“I've always cooked with whatever's on hand,” said Rick Rosen.
And at his new Bernal Heights restaurant, Bel, that would be beer. Bel is all about Belgian beer, and Belgian-style beer from California. There's beer from Germany, too, and a small but solid selection of wines from Germany, France, Chile, and California. But beer is really the star here and, anyway, who drinks Gewurztraminer with french fries?
[jump] Rosen is the chef, and a co-owner of Bel, a Belgian resto-pub that has opened in the old Locavore location at the confluence of Mission and Valencia streets. (Rosen is also a co-owner of Pi Bar). On a quiet Saturday night – Bel had only been open for about five days – we took a seat at the back of the restaurant and began perusing the short menu featuring small and large plates, and a few sides.
Of course, french fries were high on our agenda and Seat 2, being a seafood enthusiast, ordered the moules frites. There are other seafood options, too: salt cod, shrimp croquettes, and fish chowder. We added the salade ardennaise and the house-made hopwurst with a brussels sprouts slaw. To drink, I had the St. Bernardus Witbier while Seat 2 ordered the very tasty Trappist Mont des Cats. In addition to their large selection of bottled beers, Bel also has a changing menu of draft beers.
As we waited, we took a look at the place, which is simply decorated in warm, dark colors. Photo-realist paintings of street scenes and canals adorn the walls, while a reproduction of Mannekin Pis, Brussels' famous pissing boy, urinates blithely above the bar.
“There's something very male about it,” observed Seat 2 as he took in the room. “It needs to be softened a bit.”
Bel does have a strong male vibe (Hell, even the name Bel – as seen on those while oval stickers people place on their cars to brag about where they've been – is also the masculine form of the word belle) and the fact that the staff were dressed in matching gray mechanic's shirts just drove the point home. Music ranging from Pink Floyd to Frank Sinatra to Ray Charles.
Seat 2's decorating concerns were quickly put aside when the food began to arrive. French fries ($5) arrived in tall sundae glasses, lined with parchment paper. A trio of sauces – ketchup, mayonnaise, and a refreshing, brightly flavored tarragon aioli – accompanied the frites (which were not too thick, and just crisp enough to offer a bite, but tender inside). Mussels, at least a couple dozen ($16), arrived in a black, ceramic pot, cooked in St. Bernardus Witbier with herbs and mushrooms. Fresh and light, none of the additional ingredients overwhelmed them. Seat 2 called over our waiter and asked for a spoon, which was classier than actually drinking the delicious sauce straight from the pot.
The $11 salade ardennaise, a warm salad of kale, potatoes, cranberries, and confit duck gizzards and bacon, was handled with a light touch, nice in a city where kale seems more lifestyle than mere tasty, sturdy green. The hopwurst, $12, a very good house-made pork sausage flavored with hops and beer, was served with mustard and a chiffonade of brussels sprouts and pickled onions. Seat 2 really liked the chiffonade; I thought it could have used a little more punch. Chef Rosen said they're still tweaking the recipe. The meal was delicious.
Great beer selection. Very good, rib-sticking food. Bel's an excellent choice to ward off the summer chills.
Bel, 3215 Mission Street, 415-206-1000.