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Finding comfort in a Belgian bowl

by Alex Dutson

Staff Writer

The mercury has dropped and the nights are getting longer. As the temperature plummets so does the need for culinary sophistication. Filigree garnishes, amusingly carved vegetables and light bonito broths frankly no longer cut it. To put it another way: December is less about yuzu-infused shoyu, and more about meat-pie-infused face.

When you start to feel the warm draw of comfort food, look to Belgium, the home of moules frites, mussels in a pot served with french fries. Fragrant with herbs and doused liberally in butter, with the reassuring warmth of those fluffy chips, it’s a dish that seems to have been invented to fend off chilly fogs. Just take the top off that hot, steamy pot of mussels and let those buttery vapors fill your nostrils.

Belgian cooking has always been about comfort. And while the old cliche of French quality and German portions broadly holds, for my money, the Belgians outdo the French in multiple ways. Take rib-sticking Flemish carbonnade. It’s basically beef bourguignon with dark beer instead of wine, which is pure genius. Then there’s chicons au gratin, rustic ham-wrapped chicory blanketed in bechamel sauce and melted cheese. Potato gratin’s got nothing on it. And we haven’t even started on the golden waffles or the beer.

Restaurants serving comfort food need to be comfortable. From the outside at least, Antwerp Central (03-5288-7370; 2-7-3 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo; www.belgianbeercafe. jp/shop), tucked away in a cavernous atrium between Tokyo Station and the Tokia building, seems to fit the bill. A sprawling venue with terrace seating and copious amounts of polished brass, it’s a place that desperately wants to be taken seriously.

Shame then about the waiter and the death stare he levied at our group, not to mention the condescending way he divided the menu up in terms of things he thought were suitable for non-Japanese and things suitable for the natives. If there’s anything bound to make you uncomfortable, it’s that. Of course, he might simply have been making a subtle play to ward me off the wasabi-based “samurai sauce” for the fries, but I’m reluctant to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Irritating service aside, Antwerp does have an extensive menu, offering two different pot sizes and seven options for the mussels, from a simple, clean vegetable stock broth, to a rich cream sauce, as well as a citrusy Hoegaarden ale saute. The classic bourguignon style with butter, white wine, shallots and finely chopped parsley is a fail-safe in terms of flavor — a glorious medley of rich, salty clam meat, sweet shallots and then a clean hit of acidity from the wine. There’s also a soft beef carbonnade laden with freshly steamed vegetables that arrives perched on a bed of soft mashed potato. It’s a hug in a bowl.

The smaller Chez Mikawa (03-3583-5212; 2F Mikawatei Bldg., 3-13-4 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo; www.chez-mikawa.co.jp) strikes a better balance between quality and homeyness. It helps, of course, that the place is packed. Nothing like a busy restaurant to set the mood. While we’re there, head chef Ichizou Horigome makes a visit to every table and, despite being decked out in his whites and oversize chef’s hat, is so utterly attentive and disarming that you could be sat on cushions rather than chairs and not feel a bit self-conscious.

Dinner starts on a high note with a plate of warm, creamy stoemp, served with mustard-smeared toast. An expression of the capital, Brussels, and the richer cousin of rural stamppot cooking, it manages a feat that no plate of mashed potatoes and root vegetables should by being both intensely comforting and quite sophisticated. The jikase sausages, made with pork, are dense and herby; a good accompaniment for that first beer.

And then there’s the venison — thin slices of exquisitely tender steak served with a little dollop of sweet cranberry and just two crispy, crackly roast potatoes. It has all the sweetness and richness you’d expect from well-cooked game. The lamb chops don’t disappoint either — three long sizzling cutlets, gently browned and with ample amounts of glistening sweet fat, daubed in a whole-grain mustard, tomato and celeriac sauce.

If you’re after drinks instead of food, another place worth a nosy is Delirium Cafe (03-3501-3181; 1F Tokyokurabu Bldg., 3-2-6 Kasumigaseki, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo; www.deliriumcafe.jp/tokyo), which boasts a stylish sweeping bar and a vast collection of rusting vintage beer trays dotted all over the walls. Crammed with salarymen in the evenings, it’s more about the beer than the food, and though it can’t compete with the 2,000 plus beers at the original Delirium Cafe in Brussels, there are still more than 28 on tap — enough to keep even the seasoned beer swiller happy.

If, like me, you find a lot of the fruitier Belgian beers a bit treacly and indulgent — a bit too much too fast — you can always seek refuge in a familiar glass of Stella Artois. Then again, if you want to step your game up a bit, order a Pauwel Kwak, a powerful brew historically designed for coachmen on the winding Lowland highways who were forbidden by Napoleonic Code from leaving their carriages for a swift one, but legally entitled to affix a long, round-bottomed glass to their coach that could be slyly removed at each stop for a sneaky 9-percenter on a cold, damp winter night.

Like I said, the Belgians have always had comfort in mind.