Squaring off across a windy meat-district corner, a pair of Belgian eateries beckon fans with jocular sounding specialties like waterzooi, dame blanche, and stoemp. Petite Abeille ("Little Bee") is the welterweight underdog, sporting a modest dining room and a handful of tables, while upmarket Markt is the favored heavyweight, its soaring space lavishly appointed with dark woods and antique fixtures. Portraits of King Leopold III and Queen Astrid beam over the long bar, asking you to forget that the king was loathed for killing his Swedish queen in a car wreck, not to mention countless Congolese. The restaurants join a rapidly expanding Belgian fight card: mainstay Bruxelles, velvet-roped Waterloo, eat-in bakery Le Pan Quotidien, soon-to-be Belgo, and a passel of french-fry stalls that have raised the city's frites appreciation several notches. Here's the blow-by-blow.
Listing dishes in both Flemish and French, Markt starts strong with an appetizer of luikse salade/salade liegoise ($7.50), a delectable improvement on German potato salad combining green beans, potatoes, sautéed onions, and crumbled bacon in a vinegar dressing. Also dependable are garnaalkroketten ($9), a pair of oblong fritters suspending North Sea gray shrimp in an oozy puree of cheese and potatoes. But good as the starters are, the menu stumbles badly on main courses. One of a family of classic Belgian stews called waterzooi (Francophones spell it "waterzooie"), mer du nord ($19) reunites a halibut filet with its poaching liquid, adding zucchini, fennel, potatoes, and a touch of cream. Though it made a brave picture, little flavor was coaxed out of the ingredients. A lamb shank cooked in an intriguing sauce thickened with Leffe brown ale was hard as a subway seat, while a skate wing in pallid black butter generated no sour tang. The very juicy steak frites ($17.50) turned out to be the best entrée.
By contrast, Petite Abeille's waterzooie de poissons ($12.95) delivers a roundhouse punch: morsels of salmon, monkfish, snapper, baby clams, and mussels in a creamy tidal pool, shredded carrots and leeks waving like seaweed. On Tuesdays only, an even better tomato-based waterzooi of lobster ($14.95) found a one-and-a-quarter pounder struggling to shrug off the flavorful broth. Wear your raincoat tearing the creature apart will send soup flying. Other delights included flammande, the thick brown stew dotted with prunes masking the bitterness of the beer that serves as beef tenderizer, and stoemp ($9.75), a raucous mash of potatoes and carrots sided with fennel sausages and doused with pan gravy.
The contenders are more evenly matched when it comes to another Belgian passion, steamed mussels. Of the four versions at Markt, my favorite is fumed in Hoegaarden ($14), a wheat beer that imparts a tart flavor whispering the orange and coriander used in the brewing. This same beverage is available on tap, one of an admirable collection of 26 Belgian brews available. Across the street at Petite Abeille, the moules marinieres ($11.95) achieve a similar complexity with white wine, garlic, and celery; an additional mussels special is served every evening. Both joints ensconce a standard two-pound serving in a black contraption that keeps them warm as you eat, and both side the shellfish with a generous portion of excellent fries. At Markt, a bowl of moules frites at the bar and a glass of draft beer is your best culinary bet.
Underdog by a split decision.
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