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Waffle-free Belgian Dining 

Contrary to most Americans' expectations, you'll find no waffles at Clementine's Belgian Bistrot (2505 Whitney Ave., Gretna, 366-3995), but diners will find a menu of traditional cuisine from Belgium, including national favorites of mussels, fries, crepes and, of course, beer.

Laurent Desmet opened the restaurant with his parents, Clementine and Daniel Desmet, more than two years ago after the family moved to Louisiana from Brussels, where Clementine had operated two restaurants. Though authentic Belgian food is almost unknown in the area, they decided to make a go of it -- and even gambled on a West Bank location that originally had housed Willie Coln's German restaurant.

"We liked the building," Laurent says of the chalet-style structure with a cathedral ceiling, latticework and a mural of Brussels' Grand Palace inside. "We wanted a place with a lot of atmosphere. Against all odds, we figured the West Bank would be a good place to start a business. The main aspect has been the location."

That and, of course, the food. Customers' favorites are the steamed mussels, which are served several ways, all in a pot with a lid to use for the discarded shells; potatoes that are cut fresh, double fried and served with dipping sauces that aren't catsup; stew-like dishes featuring beef or chicken; crepes, made both as a dessert with caramelized apples and Grand Marnier or as an entrée with mushrooms and chicken or mushrooms, ham, bacon and Swiss cheese; and catfish almandine.

"We can claim we have the best mussels in the city," Laurent says. "We follow the Belgian tradition in the way we prepare them, the way we serve them in the pot.

"My mother and father and I oversee everything, and my mother is very demanding about everything concerning the food. You won't see any cans coming in. The vegetables are always fresh, and we whip the whipping cream on a daily basis. Fresh, fresh, fresh is our motto, and I'm thankful that a lot of people realize it."

Despite the fact that the restaurant is a little off the beaten path, customers seem to find it on a regular basis. "Surprisingly, a lot of our customers come from across the river. The good news is, they come back; to attract them is one thing, but to have them come back is quite another."

Clementine's also sticks to Belgian tradition when it comes to libations, offering 11 types of beer, all from Belgium.

Wearing Your Art Body art, especially tattoos and piercing, is becoming more popular as culture more readily accepts permanent wearable art. Providing quality artists and a comfortable, safe setting for applying that art is what keeps Ink-A-Bink (1409 Canal St., 527-5988) busy in business in a city where tattoo parlors are plentiful.

"You can get a good tattoo in a lot of places because there are a lot of good artists in town," says Ink-A-Bink owner Sage Close. "Customer service becomes very important. If somebody is getting their first tattoo, they're already nervous. You try to make it a really positive experience."

Apparently the philosophy has worked, as Close says the Central Business District studio has lots of repeat customers and new clients who are referred by satisfied clients.

"Our customer base is really varied," says Close, who has operated the studio for a year and a half. "We don't tattoo anyone under 18; I would say the average age is closer to 26 to 30. The oldest person tattooed here has been 74, and I've tattooed doctors, lawyers, ministers, police."

Part of the reason for the success, she says is a general change in attitude about body art. "I think that the whole stigma against [tattoos] has relaxed," Close says. "I think one of the reasons a lot of our customers are older is that it's something a lot of people have wanted to do for a long time but were afraid they'd be looked down on."

Studio artists can do custom designs or customers can choose from a variety of pre-designed artworks, portraits of people or other images that mean something special to them. It's not an anything-goes atmosphere, however. "When a young person comes in and wants to get a big tattoo put on their neck, for example, we advise them against it or straight out say no," especially if it appears their decision has been made on impulse. "I really believe that ethics should be involved in tattooing," she says. "It's trying to get away from the stigma of Š tattooing drunk people" who don't know what they're doing.

"Ink-A-Bink is more of an art studio," Close says. "Even if someone just wants something little, it's important to them and we need to do as good a job as we can."

All of her artists have at least five years of experience in the field and the studio adheres to sterilization and safety standards that exceed those required by the state Health Department, Close says.

click to enlarge Clementine's Belgian Bistrot in Gretna offers West Bank diners such traditional Belgian cuisine as mussels, fries, crepes and beer. -
  • Clementine's Belgian Bistrot in Gretna offers West Bank diners such traditional Belgian cuisine as mussels, fries, crepes and beer.

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