“Belief in progress is a doctrine of idlers and Belgians. It is the individual relying upon his neighbors to do his work.”
A Belgian bistro in the farthest western reaches of 14th Street hardly sounds like a likely prospect for a hip new hangout. But moules and frites are in, as anyone who has stood in line at the Waterloo Brasserie in the Village knows (not to mention Cafe de Bruxelles, which has been selling them for years) or at the two considerably larger Belgian restaurants that have opened downtown recently. At Belgo Nieuw York, near the Public Theater on Lafayette Street, which is like eating in an airport lounge on Mars staffed by monks, the food is only so-so. Markt, a vast bistro on the corner of Ninth Avenue and 14th Street, in the heart of the meat-packing district, is by far the better of the two and a lot more fun.
The restaurant is in a loft building–across from a Belgian sandwich shop, coincidentally–decorated with Tintin covers, and a window selling take-away moules et frites. This is fast becoming one of the city’s most revitalized neighborhoods, one block south of Chelsea Market and close to many art galleries. Markt (Flemish for marketplace) is Chelsea’s answer to Balthazar. The floors are covered with the sort of antique tiles you see in bistros in France or Belgium, the walls hung with vintage beer posters. The enormous dining room is decorated with mahogany-stained oak, beveled mirrors and etched glass. A factory clock and industrial lampshades hang from the ceiling, and the polished wood tables are set with votive candles and dishcloth napkins. Along one side of the restaurant there is a 60-foot-long marble and zinc bar from the 1920′s, manned by bartenders in black shirts dispensing Belgian beers such as Hoegaarden, Leffe, Stella Artois and Belle-Vue. It also has an impressive display of oysters, lobsters and other seafood heaped on piles of crushed ice.
At 9 o’clock, every table in the place, which seats 150, was filled. The crowd was diverse, interesting and lively. One evening, we were seated by the window, and during dinner, passers-by outside kept jumping up to catch a glimpse of the goings-on within over the top of the frosted glass.
“I heard in the men’s room that Gwyneth Paltrow is here,” one of my friends said–or rather yelled–upon his return to the table. The restaurant is very noisy, so noisy that you can hardly hear a thing the waiter says. Since mussels are offered several different ways here, I asked him which he thought was the best.
“Whole garlic,” he replied enigmatically.
After he had shouted it several times, I realized he was saying “Hoegaarden,” the Belgian beer.
We ordered the mussels “Hoegaarden,” along with the day’s special of mussels in a lemon sauce. Two enormous tubs appeared, filled with enough mussels to feed eight people easily, and accompanied by dishes of crisp fries with mayonnaise. The mussels were delicious, plump and juicy, but the differences in the broths, which were also good, was barely discernible. But after eating the mussels we knew why they provided dishcloth napkins. To drink, we ordered an excellent Sancerre from the wine list, which is exclusively French. There is also a wonderful selection of beers.
For years, I have heard people say that food in Belgium is better than it is in France. I think that’s probably going a bit far, but it is perhaps one of the last underexposed cuisines in New York. At Markt, the cooking is uneven, but if you choose carefully you can eat very well. The endive salad was very fresh in a robust vinaigrette dressing. Endives also came with the North Atlantic gray shrimp croquettes, along with fried parsley. The croquettes tasted good but had a gluey consistency. The split-pea soup with trout, another typical Flemish dish, also seemed a bit off in its consistency. It was very thin but had an intense flavor, and I liked it.
One of the best dishes was Dover sole “matelote,” perfectly cooked, very fresh fillets served over a heap of mashed potatoes flavored with olive oil. I was also impressed with the lobster, which comes grilled, cooked with beer or served in a fennel cream sauce. I tried the latter; the meat was tender and the sauce was subtle.
Markt also specializes in “Waterzooi,” the creamy stew made with egg yolks, cream and butter. The broth was pleasant, if a little watery, and laced with chunks of lobster, monkfish and vegetables. My favorite dish was the Flemish rabbit stewed in a rich beer sauce with carrots, a better choice than the tough, stringy carbonade de boeuf. The kitchen also turns out a fine steak tartare with frites (which we had one night after a plate of oysters).
For dessert, “a deep dish of pure Belgian chocolate” turned out to be a perfectly decent mousse that could have used more chocolate, while the rice pudding tasted gritty. But the Bavarian cream was delicious, surrounded by a red berry sauce. Dame Blanche, vanilla ice cream topped with whipped cream and chocolate sauce, is the Flemish answer to a sundae, and our table quickly demolished it.
Nearby, people were smoking away, as is the custom in bistros in Paris and Belgium. So one of my companions lit up a Camel Light. She sports a Louise Brooks hairstyle and her smoke went perfectly with her look. But within a minute one of the hostesses appeared.
“This is not a smoking section,” she said firmly but pleasantly. Without further ado, she removed the cigarette from my friend’s fingers and carried it away, holding it out in front of her as though she had taken a dead mouse away from a cat. It was the only thing about Markt that didn’t feel authentic.
401 West 14th Street, at Ninth Avenue
Noise level: Quite high
Wine list: French, reasonably priced, good Belgian beers
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Main courses $17 to $24
Hours: Monday to Friday 5 P.M. to 2 A.M.; Saturday and Sunday 10 A.M. to 2 A.M.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor