by Elissa Karg
419 South Main St., Royal Oak
Food: 4 stars
Experience: 5 stars
Some restaurants, from Day One, are winners. So it is with Bastone, a new Belgian restaurant in Royal Oak. It’s the right mix of great food, great atmosphere and great service.
The concept is Belgian brewpub, says Maggie Long, corporate chef for Bastone and three other restaurants. Belgian pubs are popular in New York, and her Royal Oak venture is a combination of two restaurants that Long and owner John Carlson particularly liked, right down to the mismatched chairs. The atmosphere is totally unpretentious, quirky and interesting. There’s a lot going on, but the place is serene enough to enjoy a conversation.
Belgian food is heavily influenced by Germany and France, and some of Bastone’s menu items are quintessential Belgian, such as moule (mussels), brandade de morue (puree of salt cod, potatoes and olive oil, a staple of the poor for centuries) and twice-fried Belgian frites served with mayonnaise.
We met friends for dinner and began by sharing tarte flambé, a thin crust pizza, which, despite the name, was not on fire. It was a rich combination of white cheese, bacon, and caramelized onions. Another time, we happily munched on an appetizer of artichoke fritters fried in a very light batter and served with tarragon-seasoned aioli.
Beer is brewed on the premises. It is fun to order the beer sampler, which includes five 3-ounce pours and is served on a plank of wood. Our friends were wild about the Belgian pale ale, which has a prominent hoppy flavor with a smooth malt character. Wit is a wheat beer flavored with coriander and orange peel, “a crisp summer beer,” according to our friends. Pilsner gets its distinctive flavor fermenting at a lower temperature; Dubbel was the darkest beer offered that night, deep amber in color, warm and smooth on the way down.
We had no trouble convincing our friends to join us again the next week. We all loved the espresso duck breast. The coffee deepened the flavor of the duck and seemed to melt away the fat. The dish was served with a ragout of potatoes and sautéed pea pods. My co-diner ordered seafood waterzooi, a classic Belgian dish that is a variation of bouillabaisse. The bowl was filled with clams, mussels, lobster, monkfish and salmon in a light, creamy broth.
The ravioli are filled with Yukon potatoes and black truffles and are garnished with arugula (more of this would have been welcome) and mushrooms. The one disappointment that evening was coq au vin, a traditional French dish of chicken stewed in wine. The dish was tweaked to feature a grilled young chicken with leeks, mushrooms and root vegetables in a cabernet reduction. The dish was too salty. When I mentioned this to chef Maggie Long, she knew just what I was talking about, and said that they took the dish off the menu that night, after we complained.
This is another nice thing: If you complain, things are made right. An overcooked steak was whisked away and returned with one medium-rare as ordered, and a free dessert was offered in compensation.
Also recommended is grilled chicken with orecciete pasta in a sauce of goat cheese and sage cream.
I appreciate the way they do salads at Bastone. A salad with a dinner entrée is only $2, a more-than-fair alternative to many menus, which offer salads for $4 to $6 or lackluster side salads included with your meal. The house salad is as perfect a salad as I’ve ever had: Belgian endive (we certainly wanted to see that sometime during the evening) mixed with baby greens and garnished with cubes of roasted beets, sun-dried cherries and sugary-spicy walnuts. The intense colors matched the taste.
Desserts are spectacular. Try the almond pithivier, a light puff pastry filled with almond paste, served with blueberry sauce and vanilla ice cream. The warm chocolate cake comes with an incredible espresso ice cream. Chocolate bread pudding is supplemented with sour cherries and crème fraiche. As I advised a friend on the way out: Skip the fries; indulge in dessert.
Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.