THE DISH: Cafe Trappist
Cafe Trappist/ 36 Ulitsa Radishcheva//Tel. 275 9935//Open noon to midnight (until 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday)//Menu in English and Russian//Dinner for two with alcohol 2,460 rubles ($78)
Published: November 21, 2012 (Issue # 1736)
As the old adage goes, ask someone to name five famous Belgians and inevitably they will struggle to formulate a list that doesn’t consist largely of long-dead Flemish painters and storybook characters such as Tintin and Poirot. However, this non-too-subtle cultural jibe is rather unfair — there’s more to this modest but cosmopolitan nation than fictitious detectives and Van Dyck. Belgium may not have the panoply of cultural and historical giants to compete with neighbors France and Germany, but it knows how to look after its stomach. There’s nothing quite like ensconcing yourself in a Bruges inn and devouring steaming plates of moules-frites or meatballs while savoring the mysteriously complex palate of a world-class beer.
So the arrival in St. Petersburg of a new Belgian pub and eatery is cause for celebration. Despite being squirreled away on a corner toward the far end of quiet Ulitsa Radishcheva, Cafe Trappist seems to have found instant success, to which the difficulty in finding an empty table at 5:30 p.m. on a recent Saturday attested.
The cafe (which, remarkably for Russia, is completely non-smoking) has two levels: A bar at street level and a dining room upstairs. The décor — wooden floorboards, a large mirror, a piano, adverts for beer — is understated but underlines the place’s continental roots while creating an atmosphere of space.
The food menu is based largely on hearty Belgian dishes and a number of international standards, and while not especially broad, provides enough choice to satisfy the diner. But it is the beer that is king at Trappist. There are about 100 beers on the menu, running the gamut in all their multifarious glory: Blonds, dark ales, red ales, fruit beers and the eponymous Trappist monastic brews. They’re all here — Leffe, Duvel and Kriek, rubbing shoulders with lesser-known but equally exquisite gems such as Triple Karmeliet, Orval and Piraat. Prices average around 350 rubles ($11) for a 0.33-liter bottle, but go up to 1,000 rubles ($32) for the most exclusive ales.
Although the waitress seemed bewildered when asked for a description of one of the beers, she promised that their resident “beer expert” would be able to explain everything. Sure enough, shortly afterwards he appeared at the table and recommended the St. Feuillien Grand Cru (360 rubles, $11), which turned out to be a full-bodied blond with a delightfully hoppy nose and plenty of fruitiness. Another raid on the beer menu ended with a foray into Flanders and the Brugse Zot Dubbel (250 rubles, $8), a red ale with hints of chocolate and a bitter, spicy finish.
An order of moules-frites was determined mandatory in order to assess the establishment’s credentials. The mussels, farmed on an island in the White Sea and delivered to Trappist every week, are served here in four different ways. An order was duly placed for mussels in cream sauce with white wine (390 rubles, $12) and portions of Belgian frites (190 rubles, $6). The fries were admittedly good, and came with two different mayonnaise dips, but lacked the double-frying that gives Belgian fries their addictive crunchiness. The mussels, however, inexplicably arrived at the table half an hour after the fries. Although not as large as their Belgian counterparts, they were flavorsome if slightly dry, and the cream and white wine sauce was a mouth-watering variation on the traditional accompaniment of celery and shallots.
Gent-style chicken in bacon (290 rubles, $9) was a portion of tender chicken breasts wrapped in juicy bacon and served with fried parboiled new potatoes and a creamy white wine sauce. Another traditional option is the Liege salad (210 rubles, $6.50), a mixture of potato, green beans and bacon, though the uninitiated should be warned: The menu does not make it clear that this is a salad that is always served hot. Less traditionally Belgian was the goulash soup (240 rubles, $7.50), a faithful version of that Magyar classic that didn’t even disappoint on the spice count.
The smiling waitress was always on hand without seeming overbearing, and the only gripe was that a couple of the dishes arrived in an unusual order. By then, however, we had been won over by the warm welcome and the superlative ales at Café Trappist. It’s all a matter of perspective — after all, who really needs world-famous cultural icons when you have cozy taverns and beer-brewing monks?