Blame it on too much barleywine, but Brouwer's Café could make a beer drinker out of me.
Earlier this month, I was introduced to barleywine at Brouwer's 4th Annual Hard Liver Barleywine Fest. How can a year-old restaurant have a fourth annual anything, I wondered?
Brouwer's is connected with Bottleworks — a small Wallingford emporium besotted with beers — as is Matthew Vandenberghe, the man who owns both. He also begat the Barleywine Fest, held elsewhere until he opened his Belgian cafe in the heart of Fremont.
Vandenberghe is of Flemish descent. Thus Brouwer's not only pays homage to his ancestry but also provides the ideal medieval-meets-post-modern setting for quaffing fine ales along with the kind of food they were born to accompany — the rich, hearty, bourgeois cuisine of Belgium.
The soaring two-story former workshop space was gutted then redesigned by Fremont architects Bjarko/Serra. The focal point is the 70-foot-long beer bar wrought of dark-chocolate wood. A smaller bar dispenses high-end spirits, among them 50 single-malt scotches.
Large groups congregate at tables in the center of the room, below a steel-clad oculus that allows daylight to wash across the concrete floors. After dark, the room is as subtly lit as a Rembrandt. A wall of poured concrete, carved and painted to look like granite, frames tall-backed booths. Nearby is a dais furnished with leather sofas. Circling high above ground level are curved steel beams that support a quiet dining mezzanine.
When Brouwer's isn't celebrating the burley virtues of barleywine — a rich, chewy, slightly sweet ale that packs a big alcohol punch — its 60-plus taps are devoted to a preponderance of Belgian beers, along with an eclectic array of European and small-batch local brews. Sorting them all out can be intimidating for those who don't know a lager from a lambic. Unfortunately servers, too, vary in their depth of knowledge, and their extremely relaxed attitudes give service here a hit-or-miss quality.
Young chef Daysha Fritz has the kitchen firmly in hand: meats are carefully grilled, frying is done with finesse, salad dressings and sauces are judiciously balanced. Beer finds its way into much of the menu: mussels are steamed in it; steak is sauced with it; stout even bolsters the batter for double-chocolate cake.
Sous chef Sean Snipes, who honed his meat-cutting skills in the butcher departments of Central Market and Whole Foods, gets credit for making the fabulous sausages. His spicy lamb patty is the closest Brouwer's comes to a burger. Topped with roasted red pepper, fresh mozzarella and chipotle mayo, it's stuffed into a soft but sturdy honey-wheat bun.
The gently burnished casing on his chubby pork sausage snaps with each bite, releasing a juicy filling. It anchors the Hunter's plate, playing in lusty harmony with sauerkraut and sautéed onions sauced with a pungent reduction of grainy mustard and beer. And it's one of a dazzling trio of meats on the mixed grill, along with a small herb-crusted New York strip and a skinless, boneless, gloriously moist chicken breast.
Frites are a must. These pudgy fried potatoes come with a choice of dipping sauces that include pale-yellow aioli, tangy tartar tinted with dill and spicy chipotle mayonnaise. Have them alone, or as they like to do in Belgium, paired with steamed mussels — a bounty of bivalves snug in their steaming vessel, ready to be plucked from a creamy beer-laced broth fragrant with lemon and thyme.
Waterzooi is another Belgian classic, one with many variations. The delicate cream-based vegetable stew buoys a stately pastry so fragile it seems conjured of little more than butter spun with air. Order it with seafood and you'll find shrimp and bites of halibut hobnobbing with the carrots, celery, potatoes and leeks.
For lighter appetites, there are small plates such as Gruyère-crusted gratins or Kaas croquettes, as well as lovely salads. The Ghent is a warm bundle of sautéed rainbow chard, goat cheese and golden beets in caper vinaigrette — just push aside those undercooked, and superfluous, green beans.
Swiss Emmentaler in the croquettes makes them taste akin to panko-coated, deep-fried balls of fondue; they are so rich they must have a private numbered account in Zurich. And surely more people would be smitten with brussels sprouts if they tasted them in Brouwer's gratin: baked in a cream sauce with prosciutto under a crunchy lid of buttered breadcrumbs and cheese.
As my teeth sink happily into a Croque Monsieur — layers of Black Forest ham and molten Gruyère between cheese-crusted slices of dense country white bread — I know it won't be just the beer that will bring me back to Brouwer's.
Providence Cicero: firstname.lastname@example.org
Brussels sprouts and prosciutto gratin $7
Hunter's sausage and sauerkraut $9
Mussels and frites $14
Waterzooi with seafood $16.50
Mixed grill $17
400 N. 35th St., Seattle; 206-267-2437, www.brouwerscafe.com
Reservations: not accepted, but parties of eight or more should call ahead.
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily; bar open until 2 a.m.
Prices: soups, salads, sandwiches and small plates $3-$9.50; entrees $9-$16.
Drinks: With 60-plus taps and even more bottles, beer is the raison d'tre, but the short wine list is long on quality and the spirits are top-shelf.
Parking: on street or in one of 20 slots prepaid for customers in lot near the entrance.
Sound: rock and blues soundtrack underscores controlled clamor.
Who should go: lovers of fine ales.
Full bar / 21 and older only / credit cards: MC, V / private room / no obstacles to access.