From the outside, Belle Vie European Bistro, in Alverser Plaza off Huguenot Road, doesn't look very different from most of its competition. The neon sign and the patio facing the parking lot are like most other strip-mall restaurants. But walk inside and you start to feel you're somewhere special. The main dining room is warm and elegant, with low lighting, coral fabric draping the ceiling, leather booths lining the walls and fresh flowers on the tables. Unlike all those tiny, charming — and often noisy — places in the Fan, it feels nicely open and roomy. And quiet. There are some benefits to being south of the James.
While Richmond has more than its share of restaurants offering European cuisine (a meaningless description, if you ask me), Belle Vie specializes in French and Belgian cooking. I talk to the sister-in-law of the chef, who's also the manager and pastry chef, and she explains that Belgian food is similar to French, but with some unique, mustard-y sauces. I also learn that mussels and fried potatoes are mainstays in the cuisine of this tiny country sandwiched between France and Holland. With a bilingual menu, beginning with the escargots in garlic butter, and a chef, Xavier Meers, who moved here from Belgium only a few months ago, I'm starting to think Belle Vie is in uncharted culinary territory for our town.
Very few things on the menu are short of delicious.
The scallops in hot butter sauce are cooked exactly right — just a bit translucent in the center, with a creamy sauce that tastes appropriately artery-clogging. (Be forewarned that Belgian food is not light.) When the chef's wife, also Belgian, stops by our table I ask what's in the scallops. She replies that they're quite protective of their recipes, and reveals no specific ingredients. When I try to find out more about another appetizer, the cheesy croquettes, all I can glean is that they contain parmigiano reggiano cheese. But truly, once you taste them, you won't care what's in them.
By the time the entrAces come out I've stopped asking questions. The only thing to do is put your head down and eat. The pork tenderloin seems more well done than the medium-well I ordered, but is nicely seared with beautifully crisp edges, and the traditional Belgian mustard sauce on the plate could make cardboard edible. While our waiter and the couple behind us rave about the beef stew, the belle of the entrAce ball has to be the duck A l'orange. It is truly four-star worthy, tender and juicy, in the classic citrus sauce that's not a bit too sweet.
For sides we order the haricots verts, pommes frites and croquette de pomme de terre (aka nut potatoes). The latter are little marbles of pureed potatoes and (probably) copious amounts of butter, fried until golden. To put them in the same category as French fries is to do them a terrible disservice. The crunch, the salt, the pillowlike center — no fried potato I've ever had has been quite so melt-in-your-mouth as these little devils. The pommes frites and haricots verts are quite good too, but the rest of the meal is mostly overshadowed by the nut potatoes. We almost skip dessert in favor of two more orders.
But I've tasted enough Belgian chocolate to know better than to skip dessert in a Belgian restaurant. We choose the mousse, which is creamy dark chocolate bliss, and the sabayon, a strange but delightful custard of whipped eggs, white wine and sugar, served over fresh strawberries. The two desserts are a match made in heaven.
We Richmonders may be novices when it comes to Belgian food, but one meal at Belle Vie will have you singing its praises. And ordering seconds of the nut potatoes. S
Belle Vie European Bistro $$$
1244 Alverser Plaza, Midlothian
Lunch: Tuesday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Dinner: Tuesday-Wednesday, 5-10 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, 5-11 p.m.
Bar opens at 4 p.m.