I recently visited the Washington, DC, area for a short work trip. I was working as a staff member of the organization that was running a conference, so I did not have too many chances to eat outside the hotel where I was staying. Furthermore, breakfast and lunch was provided each day, which limited my dining out to two meals. Considering all those caveats, I think I took full advantage of my opportunities.
On one night, I met a good friend (Carla) who now lives in Tacoma Park and whom I have not seen in some time. While I had some ideas for restaurants that I usually like to visit while in DC (Pizzeria Paradiso or Allero), Carla suggested Belga Café which is located in a small enclave of restaurants and shops near Eastern Market in Southeast DC. I had never been to Belga Café before, so I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to try something new.
The menu at Belga Café is rather varied, with many choices of stereotypically Belgian cuisine. The meat offerings include beef, lamb, pork, chicken, duck and venison. Seafood dishes include lobster, shrimp, scallops, halibut and sea bass, but the real stars of the menu are the pots of mussels. There are nine different mussel pots on the menu, each paired with a cone of Belgian frites and mayonnaise. The sauces served with the mussels ranged from the traditional white wine, shallots and garlic to a light curry-ginger-sesame-oyster sauce “Asian Style”.
I chose the Mussels “Truffels en Prei” that had a sauce of leeks, truffles, spicy sausage, Hennepin cream, red onions and herbs. The pot’s arrival at the table was a bit of a show and definitely worth it. Our waitress brought each of us a covered pot which she popped open with the handle of a wooden spoon. The steam from each of our pots escaped, enveloping us in all the aromas of the cooking liquids. In my case, there was a hint of sweetness from the leeks and onions, a punch of earthiness from the truffles and a finish of freshness from the parsley that seemed to be the most dominant herb.
Steamed mussels are one of my favorite varieties of shellfish and these were as good as any that I have ever had. They were tender and juicy and provided a great canvas for the well-balanced flavors of the sauce. I opted for a locally brewed beer to go along with my mussels, a Porter from the Port City Brewing Company of Alexandria, Virginia. It was thick and opaque with a slight sweetness that tasted like a combination of coffee and dark chocolate. Sort of like a beer milkshake.
The only other meal that I had at a restaurant was a team dinner with my co-workers. For this meal we chose to go to José Andrès’ Jaleo in Crystal City, Virginia, for tapas and paella.Since we planned to each order a small plate and share with everyone else at the table, I just needed to make sure that I didn’t order the same item as anyone else.
The tapas menu was quite lengthy, but I zeroed in on the EMBUTIDOS (Sausage) section. If you don’t already know, I am a big fan of cured meats, smoked or air-dried, especially cuts like prosciutto and guanciale. I have only heard of the delicacy called Jamón Ibérico de bellota Fermin and knew that I had to try some.
Jamón Ibérico de bellota Fermin is sometimes compared to Prosciutto de Parma. In reality the similarity ends with the facts that it comes from a pig and it is covered by a European Union Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). I have tried a number of prosciuttos, some grown and cured domestically and others imported with the official PDO.
It is impossible for me to say that Jamón Ibérico de bellota Fermin is better than Prosciutto de Parma, it is just different. Where prosciutto always has a predominantly salty taste with a hint of sweetness in its aftertaste, the sweetness subtly permeates Jamón Ibérico de bellota Fermin. According to everything I have ever read about the Spanish ham, this sweetness comes from a combination of the breed of the pig and its diet. The black Iberian pig is the only breed that is allowed to be used (it can be cross-bred, but to be covered by the PDO it must be at least 75% black Iberian) and the pigs are allowed to graze in oak forested pastures where they feed naturally on grass, herbs, roots and acorns.
Almost as impressive as the amazingly ambrosial flavor of the Jamón Ibérico de bellota Fermin was its presentation at the table. It arrived on a rustic cutting board adjacent to a small pile of crusty bread slices. The jamon was laid out in four rows, discs that were slightly overlapping one another. It looked like nothing special on the board. However, when I picked up a single slice, I noticed how thinly it was sliced. Actually, to say it was thinly sliced does not truly describe it. I could look through the slice of meat as if I was looking through a pane of amber-hued stained glass. When I set the jamon on my tongue, it almost melted. I reluctantly chewed, wanting to savor the taste as long as possible.
Everything I tried, the other tapas dishes and the paella, was very good, but, to be honest, I don’t recall any of their details. To me, it was all about the Jamón Ibérico de bellota Fermin. Between that and the pot of mussels at Belga Café, I feel that I truly made the most of my visit to the DC area. The next time I make it to Washington, DC, I will try to visit my old favorite places, perhaps along with returns to these two restaurants as well.