There is more to Belgian cuisine than beer, chocolate and mussel pots with fries and mayonnaise. Bistro BE, the summer addition to downtown Miami, is setting out to show that.
This cozy spot, in the space briefly occupied by the much-mourned Box Park, is welcoming and warm —exceptionally warm on our most recent visit, when the dining-room AC was broken.
Nonetheless, the staff is as crisp as the golden, thick-cut frites that are perhaps the best thing on the menu. The mussels aren’t bad either. The tender mollusks can be had as an endless bowl at lunch or dinner. The stand-up, velvety mayonnaise is a worth a visit; I’d dunk my brother’s socks in that stuff and bet they would taste good.
The dense and rather blankly flavored bread is made in-house with Stella Artois — good for soaking up the mussel’s beer-and-shallot broth (one of seven available preparations).
The bistro is a collaboration between owners Emmanuel Verschueren and Tim Michels with executive chef Frederik Appelt, who together attempt to show off the subtleties of an ancient cuisine that has Dutch, Flemish German and French influences.
Their vision is apparent in an exceptional waffle starter presented with mussels and with loads of dill cooked into the batter. It is served hot over baby arugula and see-through coins of peppery radishes with bits of lobster meat.
While a lovely wine list includes affordable international options, it is the brew, more than 70 labels and eight on tap, that makes this a unique Belgian experience. The beer menu, which requires time to explore, includes specs on style, size and alcohol content as well as detailed tasting notes.
“Honestly, they are all really good,” was all our waitress offered by way of help navigating the brews. Thankfully, a mustachioed beertender was quick to step in with tutelage.
The wheaty Lucifer, a Belgian strong ale, is slightly sweet, with a creamy head and subtle complexity. It makes a good paring with rabbit stew in thick brown sauce dotted with carrots and sweetened with prunes, even if the dish would be best served with snow on the ground. The same goes for the sweet, stewed red cabbage with a thick apple and kriek beer sausage.
Bistro BE’s food can be heavy, with lots of fried and starchy complements. Potatoes figure into many dishes and are served steamed, mashed, fried and baked into the puffiest plump croquettes you can imagine.
Not to fear, there are some enticing salads to lighten things up. The best I had included snappy tiger shrimp over young greens tossed with red apple brunoise in a rustic walnut-chardonnay-mustard dressing. A bold steak tartare with sharp cornichons, egg yolk, brash capers and pickled onions is also satisfying without too much heft.
Still, some dishes are not worth clogging your arteries. Onion soup with a slightly charred layer of Emmental suffered from a too-thick crouton, watery broth, flabby lardons and white beans that had been cooked until nearly disintegrated.
Other things that didn’t work: a blasting soundtrack of electronica in a room too bright and hot; a pair of pesky houseflies that circled our dinner plates; and upholstery covered with stains and chunks of food from previous diners.
The bacon lardons, a common ingredient, were limp and unappealing in every dish. A leek, kale and blue cheese quiche with greasy sheets of puff pastry over ho-hum greens was too salty to manage.
Desserts are a bit hit-or-miss, too. While a thick, buttery crepe drizzled with chocolate sauce could barely entice us to have more than a bite, rich poofs of chocolate mousse with thick hand-whipped sweet cream along strawberries and blueberries had us scraping the plate clean.
Though a meal at Bistro BE is not all as smooth as their outrageous mayonnaise, this ambitious spot makes a fine introduction to the beer, chocolate and mussels with fries that make Belgian food so endearing. It’s what they do best.
Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense. Follow Victoria Pesce Elliott on Twitter: @VictoriaPesceE.
(BistroBE photos by Felipe Cuevas.)