Brussels: beer n' frites

Hamachi chain's latest Belgian venture on Granville feels a little wooden.

Ken Greer and Boris Mirtchev, the brains behind the successful Hamachi mini-empire, have turned to Mirtchev's Belgian roots for their latest venture. Brussels opened on Granville in September and is comprised of two long narrow rooms, side-by-side. The dining room's beautiful wood panelling, high-backed banquettes and comfortable wooden chairs provide a warm sense of grandeur.

The brasserie is casual, but like any Hamachi, no decor detail is overlooked. There's even a wry Manneken Pis statue, peeing in a Brussels fountain.

On our first night out, we share the dining room with a boisterous holiday party. Our server apologizes beforehand and explains the kitchen will be slower than usual. I'm not complaining, given this many Belgian beers on the menu: Stella, Hoegaarten and Leffe on tap, plus many bottled Trappist ales.

As expected, the rich culinary heritage of Belgium features prominently on the menu: waffles, chocolate, French fries, mussels, endive and leeks. We opt for the mussels mariniere (celery, onion and garlic) as a side ($5.95), frites with mayonnaise ($5.95) and the charcuterie plate ($11.95) to start. The mussels are unremarkable, but we like the house-pickled veg on the charcuterie plate. Thyme mushrooms, vinegary asparagus and sweet red onions make a great foil for the pate and cheese, though it's a shame to serve them with store-bought crackers when there's beautiful house-made rosemary bread. The humble frites are the starter star---crisp and cut thicker than French matchsticks and accompanied by an adorable lemony mayonnaise.

We wait a very long time between courses. I get that the kitchen is busy with the bigger table, but our server does not tend to the larger party. We don't see her for long periods and she misses an opportunity to sell more imported beverages.

When our mains arrive, we're underwhelmed. The flétan grillé ($26.95) appears as a tiny thin triangle of halibut, grilled into oblivion without a trace of raspberry wheat beer sauce. The agneau à la bière ($19.95) is equally unimpressive. These medium-rare lamb chops (we weren't given an option) are tough and lack evidence of apricot beer sauce. A side order of leeks fails to appear and a woefully small amount of undercooked side vegetables emphasizes the joylessness.

Next week, we head back for lunch. It's picking up as we're seated on the brasserie side. The service is faster and more attentive than on our last visit. We order the stoemp saucisse ($14.95), the croque monsieur ($9.95) and more addictive frites. The sausage comes with shredded cabbage, like sauerkraut but not as briny. It lacks taste. Our server tells me it's not the usual sausage from Tatamagouche either, which they apparently ran out of. The croque monsieur, though, provides ample amounts of smoked ham, Gruyere cheese and Dijon; a delicious classic.

I don't quite know what to make of Brussels---I love the decor, the varied menu and its attempt to offer something decidedly different downtown, but the consistency that the Hamachi chain is noted for is absent. Perhaps these problems will work themselves out. In the meantime, I'll content myself with frites and beer---not a bad consolation prize in the New Year.

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