France and Belgium may forever debate which country deserves credit for the simple glory we call french fries. Visit the charming and unlikely Clementine's Belgian Bistrot on the West Bank, however, and you can fill a table with convincing evidence that no one uses them so thoroughly and lustily as the Belgians.
If such a visit occurs during a cold spell this season, well, all the better. Clementine's serves an array of variously gooey, hearty and broth- and gravy-laden dishes that become especially appealing during our region's fickle bouts of sweater weather. Most of these dishes automatically come with fries, though a paper cone of them ordered on the side corrects any that don't.
Hand-cut, oddly shaped and double-fried, these versions are thicker, fluffier and altogether different than the ultra-crisp, stick-like frites now done so well at many restaurants across town. But what at first seems like excess heft quickly proves its worth when you put these durable fries through the paces at Clementine's. They're meant to be manhandled, whether dunked in the creamy, garlicky, tomato-tinted Andalouse sauce, dredged through the heady liquid beneath a clatter of mussels or twirled through a bubbling bowl of cheese fondue.
Clementine's was opened in 2002 by the Desmet family, natives of Brussels who took over a cozy though incongruous gingerbread chalet set along a stretch of metal buildings in Gretna. They set to work demonstrating the many boldface similarities and fascinating differences between French country cooking and their polyglot homeland's own cuisine.
Belgian food has not shot into the mainstream in the intervening years, but interest in Belgian beers has indeed soared. Clementine's puts the greatly expanded local selection of these complex, typically potent brews to good use at its impressively stocked bar and also in the kitchen. After all, it's beer that makes the Belgian set piece of carbonnades Flamandes so much more than just beef stew. At Clementine's, this dish's mildly sweet yet substantial gravy of ale, onions and stock proves yet another apt partner for the fries.
Most of the really exciting dishes here are at the front end of the menu. When a small party orders velvety, tangy fondue, steamed mussels in vinous broth (or even in lobster bisque), escargot and more mussels broiled in their shells with the escargot's same thick, delicious garlic butter, a communal bout of dipping, reaching and slurping can quickly overtake the notion of conventional meal courses.
It takes something special to follow such a tour de force, but few of the entrees at Clementine's are really up to the challenge. My advice is to go big on the first courses, and smaller on the second. Salads are large and different enough to replace entrees in this case, and a crisp, savory crepe piled with spinach and goat cheese fits this bill, too.
Even after all the fries in the world, though, it's worth finding room for a dessert crepe, especially the crepe Clementine, mounded with caramelized apple slices and flambeed with Grand Marnier. Such a flourish is rather French, but it still feels just right after a Belgian feast here.