As ethnic cuisines go, most of us would be hard-pressed to anticipate much beyond their eponymous waffles when looking forward to a Belgian restaurant. But after a visit or two to the Van Ghent Café, you come away looking forward to a more interesting specialty on your next visit to Brussels.
The place was established in 1999 when Belgian émigrés Rosita and Ghent-bred Roland Guilliams figured a practical way to indulge in nostalgia dishes: make them, sell them, and eat in. After Roland's death, his wife continued operating the restaurant for a while before selling it and moving back to Belgium. Fortunately for us, she passed the place — and its recipes — on to her co-cook, Ebba Pellegrino, who has dutifully replicated the menu items in recent years.
Two years ago, Van Ghent moved from its original Westerly location to larger quarters. As well as allowing for more tables, there's space for more plaques, photos, and bric-a-brac, from a collection of birdhouses atop the kitchen partition to a mural of a Ghent street scene.
But about those waffles. They're worth checking out, and you can have them three ways. The plain Belgian waffle will come with brown sugar and butter to apply in desired proportions, or with maple-flavored syrup and butter for the sadly habituated. The most elaborate version is heaped with seasonal fruit. Johnnie couldn't resist the whipped cream-dolloped Chocolatier, which contains Belgian chocolate chips, with brown sugar and butter on the side for further self-indulgence.
But that was for dessert. Coming late morning, we first had brunch (breakfast is served till closing, and lunch starts at 11 am). We could have had an egg and ham sandwich ($5.60) or French toast ($5.75) or even slices of vanilla-flavored French toast ($5.95) pressed in a waffle iron. But omelettes (omeletjes) and crêpes (pannenkoekjes) seemed more substantial.
When our friendly server acknowledged that the Flemish DeVlaming omelette ($6.30) was simply the normal egg concoction with ham, cheese, mushrooms, onions, and tomato, I chose the Caroline's Special ($6.15). It contained diced ham and was topped with kitchen-made boursin cheese. Light and fluffy, it wasn't a folded over half-moon but rather a circle with a depression in the middle that held a pool of butter under the cheese. Pretty good.
As usual, I kept darting envious glances across the table to Johnnie's choice. Her large chicken crêpe ($6.95) was filled with a humongous amount of shredded chicken in a light brown sauce tangy with lemon. It was as delicious as it was abundant. There was a portion of applesauce on the plate as well as a smiley-face fruit garnish — a cutesy post-Roland touch? Their most notable dessert crêpe is the signature Van Ghent ($8.25), which contains sliced bananas, vanilla ice cream, and hot homemade chocolate ganache. The version with oranges and Grand Marnier ($8.95) proved very enjoyable on a previous visit.
Items we've enjoyed there in the past and would recommend include their croque monsieur and madam ($5.75/$5.95), basically grilled cheese with ham and, with the Mrs., an egg on top. Also, Johnnie loves their tuna salad sandwich ($6.25), a choice she is "very particular about." All sandwiches come with applesauce and potato chips. Although French fries would be more traditional, their lease, as at their prior location, prohibits using a deep fat fryer.