Why I thought this place was Middle Eastern is a bit of a mystery even to me, except that its name is an unfamiliar hodgepodge of random letters that meant nothing to me, and the signage presents bold, oversize, rusty-looking letters that for whatever reason appeared earthy and exotic, reminiscent of a roadside stand peddling couscous on the cusp of the Sahara. Instead, BXL stands for Brussels (Bruxelles) and Zoute is salt (Dutch), and the menu's main draw is the Belgian staple, mussels. That is pretty much the only thing worth coming for, as well. Despite the fact that I departed with an unreasonable fondness for the place, the food is not particularly good.
I should have known as much, given that the only citations on its website were for the webdeveloper: no mention of any chef or restaurateur. But they've established themselves enough to support three locations in Manhattan alone, and the restaurant itself by appearances is rustic and charming, although the location near me is situated at a chronically difficult address. Frondy palms enclose a patio out front, and the interior is casual, warm and sylvan underneath that looming, enigmatic sign. Those ominous, metals letters give better indication of the menus foundation than do the bright-faced staff.
We were there early, our servers fully attentive as the rest of the dining room was fairly empty. I can imagine at a busy brunch or as the evening progressed, a full house might overtax the abilities of the somewhat novice servers, but they are affable and eager, and with a light load handled our orders adequately. The menu is pretty heavy, and even the lighter sounding dishes ended up a little leaden. Chicons au Gratin was all ham and cheese, despite it being described as "endive wrapped it ham". It was quite literally roulades of ham cloaked in a thick crust of melted gruyere, stuffed with a few spare leaves of endive. Flavor was great: the ham fresh, rich and salty, and the cheese thick and flavorful, but the proportions grossly skewed from my expectations. A basket of sort of flimsy bread wouldn't quite hold up to scooping it as a dip, but you can cut off pieces to savor like substantial little hors d'oeuvres- prepare for subsequent appetite-killing, however, if you consume the whole plate. Even its small side of mashed potatoes (an app with a side. Huh.) sat as a dense, leaden lump (at $10, this plate certainly merits its price calorically, but it is more than a bit rich for my tastes). Other appetizers toe this line, bitterballen,
cheese croquettes, blood sausage, bone marrow. Luckily, there are a fair number of salad options, although many of these could make light meals themselves. Contributing a lighter footprint is the shaved vegetables, gently seasoned and crowned with a fluffy poached egg atop to dress. This was actually a nice conglomerate of thinly ribboned vegetables, jicama, radishes, cucumber, carrots and red bell pepper, all crunchy and fresh.
We split a generous crock of mussels, from which there are several flavor options. Our waiter preferred the Thailandese- but the richness of coconut milk seemed excessive after the heavy appetizers, so we opted for a classic Provencale, which was less tomatoey than normal, but the savory broth tasted nourishing and sincere, redolent of white wine and basil, shards of crisp celery scattered throughout. Belgians like fries with their mussels, and these are fast-food style, but far superior. Crisp and salty and hot, with just a hint of grease to lubricate their crunch. I prefer bread to absorb the broth, but this
variety became too sodden too quickly. Brussels sprouts, despite
the eponymy with the restaurant, weren't stellar specimens. Slightly undercooked, they seems to have spent a little too little time in the oven, and then thoughtlessly tossed with a lot of meaty lardons, which were actually very lean and tasty, but didn't play well with the al dente veg.
There are other main dishes as well, similarly sturdy: a creamy chicken stew with bacon, meaty Carbonnades and Entrecote, all which seem heavy for a warmish early fall, giving few options for more delicate appetites. But it's not magnificently expensive, and serves very hearty food comfortably and amicably for when the occasion warrants. You know your tastes better than I. The menu's bylines boasts Great Belgian Beer: if that title alone appeals to you, you'll be in capable hands at BXL Zoute.
50 West 22nd street