The Global Table: Taste of Belgium brings waffles, beer and 'Belgian balance' to Tri-State diners

CINCINNATI - Each Thursday, our "Global Table" column explores the international side of Greater Cincinnati dining. Follow WCPO contributor, Grace Yek, as she talks to the chefs and owners of these dining spots about their food, culture and journey to the Tri-State.

Taste of Belgium

Where: 2845 Vine Street, Cincinnati (also other locations)
Food: Belgian food with a local twist.
Prices: Lunch/Brunch: $4.00 - $15.00; Dinner $7.00 - $22.00

Signature dishes

Taste of Belgium offers some traditional Belgian dishes, like carbonnades (beef stew) and meatballs (of beef and pork), plus plenty of Belgian-inspired food with a local twist.

The wildly popular waffle and chicken outsells everything else on the menu. The waffle has its own pedigree, made with stocky dough and speckled with Belgian pearl sugar. The sugar is baked right in, turning into pockets of caramelized crunchy sweetness in the buttery waffle. The chicken is enrobed in buttermilk and seasonings, before taking a plunge in the fryer. The crispy duo is served with hot sauce, and Ohio maple syrup. 

The menu has a sense of humor too. Take the McWaffle, for instance. This playful take on its drive-through counterpart is fashioned from a split waffle and built with bacon, egg, and Gruyere cheese.

The savory crepes at Taste of Belgium are gluten-free. These buckwheat beauties come with a variety of fillings, including an option for vegetarians: roasted red peppers, spinach, goat cheese and balsamic glaze.

If you're in a grazing mood, the beer cheese bites offer house-made pretzels with a dip made with Belgian Lambic beer. 

The cheese croquettes--crispy fried Emmental cheese bites--are traditionally Belgian.The frites (fries) are blanched in beef tallow for added flavor. They are also available in a vegan version.

The tongue-in-cheek Waffogato (see photo below) plays on the Italian dessert, Affogato. As with the Italian version, a scoop of vanilla gelato is topped with a shot of espresso. The Taste of Belgium difference is to put the ensemble on a waffle. 

True to its roots, Taste of Belgium is equally attentive to its beer selection, offering an extensive array with a focus on Belgian, Belgian-style and local beer.

Meet the owner

Chief Waffle Officer, Jean-Francois Flechet, is the Tristate's undisputed king of Belgian waffles. He's passionate about his waffles, and will happily express his views in three languages: French, Dutch and English.

Originally from a small village near the Dutch and German border, Flechet (picture below) grew up eating waffles, not making them. He earned two master's degrees in economics in Belgium, each with a different emphasis. 

"The plan was to get my PhD and work in a research center or teach," Flechet said. With a full scholarship in tow, Flechet left for the University of Pennsylvania to do just that. However, he wanted something new, and decided to graduate early, with his third master's degree.

"I got a job with A.C. Nielsen's business division in Covington," Flechet said. When a friend approached him with a business idea, Flechet left his corporate job to work on it full-time. They aimed to build and commercialize vending machines for hot foods.

"I spent two and a half years in my basement working on the vending machine," Flechet recounted. His funds were drying up, and he had to find a way to pay for his project. Enter:  Belgian waffles. 

In 2006, Flechet was at a trade show in Brussels to research vending machine technology. 

"I smelled fresh baked waffles. There was an old man baking Liège waffles at the trade show," he recalled. Flechet talked to the waffle maker for two hours, and went to his shop the next day. "I left with a 120-pound cast iron waffle maker."

That moment marked Flechet's start in the Belgian waffle business: He had humble beginnings as a one-man waffle stand at Findlay Market. 

Today, Flechet has 125 employees and two restaurant locations. The first restaurant was opened in October 2011 in Over-the-Rhine, and the other in October 2013 on Short Vine in Clifton. You can still find Taste of Belgium at Findlay Market as well as at Friendly Market in Florence and North Market in Columbus.

P.S. The hot vending machine venture has been put on permanent hold.

Cultural flavor

Waffles are Belgium's on-the-go food. Waffle shops are open every day and sensibly situated in high traffic areas, like the train station or outside the supermarket. According to Flechet, the waffles are served plain.

Buckwheat savory crepes, a staple on his menu, are more traditional to Brittany in France. 

"They call it gallette in French," he said. "We put Stella Artois Cidre (Belgian hard cider) in the batter as our way of 'Belgianizing' it."

Sirop de Liège, a molasses-like reduction

of apple and pear juice, is a key component served with the Belgian Meatballs. 

"There are so many pear and apple trees in Belgium, that at end of season, the surplus apples and pears are collected and cooked for hours," Flechet said.

In addition to a border, Belgium and France share similar culinary traditions. Beef bourguignon, a traditional stew made with beef braised in red wine, has a Belgian counterpart: carbonnade. It is also a beef stew, except it's braised in beer.   

There is a sense of balance in Belgium--a likely result of the country's multi-lingual and ethnic lines--that extends to the food and beer. 

"Our food is not overly spicy or sweet," Flechet said. "The beer is same way, well-balanced. We have an expression, 'the Belgian compromise.'  Everything has to be a compromise in Belgium."

By the way

In case you haven't guessed, beer is a big deal in Belgium. It is also integral to the experience of eating and socializing. 

"There are 1500 types of beer in Belgium," Flechet said. Taste of Belgium celebrates that rich beer heritage with an extensive selection. It also regularly offers "take-the-glass-home" beer tappings at both restaurant locations. A different Belgian or Belgian-style beer is featured each time, and customers get to take the glass home with their order.

Connect with Taste of Belgium:

(All photos by G. Yek)

Grace Yek is a faculty member at the Midwest Culinary Institute, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek.

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