the brasserie staples — the plates of cold meats; the platters of excellent fries, served with homemade mayonnaise — and he does them well. But he is equally at home with the Italian and French traditions, and these are the influences that shine through on the menu that he chalks up onto his blackboard every day.
Fresh oysters on the half-shell; carpaccio of fresh white-meat fish; salad of rocket, apple and walnuts; delicate, cigarlike, deep-fried spring rolls stuffed with gorgonzola blended with herbs and minced shrimp; linguine with uni (sea urchin); oven-roast lamb with rosemary-infused potatoes. This is a long way from the kind of pub food that features on the menus at other bars of the Brussels group.
Takaishi says his specialty is seafood, and we believe it. But we also love his hearty, warming nikomi stews. The gyu-suji nikomi is a long-simmered knuckle of beef, cooked until the meat is soft and gelatinous, then served with lengths of lightly grilled celery a red wine reduction sauce. Put in a side order for plain bread at the same time, because you will want to mop up as much of that rich sauce as you can.
If, at the end of the meal, you feel like filling your stomach, we thoroughly recommend the satisfying, spicy lamb stew served on couscous in the style of a Moroccan tajine. For extra authenticity, this comes with harrissa sauce on the side, so you can ratchet up the chili levels to taste.
At midday, Les Hydropathes serves a choice of light meals — the pasta lunch is 800 yen; the open sandwich is 1,000 yen; and the one-plate cooked meal for 1,200 yen. All options include one glass of beer (or other drink). The full menu does not start until 6 p.m., which is when it transforms from casual cafe to late-night bar/restaurant.
However, the full beer menu is available throughout the day. As the bold kanji on the large screen at the far end of the bar exhorts: “Itsudemo, dokodemo, dare-to-demo” (Any time, any place, with anyone). It’s a universal sentiment as steeped in tradition as the beers of Belgium — and one to which we will happily raise a glass.
About that name. Les Hydropathes sounds medical, even pathological, but it’s not intended as a reference to the 18th-century fad for “taking the waters.” Actually it’s name-checking a group of artists, writers and poets who used to meet (and imbibe) in the Latin Quarter cafes of Paris in the 1870s.
But if you find it too off-putting, there is an alternative. You can make your way instead to the Kamiyacho branch of Brussels (also recently opened), which boasts a similar look. It’s the work of the same designer (Toyo Ito), and it serves most of the same beers. However, it does not have Grisette Blanche on draft. Nor does it serve up Takaishi-san’s excellent cooking.
Brussels Kamiyacho is just off Sakurada-dori in the Toranomon 45MT Bldg. at 5-1-5 Kamiyacho, Minato-ku; (03) 5405-1588. Open Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-2 p.m. (lunch); 2-5 p.m. (tea); 6 p.m.-1 a.m. (bar); Saturday 6-11 p.m. only. Closed Sunday & holidays.