400 N 35th St, 267-2437
Daily 11 am-10 pm; bar until 2 am.
When I heard there was a new Belgian pub in Fremont I hoped it might be filled with architect-types in designer clothing by Ann Demeulemeester and Dirk Bikkembergs, with a few bearded, barrel-chested beer geeks mixed in. But my wiry, home-brewing friend and I sat on the terrace at Brouwer's with decidedly more prosaic customers-mostly muscular boys, sweaty in shorts and T-shirts, who came and went in groups of three or four.
"We've got like two soccer teams in here now," declares a waitress.
It might be Miller time for the soccer dudes, but Brouwer's won't serve it. You see, this beer bar (it has booze too) is run by the owners of Bottleworks, the fanciest beer store in town. You can get a Pabst Blue Ribbon, but it reads like a joke on the beer list where you might pay $10.50 for a pour of Hoegaarden, the white Belgian beer scented with coriander and orange peel. The 50-beer draft list includes a lot of German, American, and Canadian microbrews, but the place's heart beats in Flemish, and it offers the biggest selection of Belgian beers that I've ever seen.
The space is massive and theatrical; one could easily stage a production of Macbeth here. The walls are clad in rock (or more correctly a rock-like substance), and the booths are big and woody. The happy soccer teams sit drinking at big communal tables in the center of the dining room under a huge skylight. But the real centerpiece is the bar, decorated with coolers full of backlit bottles, promising more Belgian delights should your team exhaust the taps.
Made by monks and other more secular devotees, Belgian beer is emphatically idiosyncratic; it can be airy and fragrant or dark and devilish. Often when I splurge on an unfamiliar bottle, I wind up with something that is too funky and fetid even for me. Any place with a beer list as long as this should have a sampling option-three little tasting pours served together. But our server tells us, a little too firmly, that there's no such option. So I pick badly at first, ordering a Scotch-style ale ($7.50) with a stringent fruity whine that rubs me the wrong way. My friend guesses better and strikes it rich, with a curvy little glass of Delirium Nocturnum ($7), which is chocolaty and refreshing. He sticks with a winner and downs three glasses. Temporarily off Belgian beer, I switch to a safe and delicious Elysian IPA ($3.75), but later I feel bold enough to try another Belgian, a white beer this time, Wittekerke Wit ($7). It is full of tiny soft bubbles and flowery fragrance, the coldest, easy-drinking summer brew you can imagine.
I hesitate to get to the food, because I want to like it better than I do. Belgian cuisine, at least as it is known in the outside world, consists of just a few peasanty and potentially delicious things. They are: steamed mussels; French fries; waterzooi, a creamy chicken-leek stew; carbonnade, a beer-braised beef stew; Belgian endive (in Belgium they probably just call it endive); very good chocolate.
All of these things-except chocolate-are served at Brouwer's, but clearly more care has gone into the beer list than the food. Still, there is some potential here. The kitchen gets the hardest thing right: Every dish is beautifully flavored, those monk-y Belgian beers adding a delicious complexity.
The carbonnade ($12) tastes deliciously rich and raisiny, but its beef chunks-brisket, I think-are jaw-grindingly tough. The mussels ($14) come in a really lovely lemony creamy beer sauce, but they aren't hot enough. Fries (included with mussels) really should be perfect at a Belgian place, but come lukewarm and limp, in no way worthy of their nice tartar dipping sauce. The endive is served in a gratin ($6), with broiled cheese on top, and cream and ham underneath. Once again the flavor is aces-the richness carefully balanced with a bit of hot pepper-but the endive swims in an unappealingly runny sauce. The only way to sop all those flavorsome juices is some appallingly puffy baguette-like substance.
With that bar and those chandeliers, it is clear that Brouwer's didn't set itself up to be a forgettable neighborhood pub, and its food should reflect that ambition. I'll go back for the beers, and live in hope that by midsummer their fries are as scrumptious as the Wittekerke Wit.