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A bit of Belgium comes to Chicago Avenue

 

Last night we met some friends at Leopold, a brand new Belgian-style restaurant on Chicago Avenue, in the space that used to house the Relax Lounge (the neon green "+" sign is still out front, and no, it's not a pharmacy).  The restaurant has only been open a couple of days - they're still waiting for the liquor license - so I brought over a 750 ml bottle of Chimay and went searching for some mussels.

Those moules + frites actually come one of two ways: either steamed with white wine, madras curry and a touch of cream, or steamed with a tripel karmeliet beer, bits of bacon and shredded leeks.  Both versions arrive with a small pot of onion aioli for dipping the wonderful frites into.  At $12, this heaping bowl was more than enough for two of us; the mussels plump and the shells intact, with the broth beneath a pool of earthy, hoppy aroma.  We were dying for a slice or two of bread just to soak it up, but the fries were fine in a pinch.

Poutine is more a product of Quebec than Belgium, but hey, the French have influence in both countries, so why not?  Leopold's version begins with those hand-cut fries as a base, then gets a mild shower of lamb sausage gravy and a blob of cheese curds that actually melted into an oozy mess from the heat of the frites.  As much as this would have made great alcohol-soaking fare at 2 a.m., our group had no trouble polishing it off at the lame-o hour of 6 p.m. (which is when the room started getting busy, so better make reservations).

The hearty pretzel comes from La Farine Bakery, across the street.  We loved the currant mustard - simultaneously sweet and tart, but also assertive; a fine companion to the chewy, salty snack.  I kept imagining how great these kinds of dishes are going to go with the ambitious Belgian beer list.  We also tried some prime steak tartare, dressed with a bit of sea salt, shallot and capers, it arrives with a single egg yolk the color of the sun, as well as a crunchy frisee salad and a few slices of toast.  Another odd but satisfying item: the homemade pierogi plate.  Five large Polish dumplings arrived, stuffed with farmer's cheese and coated in brown butter, making Kasia's versions seem a little, well, pedestrian.  We also tried some smoked rabbit, which had some mustard spaetzle beneath it, and a plate of braised short rib that arrived with a starchy companion in the form of stoemp - a kind of root vegetable cake that was actually a lot more interesting than simple mashed potatoes.  The highlight, however, was dessert:

The dessert list is brief - just two items, both for $5 - with a special of Belgian waffles offered as a third option.  But if they're carrying the baked apple embedded with currants, showered in hazelnut and served above a pool of salted caramel, served with some allspice gelato from Black Dog, don't even hesitate.  This combination of salt, sweet, fruit, crunch and savory/herby/creaminess was literally fought over until the last bite.  I'm looking forward to seeing how the beer list matches the menu, and will undoubtedly be back to Leopold very soon. 

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