Brabant Belgian Brasserie opened in mid-February on an East Midtown side street. Belgian restaurants aren’t a great rarity in New York, but most neighborhoods don’t have one. If you’ve a hankering for Moules Frites and other classics, and a beer menu longer than most places’ wine lists, Brabant might be for you.
The owners here have taken a bet on size. The restaurant seats 120, but it’s divided into several rooms, and doesn’t quite seem that large. There’s a long antique white marble bar (which serves food too), casual seating nearby, and a vaguely rustic dining room in back.
Still, that’s a lot of seats to fill. The populist prices may help. Small plates are $7–12, soups and salads $5–18, appetizers and “sharing plates” $8–21, mussel pots $22, burgers and sandwiches $14–16, other entrées mostly $16–28 (except for the steak: $36), side dishes $6–9. That’s at dinner; they also serve lunch, weekend brunch, and a shorter late-night menu until 2:00 a.m.
The cuisine is broadly traditional, with some nods to contemporary taste. I doubt that the “Sharing Plates” menu category came over from Brussels, and a few dishes seem to be there because New Yorkers much on them at the bar: fried calamari, chicken wings, and of course the burger (a short rib and brisket blend). They even tick the locavore box, with nods to North Fork duckling, Ashley Farms free-range chicken, a Tom Cat Bakery brioche, and so forth.
The wine list—about 25 by the bottle, 10 by the glass—is merely adequate, but inexpensive, with most of the bottles under $50. There are almost 70 beers (eleven on tap), an impressive selection not many restaurants can rival.
The chef here is Armand Vanderstigchel, a Chicago native who was raised in New York and the Netherlands. His website describes him as a cookbook author, media chef, spokesperson, restaurant consultant, TV and radio host, instructor, writer, corporate chef, food judge, and food stylist. That’s not the complete list.
So a year from now, it’s a safe bet you aren’t going to find him in Brabant’s kitchen. There’ll be underlings executing his recipes, perhaps not as well as they do now. In the early days, though, Brabant is about as good as a casual Belgian Brasserie could be.
Bitterballen ($7; above left) are traditional, but the menu translates: “a Benelux happy hour snack of sirloin-filled round mini croquettes.” It’s a comfort food, really well done.
The Mini Croque Monsieur ($8; above right) is a re-interpreted classic for the bar crowd: four quarter-sandwiches with Ardennes ham, Gruyère, and Béchamel filling, on a brioche. The photo doesn’t give an adequete sense of scale. Many nights, this could be dinner for me.
There are five versions of the Mussel Pot, all $22. My girlfriend had the simplest one, with white wine, garlic, and leeks. I didn’t try any of them, but I did try the fries, which I found a bit mushy.
The Ragout of Ardennes Wild Boar ($20; above left), served in a ceramic bowl, resembled a cassoulet at first. I wondered if the boar would be chewy, especially at this price point, but it was rich, fatty, and tender, almost resembling pork belly. The housemade chive spätzle that came with it (above right) seemed pedestrian, but you can’t argue with the amount of food you get for twenty bucks.
The place seemed slightly under-staffed, but service was mostly attentive and helpful, and the server’s ordering advice was spot-on. The owner introduced himself: a gentleman I’d not met before, for whom Brabant is the first restaurant on his own. The space was between one-third and half full on a weekday evening, which is not bad, considering the size of it. You want nothing but success for this guy.
Brabant (316 E. 53rd Street at Second Avenue, East Midtown)
Cuisine: Classic Belgian, with a few tweaks for the New York audience
Service: A shade under-staffed, mostly very good
Ambiance: A typical rustic (though large) Brasserie, spread out over several rooms
Rating: Neighborhood Spot