CLEMENTINE’S BELGIAN BISTROT
Gretna: 2505 Whitney Ave.
As far as I know, Clementine’s was the only restaurant in New Orleans that ever claimed to serve the food of Belgium. There was a bit of Belgian influence on New Orleans cookery. Myriam Guidroz, a longtime recipe writer in the Times-Picayune, was Belgian. Chef Paul Blange, who created the menu of the original Brennan’s when it was still on Bourbon Street, came across as French, but was actually Belgian.
But Clementine’s was a full-time vendor of the breadth of Belgian cuisine, a style of cooking that should have been (but wasn’t) immediately adopted by New Orleans diners. Although Belgian culture is a blend of French and Dutch, when it gets down to cooking the French side is much more influential. It rings a bell for lovers of French-Creole cooking.
My wife and I spent a cumulative two weeks in Belgium, first on our honeymoon in 1989, and again on our twenty-fifth anniversary. Particularly on the first visit, we were swept away by the goodness of the food. It was not merely French, but presented with a minimum of pretentiousness and attitude, at prices that seemed too low to us.
So when I heard, thirteen years later, that a Belgian restaurant had opened in Gretna, I was soon there. Clementine’s was easy to find: it was in the converted cottage formerly operated as Willy Coln’s Chalet. The German aspect of Willy’s decor was perfect for Clementine’s: the Dutch side of Belgium is clearly Teutonic.
The most distinctive items on Belgian menus are mussels, pommes frites (French fries, if I may be permitted to call them that), and juicy stews. Belgians like to cook with beer. (They drink more than their share of it, too.) True to their names, Brussels sprouts and Belgian endives were often on the table.
Clementine Desmet was the owner and usually the dining room manager. She was always telling customers how to pronounce the French words on their menu. And her name: claw-monh-TEEN, not like Your Clementine waiting for you on the steamboat landing. This was an ironic habit in someone who didn’t speak English all that well. You had plenty of chances to notice that, because she was delightful in her explanation of Belgian specialties. Her nephew Laurent, a skillful chef, also a Belgian native, usually was in control of the kitchen.
Step One in any visit here was: beer or wine? From a flavor perspective, the wine seemed preferable. But Belgium is such a capital of brewing (how else would they have been able to buy Budweiser?) that the food is made for beer, and the beer for food.
That question decided, Step Two was to order a cone of pommes frites. These things were irresistible, since these were the days before lots of restaurants started hand-cutting fresh potatoes for frying. You would not be laughed at if you consumed two or three cones of fries. You might get a disapproving look if you asked for ketchup. Mayonnaise is the classic dip for Belgian fries.
At either the beginning or the middle of the meal, mussels were a necessity. The appetizer version employed the standard preparation for snails, applied to a dozen mussels on the half-shells. The flavor of the mussels gets subsumed, but scooping up the garlic-and-herb butter with bread is as good as ever. They do shrimp in a somewhat similar but less buttery way, and that’s nice too.
The other way to have mussels was by the bucket, steamed in a choice of sauces. My favorite is the vin blanc style, which includes not only the white wine of the name but also enough cream to make it pretty rich. Onions, herbs, and the mussel juices contribute to the sloshy sauce at the bottom of the big bowl, which is just great eaten with a spoon, dipped with bread, or even slurped out of a mussel shell.
The other preparations were the commonly-seen mussels mariniere without the cream, and a Provencale version with tomatoes. Clementine’s used black mussels from the northeast Atlantic, fresh and vivid.
The entree specials were uniformly good. The best standing entrees included poulet estragon (chicken with a tarragon cream sauce), carbonnades Flamandes (an herbal Flemish-style beef stew), the almond catfish (which would be better with flounder or trout–but what’s that going here? A sop to West Bankers?), and the basic sirloin steak with fries. The only classic Belgian dish I never ran into at Clementine’s was the bouillabaisse-like Flemish dish called waterzooie.
You could have crepes as an entree, stuffed with many different savory fillings. Crepes were also involved in the best desserts here, notably crepe Clementine. They baked apples into a thicker pancake than the word “crepe” suggests, top it with ice cream, and flame it at the table with Grand Marnier.
Anywhere you find crepes you also find fondue. That’s something else we see very little of around New Orleans. Clementine’s made them three ways: cheese (you dip bread into the molten cheese), steak (you fry it at the table), and chocolate (pound cake and fruit).
Our experience with restaurants in Belgium was both a plus and a minus in our enjoyment of Clementine’s. Its menu and recipes were unarguably authentic. The premises–dominated by a large mural depicting the Grand Place in the center of Brussels–were pleasant, if not fancy. But as travelers in Belgium we naturally dined in places much more auspicious than this, and I came away from Clementine’s always a little disappointed. But that could also be said about our second trip to Belgium, which was nowhere near as delicious as our first one. Chalk up another score for the Wistful Palate Effect.
But then again, I was very disappointed to hear that it closed. It was not the first nor the last to go down in that terrible location.