You'd have to be a madman to open another Belgian pub in a city already swimming in chalices of Chimay and La Chouffe.
But then, if you know how to say "madman" in Flemish slang - that's "Zot" by the way - I suppose there might be something new you can show us about the subtleties of Belgian cookery, like a creamy waterzooi stew or mustardy beef carbonnade, or a few dozen more tricks to play with mussels.
After a couple of enjoyable meals at Zot (just suck in your cheeks and say "zult"), it seems that Brussels-born chef Bernard Dehaene really is the madman for the job.
Handsomely settled behind its yellow-and-black facade for nearly three months, inside the long space of the former Le Champignon de Tokio just east of Head House Square, Zot exudes a more sophisticated vibe than some of its grungier Belgian bar competitors (Monk's, Eulogy, Brigid's, Abbaye). The front entryway bar, framed by wooden beams that give it a farmhouse feel, occasionally hosts a live jazz trio that lends the room an authentically cool, post-bop, Euro-bistro mood. In the middle and back portions of the 110-seat restaurant, meanwhile, Champignon's old drywall has been removed to reveal distressed brick walls and weathered joists that, in the low light, exude just the right combination of urban chic and intimate romance.
Order up a charcuterie plate and any pot of the 30 or so different kinds of beer-steamed mussels to begin - perhaps the classic Bruxelles style perfumed with smoky slab bacon, leeks and goat cheese; or the harissa-spiced Red Devil to get your lips smoking - and the scene is set for a splendid meal.
Not that the service staff always quite knows how to handle the ripe mood. With the exception of one bright, dynamic waitress on my final visit, Zot's waiters seemed to float around the room in a daze of confusion, disappearing for long stretches between courses, letting our water glasses drain to empty, mixing up orders and splashing hot bouillabaisse on my pants. (Ouch!)
It's a good thing there are 300 or so beers available to calm the nerves - though that's actually a middling selection by local Belgian bar standards. And Zot doesn't have the proper glassware for most of them. But Dehaene stresses that the beer cellar is still in serious growth mode, with plans for as many as 500, and a new 36-tap draft system on the way to replace the current meager four. Zot also has a surprisingly more serious wine cellar in the works than most beer bars tend to bother with - 130 labels, heading up to a well-rounded 300, and a growing focus on by-the-glass flights and half-bottles.
There are already plenty of good libations to choose from, though, whether you're looking for a bracing DuPont saison, a big bottle of Van Steenberge's spicy-sweet Piraat golden strong ale, or a Flemish sour brew imported by crosstown rival Monk's Cafe. It turns out that Monk's owner, Tom Peters, was actually Dehaene's inspiration for coming to Philadelphia from suburban Washington, D.C., where he operated a Belgian restaurant called Mannequin Pis for eight years.
After a sabbatical during which he worked for a beer importer, Dehaene was fast impressed by the knowledgeable beer scene Peters and Eulogy's Michael Naessens had helped to foster in Philadelphia. So he and business partner Tim Trevans, a former United Nations weapons inspector and British diplomat, decided to give a real beer town a try.
Instead of having to explain something new, Zot adds a deeper, more authentic nuance to our portfolio of Belgian flavors.
Dehaene is clearly a classically trained chef. Who else would bother to make about 20 different sauces every day to serve alongside 20 or so simply prepared meats? The concept is pleasingly straightforward, but also gives this menu a broadness that reminds me of a European brasserie. And Dehaene has the skill to carry it off, at least in most cases.
If the most important test of any Belgian spot is mussels, Zot passes with flying colors. When the black metal lids are removed from the pots tableside, billows of fragrant steam waft across the table. There are some dubious combinations among the many mussel sauces available here, like creamed root beer, as well as some I'd still like to try, such as the "Philippiene" slathered in crab fat and kumquatlike calamansi citrus. But the mussels I did eat were tender and clean, not to mention impossible to stop eating - especially the bacony Bruxelles and the mildly curried and coconutty Jamaican.
As a nice alternative to the usual steamed mussels, Dehaene broils a panful on the half-shell beneath a gratineed crust of herby cheese as an appetizer.
Dehaene has a penchant for daring flavors that should appeal to adventure diners - like the four-inch-long half- slice of a veal bone filled with creamy marrow topped with herby bread crumbs, a dish so primal it's hard not to like it. Dehaene also makes some of the most tender sweetbreads in town. And buttery, Duvel-sauced escargot, as well.
For more traditional eaters, the onion soup steeped with Orval beer is excellent, as is the creamy leek soup filled with fingerling potatoes and thick bacon. I also enjoyed the cold tomato stuffed with a tangy salad of tiny North Sea shrimp. Avoid the cheese croquettes, though, as the thick, deep-fried crusts were hollow and cheeseless inside.
I also had mixed luck with the entrees, which are affordably priced, at $19 or less. The best of them was the grilled pave, a classic French rump steak cut to the shape of a brick and cooked to tender perfection. I also loved the succulent duck breast, the spicy merguez, and an impressive homemade luganega sausage served with truffled salsify and Israeli couscous.
The little lamb chops, though, were overcooked, as was the unimpressively thin ribeye steak. The bouillabaisse special was rather pedestrian, and, except for the garlicky rouille-smeared toast, hardly worth the cleaning bill.
The seared rockfish was a nice choice, especially with a side of roughly mashed potato-bacon stoempf that is Zot's best side.
Skip the potato croquettes, which came to us twice still frozen in the middle. And the frietes (a.k.a. "fries") were inconsistent, the thin-cut sticks suspiciously pre-frozen-tasting on my first visit, but significantly better on my last (now that they're being made in-house).
One could say frietes are just as crucial a Belgian test as mussels. But so are waffles and chocolate. And Zot splits this dessert test as well, with beer-infused waffles that were thin and soggy, countered by a stellar Callebaut chocolate pot de creme that was like eating cocoa silk.
So it isn't perfect. But you don't have to be a Belgian madman, either, to appreciate Zot.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Tre Scalini in South Philadelphia.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.