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Beer 'n' Steer

Carbonnade a la flamande is honest stew: No extraneous vegetables to fool you into thinking you're eating something healthy. Want fries with that?

November 13, 2005|KENT BLACK

Belgians drink beer. Lots of beer. With more than 450 varieties to quench the thirst of its 10 million citizens, it's no surprise that the tiny country has an extraordinarily high per capita consumption. Likely more than Ireland or England. More than Puerto Vallarta during spring break. Even more than Green Bay when the Vikings visit.

It's also no surprise that a good deal of the country's cuisine is positively sodden with beer. Belgians love soaking rabbits and lamb and beef in suds: It's hops cuisine at its frothiest.

According to Eddie Kerkhofs, founder and owner of the Sunset Strip hot spot Le Dome for 27 years, there are three main beers used in Belgian beer cuisine: Kriek Lambic, which is reddish-colored and cherry-flavored; the slightly sour, lighter Gueuze, and high-alcohol dark beers, such as Chimay Peres Trappiste, which once was made by the Trappist order of monks. Although Le Dome's menu is best described as pan-European peasant fare, Kerkhofs often offered Belgian specialties such as his Tante Marie's lamb shoulder braised in Duvel beer. Unfortunately, Belgian cuisine has been missing from the L.A. restaurant scene since Kerkhofs sold Le Dome three years ago.

"[After Le Dome] I took a sabbatical for a year," says Kerkhofs, who eventually teamed up with Silvio de Mori to co-own a small bistro. "[We] looked for a small place, a minimum number of employees, small patio and off the Sunset Strip, and we found Il Piccolino and essentially bluffed the owner into selling."

Kerkhofs knew the deal was golden when De Mori told him the connotations of the restaurant's name. "He said it can mean 'little place' or 'little boy.' That seemed like a perfect omen to me, because the national statue of Belgium is a little boy called Manneken Pis," Kerkhofs says. The statue is near Brussels' central plaza and depicts a little boy perpetually urinating--rather fitting in a country of prodigious beer drinkers. It took only nine days, two new stoves, new banquettes and 5 gallons of paint, and the new Il Piccolino opened last summer with little fanfare. Nonetheless, the partners' loyal following of entertainment industry types was soon filling tables every night.

Though Il Piccolino has a decidedly Mediterranean menu (simple but well-executed Italian dishes such as sublime bistecca alla fiorentino), Kerkhofs manages to slip in a Belgian dish such as moules frites now and then. "As soon as the weather turns, we are going to have carbonnade a la flamande on the menu," Kerkhofs threatened recently. De Mori, standing nearby, reacted with mock horror.

Unless you've spent several years hanging around the European Union headquarters in Brussels, chances are you don't know about carbonnade a la flamande. It's one of those rich, heavy, meaty, utterly delicious cholesterol-laden dishes that drive away the health-conscious like sunlight drives away vampires. It's also not particularly well-suited to temperate climes. It's a wool-weather dish, best savored between mid-November and March on those chilly, rainy nights when L.A. threatens to have a brush with winter. Carbonnade is simple country fare--onions, brown sugar, vinegar, cubed beef, beer and, sometimes, prunes--meant for those who need some fuel in order to hitch up the draft horses and plow the north 40. Still, eaten in moderate quantities and accompanied by crisp Belgian fries and a glass of 8% Chimay Reserve, it's a dish that makes you feel like a rosy-cheeked peasant from the Ardennes.

As for its preparation, "there are several very important things you must know," Kerkhofs says. "First, sauteing the onions. This must be done very slowly until they are caramelized. Secondly, it must be covered in good, dark beer . . . and the best is the Chimay Trappiste. But the secret to great carbonnade is that it must not be eaten right away. It should sit for two or three days. I usually reheat it in a double boiler. This is when it's the best. The third time you reheat it? Incredible."

Kerkhofs says the old-fashioned way it was eaten in his country was like a Belgian version of chili fries. First the fries were deep-fried in clarified beef fat and then spread out on a plate. The carbonnade, especially when it was in its soupy, reheated state, was spooned over the fries. Sometimes a dollop of applesauce topped it off.

"Of course, no one here would ever eat it like that--people in Los Angeles being so health-conscious," laments Kerkhofs, more than a little wistfully.


Carbonnade a la Flamande

Recipe adapted from Eddie Kerkhofs

Serves 4 to 6


8 ounces butter or olive oil (or half butter and half olive oil)

2 1/2 pounds flank steak, cut into 1-inch cubes

2 1/2 pounds white onions, sliced

2 1/2 ounces white flour

1 1/2 tablespoons brown sugar

1 1/2 tablespoons white or red vinegar

2 bay leaves

2 sprigs thyme

Salt and pepper to taste

1 pinch cayenne pepper

1 30-ounce bottle brown Chimay beer

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