Over the past year, opportunities to travel have been rather limited—but there’s still the possibility of experiencing other cultures through our palates.
Neighboring writers Katie and Brett have been exploring the world through wine and beer, respectively. So this month, I figured I’d head to a place close to my heart (and once close to my home): Belgium.
Since opening in 1999, Pomme Frite has created a virtual Belgian experience in Palm Springs. You may be familiar with Belgium’s world-class chocolate, pastries and beer—but with its proximity to France, it’s also a country of haute cuisine. Some have said Belgian cuisine melds French quality with German quantity. As such, Belgian food paired with Belgian beer (or French wine) is a memorable affair. It’s an affair I used to enjoy more frequently when I lived in England, but Pomme Frite, a bistro founded by two Belgian natives, is as good as the real deal.
The quaint bistro on Palm Canyon Drive provides an immersive experience with its rustic brickwork and mustard-painted walls, along with a multitude of Belgian beer signs and mirrors to admire as jaunty French music plays in the background. There’s even a fountain in the main dining room evocative of a continental marketplace. My favorite touch is the “Manneken Pis” on the bar, a miniature of the famous Brussels statue. If you’re unfamiliar, the work looks like its name sounds; it’s a symbol of Belgian humor and eccentricity.
The expansion of outdoor seating over the past year, stretching out across the sidewalk, adds to the continental feel. Servers bustle with brisk energy and urgency. They may be a little abrupt at times—but, hey, I did say it was an authentic European experience.
Diners are greeted with a list of more than 30 bottled beers, and it’s all Belgian. If you’re a light-beer drinker, there’s Stella Artois or Bavik Pils, as well as the legendary Hoegaarden witbier. Pomme Frite also offers a few sweet and fruity lambics. For the beer hunters, there are plenty of Trappist ales, saisons, dubbels, trippels and quads, beers that rank among the finest in the world. The Belgians take their beer so seriously that breweries design their own glasses to optimize aroma and flavor, and Pomme Frite serves each of its beers in the original glassware.
The wine menu is also pretty impressive for such a quaint spot. It’s split between California and French wines, with a good selection of Champagne, rosé, Muscadet, Chablis, Sancerre, Beaujolais and Bordeaux. It’s all reasonably priced, with nothing more than $100. That makes some of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines especially enticing.
You’ll be tempted to start with the eponymous pomme frites. The Belgians did invent them, after all. Confusion over the name is an American misnomer; this the only country where they’re called “French” fries. It was a name tagged by American soldiers during World War II, as the Belgians were French-speaking. But hold off on the fries for now, for reasons I’ll explain momentarily.
Instead, choose between the frog legs, imported escargots, country pate, warm brie—or my favorite, the steak tartare with mayonnaise, shallots, capers and Worcestershire sauce, with an egg on top. The salmon tartare is perfect for sushi-lovers. The French onion soup is hard to pass up, too. It’s truly delectable—so decadently topped with gruyere that it comes with scissors. There’s also an array of baked mussels on the half-shell.
Glance over the entrées, and you’ll find familiar fare like the steak frites, coq au vin, and sole Grenobloise. The Flemish-style beef stew is a signature; it’s similar to boeuf Bourguignon, but soaked in Belgian ale rather than wine. Daily specials may include osso buco, duck confit and a Belgian waterzooi, a seafood stew similar to bouillabaisse but with a creamier broth.
All those main dishes considered, I’m dining Belgian for one reason alone: The indelible image of cafés across Belgium is of tables filled with moules-frites. Traditionally, it’s mussels steamed in a white-wine sauce and served in the same pot, with an accompanying side of fries. In Belgium, moules-frites is what fish and chips are to the English. It’s a dish that found popularity due to Belgium’s coastal access and expansive network of canals, reinforced by the scarcity of other seafoods in the winter. There was a long-running debate as to whether moules-frites originated in France or Belgium. That was eventually “settled” via the discovery of a 1781 Flemish manuscript.
In true style, Pomme Frite’s mussels arrive in the pot. Upon removing the lid, you’re greeted by an ethereal aroma that instantly transports your mind to the ocean. The lid is set aside for discarded shells as you set about the mussels, infused with shallot, leek, wine and garlic. That’s the traditional preparation—moules marinière—that I’m recommending, although there are 10 variations ranging from Roquefort to Thai and Vietnamese. It’s an indulgent experience that starts with the fleshy but soft texture of the mussels, giving way to sweet and slightly salty oceanic flavors. The accompanying baguette is a perfect vessel to mop up the sauce. Oh, and the fries are great. In true style, they’re twice-fried to achieve the ideal soft interior and crisp exterior. Served in a cone, they’re accompanied by sides of mayo, ketchup and a spiced diablo sauce. The presentation misses a little authenticity—albeit in way that most will appreciate: Many Americans visiting Belgium have watched in horror as street vendors dump a heavy dollop of mayo on top of the fries. Pomme Frite’s mayo is served on the side.
I’d be remiss not to offer a beer pairing. Mussels are well suited to pilsners, but I wouldn’t travel all the way to Belgium (or downtown Palm Springs, for that matter) for a Stella Artois. There are more creative options like a farmhouse Saison DuPont; the pale amber Kwak (which also has the most interesting glass); the acidic, tart Lindemans Gueuze; or the classic golden Duvel. White wines work well with mussels, too, especially the less-oaky French chardonnays, the Alsace rieslings, or Sancerre from the Val de Loire.
As for dessert … that’s another area where the Belgians really excel. Among a dozen options, there’s profiteroles (cream puffs), a floating island (poached meringue that literally floats atop crème anglaise), crêpes Suzette, tarte Tatin with Chantilly, Grand Marnier crème brûlée, and, of course, the quintessential Belgian chocolate mousse.
Pomme Frite makes for an impressive and immersive dining affair, all set inside a quaint, casual bistro. The food is every bit as good as the fare you’d enjoy during a trip to Belgium. You’ll be grateful for the experience—as well as the money you saved on airfare.