The rust-hued gravy enveloping tender, slightly gamey braised rabbit is a textbook winter dish. The salty bacon matchsticks and tangy, sweet prunes are intensely satisfying, especially paired with a Belgian tripel ale so deeply colored that sunlight doesn't pass through. But on a Miami summer night, as the thermometer hovers above 90 degrees, eating a bowl of stew this rich with a pair of beer-can-size potato croquettes is overpowering.
See also: Photos from Bistro BE in Brickell
At Brickell's Bistro BE, among the first authentic Belgian eateries in Miami, the steenedorpskonijn met pruimen en geuze takes extra time to arrive. The waitress, frittering away on a cell phone in a dim, gray-walled dining room, forgot to send the order for the rabbit stew to the kitchen. Plus, it isn't a quick dish to make. Bacon must be rendered before identical carrot cubes and onion slivers are sautéed. Then the whole thing has to be gently warmed to recoup the tenderness achieved after hours of braising. By the time it hits the table -- long after the dense beer bread and a heap of small, gritty mussels with French fries disappear -- you're stuffed and nearly sweating.
Belgian cuisine, thanks to its frosty Northern European origins, is heavy. That doesn't mean Miami shouldn't have it, though. If Brickell can support a handful of Irish pubs, Bistro BE's long list of white wheat ales and dark beers with banana-caramel notes is welcome. But staff at the restaurant, which opened in mid-July, needs to be better trained to help guests make sense of an indecipherable menu with an array of unfamiliar ingredients.
Opening during a cooler season also might better suit the cream-and-bacon-based menu, and finding a way to lighten the fare during the summer would be a smart move.
A salad here -- on the ground floor of the Axis Brickell condominiums, where Metromover tracks blot out the sun -- doesn't equate to a lighter offering. Shards of bacon lay like auburn mulch on a narrow rectangular plate scattered with celery leaves. There are sweet, just-cooked apple cubes and shelled shrimp, both crisped in the aforementioned bacon's renderings, making the humble dish more than enough for a full meal.
A rich, house-made mayonnaise is like the glue holding the menu together. It accompanies the beef stew, curried sausage, and steak tartare and is used in a chicory and arugula salad. A side of it comes with French fries, cut by hand daily, and paired with many of the menu's proteins, including a simply seasoned and seared nine-ounce filet. The steak arrives at the table juicy, well-rested, and at the requested medium-rare with a side of creamy pepper sauce and a small green salad, proof that less is often more.
Bistro BE describes Belgian cuisine as a cross between "the culinary skills and finesse of French cuisine with the comfort aspects of German food." Befitting French tradition, fries accompany more than a half-dozen mosselpots. Each steaming aluminum cauldron is filled with at least two dozen black bivalves. The piteous meat inside the shells, however, is a letdown. Each is about the size of a pinto bean, and the wheat beer jus in which they float is bland despite the promise of ginger, leeks, shallots, and lemon. The pots with a beer-and-blue-cheese broth or the green apple, curry, and cream blend might make better choices.
Surprisingly, the lightest options are the waffles, starkly different from their heavier, sweeter American counterparts. The airy batter, a blend of yeast, milk, water, egg yolks, flour, butter, and a pinch of salt, is deployed across the menu, even as an appetizer.
A rectangular dill-flecked waffle is one of the menu's strangest offerings, but it also works the best. The crisp-crusted waffle is split and topped with arugula, paper-thin radish slices, and a lobster salad that would go well stuffed into a roll served with chips. The cooked crustacean is shredded and tossed with chives, parsley, and a Belgian version of cocktail sauce -- a blend of ketchup, mayonnaise, and whiskey. A buttery dessert-station Belgian waffle would flop here, but BE's version, more like an eggy toast, is a good foil for the creamy lobster.
The same waffle, without the grassy dill, works unexpectedly well for dessert with thick whipped cream and decadent, pure dark chocolate warmed with a bit of butter. There is plenty left after the waffle is polished off, and it's difficult to resist cleaning out the small dish with a spoon.
As a Belgian pioneer on Brickell's food scene, Bistro BE should take on an educational role if it wants to succeed. That's why it's so important that staff be properly trained to do so. The extensive beer list, with dozens of saisons, goblets full of stout dark beers, and uncommon fruit brews, should work in a town now hip to beer's breadth and sophistication.
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However, without some help navigating all the unfamiliar ales and the mayo and potatoes, passersby who wander in will likely leave feeling overstuffed and overwhelmed.