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Fanning the Flames 

Wednesday, Mar 29 2000
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One night I had a few too many cocktails and told my girlfriend I loved her. This was, as she pointed out, a ploy to get out of driving her home ("Stay with me tonight... I love you!"), but still, I'd already been contemplating the issue for some time, and meant it, and have affirmed my love many times since. In fact, I often go on at great length about how she burns my bridges, shatters my soul, how I love her so much -- "How much?" she asks -- well, so, so much I don't always know where to begin.

Or, in other words, I run out of material, the curse of poets and would-be soul mates since the dawn of time. But, as George Herbert once wrote, love and a cough cannot be hidden, and this doe-eyed little demon manifests itself in other ways: Flowers on her birthday, phone calls, holding hands, "innocent" kisses, Number 13 on Esquire's Things a Man Should Do Before He Dies list, and, even better, Belon.

I mention the last because Belon is a restaurant that cares, and if you take someone special there -- a friend, a lover, a family member, yourself, a major campaign contributor, an adoring venture capitalist, that friendly clerk from the neighborhood store -- he or she should get the impression you care as well. Though it's only been open since January, the restaurant's service and presentation show few signs of growing pains, and these are more than offset by clever nuances that enhance simple, French brasserie-style fare.

From the entrance, a gallery of oysters on crushed ice leads through to a moderately bright space featuring pale wood and high ceilings, producing an open, comfortable feel. At the table, rock salt is accompanied by a tiny pepper grinder, baguettes are sliced as needed, and, as the seafood bar platters are whisked away, hot towels allow you to freshen up so, while the afterglow of this delightful, hands-on experience lingers, the smell of fish does not. Even night owls have a place at Belon: A late menu -- including the full seafood bar, appetizers, a few entrees, and lighter fare (an omelet and a glass of wine, $9) -- is served until midnight during the week, 1 a.m. on weekends. Finally, those of us who, as a result of work, prior commitments, or, in my case, extended disco napping, sometimes find it impossible to get to dinner before 11:30 p.m., are accommodated just like everyone else.

Of course, none of this would do anyone any good if the food were terrible. And since seafood -- in particular, the French belon oyster -- is the featured attraction, we put our heads together for what proved a difficult decision. For example: Had we desired to begin, and end, with the seafood bar, the grand belon ($66) -- six belon oysters, six Atlantic oysters, six Pacific oysters, six prawns, a dozen mussels, six littleneck clams, periwinkles, and half a Dungeness crab -- might have proved sufficient. Or, if we'd only wanted to leave room for appetizers, the petit plateau ($44) -- six Atlantic oysters, six Pacific oysters, four prawns, six littleneck clams, six mussels, and half a crab -- would have been a wise choice. But since we wanted to last until dessert, we cut straight to the heart of the matter with the oyster sampler ($38, $5 extra to substitute four belons), plus half a crab ($12) and two glasses of sparkling wine -- a dryish, Segura Viudas, Spain ($7), and a fruitier, crisper, far more inspiring Green Point blanc de noirs, Australia ($8.50).

Obviously, we preferred the latter, whose pale pink hue matched the blush of my cheek as I embarked on what I hoped would be a grandiloquent toast. Unfortunately, the toast was mediocre at best, and, for everyone's sake, will not be repeated. Fortunately, the arrival of 20 oysters -- plus half a crab -- gave me time to come up with some better stuff.

Like sashimi, there isn't much one can do to improve raw oysters other than to buy the freshest ones available, arrange them as beautifully as possible, and include a few condiments to enhance what is, essentially, a food that should stand on its own. I think Belon is with me on this one, since presentation was a focal point: A metal stand was placed at the center of our table bearing a platter of crushed ice ringed with spanking-fresh bivalves, the ice strewn with a few strands of seaweed, a bouquet of prickly crab legs reaching from its chilly depths.

We began with the more expensive belons ($2.95 each when ordered alone) -- a smallish, flat-shelled oyster that, while indigenous to France, is also cultivated on the West Coast, in this case Puget Sound. Though the taste of a belon is often said to be "metallic," I'd describe it as purified essence of the sea; a clean, powerful tang that needs no lemon or other accessorizing, as evidenced by the fact that, as my girlfriend downed her first one, her eyes flared in a way that I have seen before, but never as a result of food.

Next came four kumamotos from Humboldt -- fleshier, slightly milder delicacies that needed a few drops of lemon juice to elevate them to the intensity of the belons. And so it went, each shell finding its way into a bowl underneath the metal stand (and, please note: this bowl was the exact size of 20 discarded oyster shells) as we worked our way around the platter. Though the Cape Bretons (Nova Scotia) bore a hint of fishiness, a shallot, pepper, and vinegar mignonette overcame this. The Salutation Cove oysters (Prince Edward Island) were saltier, and also wore the mignonette comfortably, while the Quilcenes (Washington) were a bit more... salty, and made us realize that, after the eighth oyster, pretty much everything tastes like salt. But then our sweet, succulent friend the crab came to the rescue, cleansing our palates of vinegar and ocean until only fond memories remained.

If you do order a seafood platter, a single appetizer, like the mussels à la mariniere with frites ($9), could easily be your entree. Sauteed in white wine and herbs, the mussels were topped with thin-cut, piping hot frites and a dab of aioli. Again, we got the feeling someone put a lot of thought into the dish, for, as we picked through the mussels, the fries sank into a luxurious pool of white wine, mussel juice, and aioli, just as they were supposed to. The starchy potatoes made a nice complement to the oysters, the bowl for discarded shells was, once again, exactly the right size, and the dish would have been perfect except for one thing -- one of the mussels was still closed, and, when we pried it open, the little bastard was... empty!

I was ready to storm out of Belon in a hail of flustered obscenities as a result of this very serious oversight. But, thankfully, female companionship tends to calm me, as did another glass of blanc de noirs.

Entrees pair fresh ingredients with simple, French-inspired preparations, and seem to offer something for everyone. Since the chateaubriand for two ($36) looked a bit heavy, we opted instead for the sautéed petrale sole with celery confit and sauce verjus ($18). Sadly, this one didn't do it for us, since the sole -- topped with thin-sliced grapes and served over slow-cooked celery -- didn't have much zest to it compared with our previous selections. A wiser choice was the herbed rotisserie chicken ($16 for one person, $29 for two) -- tender, juicy, crisp-skinned chicken served with pearl onions, parsnips, and gratinéed potatoes.

Then came the one major disappointment: As we ordered dessert, our waitress informed us the kitchen had run out of the bittersweet chocolate soufflé with hazelnut crème anglaise ($7). Maybe it's just me, but I think there's a curse on second-choice desserts, and certainly the pain de mie bread pudding with brandy and pears ($6), topped with fresh whipped cream, was decent, but quickly forgotten.

The sidewalk out front offered a more memorable option -- a long, not-so-innocent kiss. As it ended, I took my girlfriend's hand and looked deep into her eyes. Yes, inspiration had returned.

"Boom," I told her.

"What was that?"

"That was my heart. Exploding. For you."A Restaurant That Cares: Belon has an open, comfortable feel.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin

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