Cafe Reviews

Liège Largess

Hoist the Belgian tricolor and strike up that kingdom's national anthem, "La Brabançonne." Chart a course for the ancient port city of Antwerp, and make it snappy. We sail for the land that gave us mystery writer Georges Simenon and the Singing Nun, Audrey Hepburn and René Magritte, pommes frites and Peter Paul Rubens (the painter, fool, not Pee-wee Herman), as well as "the muscles from Brussels" Jean-Claude Van Damme, and, by extension, every cheesy action flick he's ever made. Though, granted, Hard Target wasn't half bad, and at least he's not quite as big a putz as Steven Seagal or Ah-nold. But I digress.

In actuality, traversing the oceans will not be necessary, as we need direct our vessel no farther than Seventh Street, just south of Virginia Avenue. There, Chef Lionel Geuskens reps his hometown of Liège, Belgium, through his six-weeks-new culinary contribution to Phoenix's dining scene -- Trente-Cinq 35. As you might deduce from the numerals, Trente-Cinq means "35." That's Geuskens' age, and the deadline he set for opening his own restaurant, after slaving for several years as chief of the Coup Des Tartes kitchen. Now the SCI grad has blessed PHX fressers with a brilliant new bistro featuring much of the food Geuskens grew up on, tweaked by the Belgian's expert hand.

Geuskens' venture should inspire other young chefs out there champing at the bit, waiting for their chance to do their own thing. This affable fellow with his odd accent -- sounding both German and Irish at times, though he grew up speaking French -- renovated the space himself, installed restrooms, and built a gleaming new kitchen, battling red tape every step of the way. The result is charming, subtle: chocolate-brown banquettes and walls of cream and burnt orange. Outside is the eatery's distinctive logo, and its sign rendered in the colors of the Belgian flag -- black, yellow and orangeish-red. A far cry from the way-crude logo for the, um, gentlemen's club Bandaids, just up the street.

"Belgian comfort food at its best," is what Geuskens labels his profferings, and indeed, his use of rich sauces, melted cheese, potatoes and seafood makes you want to swear allegiance to King Albert II, constitutional monarch of that Maryland-size country. The carbonade Flamande, Geuskens' take on the traditional Flemish beef stew, is immensely satisfying. Hunks of tenderloin are marinated for three days in a dark Belgian beer, the resulting juices drained off and made into a thick brown sauce with apples and prunes, then served with roasted potatoes, tourneed so they look like little footballs.

Another trad Belgian dish, the waterzooi, is a seafood devotee's fondest fantasy made real, a generous farrago of former fin-bearers, sea crawlers and bivalves in a milky saffron cream broth, with chunks of tuber, diced carrots and celery -- a marine masterpiece. I savored every bite of salmon and halibut, every nosh of scallops, shrimp and mussels, each spoonful of that exquisite broth. Speaking of mussels, those in the moules au vin blanc are probably not from Brussels, but I'm sure Monsieur Van Damme would chow down on 'em with gusto. You're brought a huge bowl of them, steamed open, in a simple herb-laden mound, with a pool of watery, white wine overflow at the bottom, full of leeks, celery and strips of green onion. I didn't care for the broth quite as much as the mollusks, but with a mass of mussels this perfect -- not one of them snapped shut -- how can I kvetch? Moreover, the twice-fried golden-brown pommes frites, served as a side with mayo, were light and exquisite, nothing akin to the greasy tuber strips we Americans normally ingest.

I can but highlight certain points along Geuskens' impressive bill of fare, because to do true justice to every item would take a novel's length, perhaps with yours truly as some Peter Ustinov-Hercule Poirot type of character, eating my way through every dish offered while trying to solve some blasted mystery. Regarding the entrees, I should mention both the tartiflette and the lamb shank a la marocaine, neither of which is strictly Belgian. Tartiflette is a French dish, one the chef's mum used to make for him. Following in the maternal footsteps, Geuskens bakes soft reblochon cheese atop a mixture of sliced potatoes, apples, and bits of bacon known as lardons. It's the sort of dish you have the tendency to stare down into as you consume, as if you want the thing to swallow you instead of vice versa.

The Moroccan lamb shank first assaults your olfactories, and then your tongue with a tingly dance of spices. Geuskens was famous for this dish over at Coup Des Tartes, and patrons have followed him just because of it. The dish is inspired by the many Moroccan restaurants throughout Belgium, and it's the best I've had since that Algerian place Delicious Couscous was extant in the Avenues. The lamb's jus was laden with raisins and apricots, and the couscous with it, soft and appealing.

Did I dislike anything at Trente-Cinq? Well, I did find the bread a little too hard for the comfort of my molars. And the appetizer of mini-meatballs in an herbed tomato sauce seemed awfully ordinary. I wouldn't order it again. Same for the Dijon-drizzled asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, which didn't make much of an impression.

But the croquettes de crevettes, crispy fritters with an interior of shrimp bisque, brandy and roux, were amazing, like deep-fried globs of warm shrimp pudding. Same for the coquilles ostendaise, scallops cooked in a cheese béchamel. The salads, too, intrigued the palate. I greedily devoured the salade tomates crevettes, with its shrimp and its cognac mayonnaise. Ditto the salade Liègeoise, with green beans, hard-boiled egg, tomatoes, mixed greenery, and lardons.

Geuskens provides a handful of Belgian beers, but it's really the beer cocktails, like Stella Artois and Pepsi, Stella and grenadine, or Stella and crème de menthe, that are revelations. Who'd fathom that Stella and Pepsi would taste so refreshing? Those nutty Belgians, apparently.

Happy endings of note included the tres-sticky triple chocolate mousse, the flan with pralines, and the fruit tartelette. All exceptional. But that mousse of white, milk, and dark chocolates, one atop the other in layers? Fellas, this is the sort of confection ladies swoon over. I know. I watched the two with me do just that as they spooned that goo from a dessert glass. A Belgian aphrodisiac? Dear me, I'll never tell.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons