Hard to do better, on a cool winter evening, than a steaming pot of mussels in a savoury broth. And the idea that moules-frites could be found here, Belgian-style, at the recently opened branch of the Belgian Cafe at the Intercontinental Hotel in Abu Dhabi, was exciting. A bit of investigation further whetted our appetites: the restaurant advertises that its chef has extensive experience in Michelin-rated European kitchens. What good fortune!
First, the look. The Belgian Cafe is a little kitsch from the outside - think fin de siècle Euro Disney - but decorated inside in Belgian brasserie style: lots of dark wood and period chandeliers, although the stone floors made the place so noisy it was difficult to converse, even across a table. The large restaurant was crowded but not yet packed. My hopes soared. The trouble is, as soon as you want to avoid pork and alcohol, the options on the menu become extremely limited. For now, that was not a problem: as an appetiser, we could have the cheese croquettes or the mushrooms in sauce on toast. We had both.
And then reality stepped in. The croquettes were squares of battered mystery cheese; I couldn't identify it, and I have sampled more than a few of the 365 cheeses in France (one for every day of the year). The plate came rather unadorned. The two croquettes were accompanied by a wedge of lemon and some fried parsley. I don't know if they intended to fry the parsley or if the oil from the fryer dripped on to it when they were plating the croquettes. It was curious.
The manager passed by and asked if everything was OK. We asked him if we were missing some sort of dipping sauce. No, he said. No sauce. But he could get some. We had no idea what sauce we wanted; it just seemed like something was missing. My companion and I each took a bite, and found the breading heavy and the cheese cloying, which was a surprise, not because they were bad but because we had never had cheese we didn't like. We barely finished one croquette, never mind two.
The mushroom sauce was good, but it was heavy - and there was so much of it, like a plate of hearty cream soup overwhelming a brave but helpless slice of toast. The bread arrived in a closed brown bag. The waiter said it was bread and butter. Both. We thought perhaps the bag was to keep it hot. But no. We fished out the French butter and broke open the half-sized baguettes - two French and two multi-grain. They were marvellously mundane, and certainly had not seen the inside of an oven in quite some time.
We ordered mussels and the vol-au-vent, a dish they were advertising outside the restaurant, and chose the garlic cream. A steaming pot was brought to the table, along with thick-cut chips in a cone. The pot was large, and the chips were presented in a holder; between them, they took up most of the table space. The vol-au-vent proved to be like the mushrooms-and-toast. The pastry was undistinguished, and working through the cream-smothered meatballs, chicken and mushrooms was a chore, not a pleasure.
The mussels were of good quality, it must be said, although the garlic cream made them a little heavy. What made them memorable, sadly, was the quantity of sand I had to pick out of my teeth. Perhaps it was a bad batch, but shouldn't Job Number One at a moules-frites restaurant be well-rinsed, sand-free mussels? Or would Job Number One be spectacular frites? In any case, we were disappointed again. They were piping hot but vaguely mealy, and I wondered if they had been frozen at some point in the process. The home-made, vaguely tart mayonnaise was the best part of the frites.
Our waiter asked how things were, and we mentioned that the mussels were sandy and he smiled and continued on his way. Rather than a language issue - the staff were courteous and solicitous throughout - I chalked it up to the noise in the restaurant. We finished with dessert, a Belgian waffle (we had to, didn't we?) and an apple tart with cinnamon ice cream. The waffle, with melted Belgian chocolate and vanilla ice cream, looked appealing, but it was eggy and soft in the middle. The apple tart was cold and sodden. The cinnamon ice cream was nice.
The Belgian Cafe is a wonderful idea and potentially a rewarding one, too. It has been open only since December 20, so perhaps it was growing pains that made for such a disappointing meal. But we shan't be returning to find out. Belgian Cafe, InterContinental Hotel, Bainouna Street, Abu Dhabi, 02 666 6888. Our reviewer's meal for two cost Dh420. Restaurants are reviewed incognito and the meals are paid for by The National.