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Thursday, July 7, 2011

Café Benelux: Milwaukee's Summer Hot Spot

Rooftop deck spices up Third Ward restaurant

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The Good Harvest Market, located at the corner of Broadway and St. Paul Avenue, never really got off the ground. It always seemed like a lonely store. But the atmosphere has changed now that the market has been replaced by Café Benelux, the latest restaurant by the locally owned Lowlands Group (formerly called Diablos Rojos). The group owns two Café Hollanders, Café Centraal and Trocadero.

The first noticeable change at Benelux is the bar, which offers an outstanding beer list. Most beers are of Belgian origin or tradition. The majority comes in bottles, though there are also 30 served on tap.

The casual, comfortable dining room features the Lowlands Group's trademark wooden tables. The place also houses a small café that sells cheeses and another area that sells gourmet foods, beers by the bottle, and souvenir apparel.

The most dramatic change can be found up the stairway, which leads to a new rooftop deck. The tables have umbrellas sporting the name of a Belgian ale, “Delirium.” The seats offer a great perch from which to watch the activity at the nearby Public Market and along Broadway. This could be the summer's hottest spot.

The menu is similar to those found at Café Centraal and the Hollanders, with a focus on mussels and frites. The usually excellent frites are thin-cut white potato ($4.95) or sweet potato ($5.95). Of the 13 dipping sauces to pick from, the roasted garlic aioli seems truest to the Gallic/Belgian spirit of frites. But why not gamble on the remoulade or sriracha mayo?

Mussels are sold in 1- or 2-pound servings ($12.95-$18.95). One pound should be plenty for the average diner. The blue mussels are prepared five very different ways. One uses Pernod, another asiago cheese and a third adds a Mexican twist with the use of chorizo. My pick, the mussels diablo, has fresh tomatoes with oregano, capers, red wine and a dash of red hot chile flakes. A half baguette is included—essential for sopping up the remaining cooking juices full of the flavor of mussels.

Continue the Low Country tour with an appetizer of bitterballen ($7.95), a plate of deep-fried meatballs the size of Middle Eastern falafel. The meatballs, lightened up with flour and minced bits of celery, onion and red pepper, are served with addictive curry ketchup. Another specialty is pannenkoeken ($8.95-$10.95), a Dutch crepe so large that it hangs over the rim of the plate. There are multiple versions. The “roubaix” has diced ham, cheddar cheese and a very good Belgian beer cheese sauce. The menu says to allow 30 minutes for preparation, but it arrived in less than 10.

Benelux's fine frites deserve to be used in that French bistro favorite steak and frites, and the restaurant does indeed offer a filet and frites ($20.95) that, considering the reasonable price, has a nice-sized piece of tender beef served with braised onions, asparagus spears and a ragout of portobello mushrooms. This is perfectly good bistro fare.

The remainder of the menu ventures all over the place, including tomato Florentine soup, burgers and sandwiches like grilled mahi-mahi and turkey avocado wrap. Entrees include bacon-wrapped meatloaf and pasta Bolognese. Vegetarians will find a few salads and a black bean burger. Weekends offer a brunch with no less than 10 varieties of pannenkoeken.

Stop in for a whirlwind tour of Low Country fare and absolutely try to get one of those tables on the rooftop deck!

Café Benelux

346 N. Broadway

(414) 501-2500

$$

Credit Cards: All Major

Handicap Accessible

cafébenelux.com