Anything but monkish, the North Beach hotspot bulges with Belgian food and beers — and young fans in the basement
DINE Trappist monasteries are renowned for their contemplative silences, during dinner in particular, as well as for their beer-brewing. To get a sense of how these conflicting tendencies work themselves out in the great world, all you need to do is step into La Trappe Cafe, which could be the city's only Belgian restaurant and whose signage describes it as a "Trappist lounge." If this is true, it's certainly in the beer sense and not the silent sense. Of course, beer does not conduce to silence, especially in the young — at least not right away — and La Trappe is nothing if not a haven for the young. And it's in North Beach! North Beach has young people, tons of them, not just aging Italian tailors. They come pouring through the door in groups of two, three, and more and head immediately downstairs.
Downstairs is where the action is at La Trappe. Upstairs, on the main floor, is a perfectly nice North Beach storefront restaurant with lots of windows and an exhibition kitchen. But descend the curvy stairway and you find yourself in a moodily lit realm that's like a cross between a speakeasy and a medieval monastery — only louder. St. Benedict, the sixth-century figure whose rules guided Trappist monks from their beginnings in 17th-century Normandy, surely would not be pleased by the din. But he might well approve of the many varieties of beer on offer; some of the labels, such as Chimay (brewed by "pères Trappistes"), are among Belgium's best-known exports.
How different is Belgian food from Dutch food or, for that matter, German food? The potato plays an outsize role in all these cuisines. In Belgium, the spud is turned into glorious fries, served with mayonnaise for dipping (a hint there of French influence, about which more anon), and La Trappe's version ($6) of this national dish is beautifully rendered. The fries are properly ectomorphic, with sturdy, crunchy exteriors and voluptuous, creamy insides. That are served in the traditional paper cone along with two dipping sauces of your choice. These range widely and include several kinds of mayo (regular, wasabi, Dijon) as well as curry ketchup, which will be familiar to aficionados of the German treat Currywurst and is quite gingery — an index of freshness, I would say.
Belgium, though small, is an interestingly fractured land. The capital city, Brussels, is mainly French-speaking, while in the more northerly city of Antwerp the dominant tongue is Flemish, a language related to Dutch and Low German. La Trappe describes its asparagus ($8) as prepared "Flemish style," and this means the spears are steamed, then sprinkled with what looks like a light snowfall of grated Parmesan but is in fact shredded hard-boiled egg. I would have preferred the cheese. The egg added nothing to what is one of the most prized vegetables in French cuisine.
But such blips are a rarity at La Trappe. The food is solid and satisfying across a broad range that runs from California familiars like calamari salad ($10), dotted with halved cherry tomatoes and dressed with a red-wine vinaigrette subtly sweetened, I thought, with a dash of balsamic, to Belgian dishes such as Oostend fish gratin ($12), which looked like a small shepherd's pie: a crust of melted cheese atop mussels and chunks of cod swimming in béchamel sauce. One of its near relatives has to be macaroni and cheese, with seafood substituting here for the pasta.
In a city of bad burgers, La Trappe's ($11) is exceptional. The menu card announces that the beef is grass-fed and organic, from Marin Sun Farms, and usually I would interpret these proclamations of virtue as a warning that the burger will turn out to be dry and tasteless. But not here. If you order it medium-rare, you'll get it that way, with a well-seared crust around a succulent, rosy core. Add a slice of Gouda on top ($1.50) and have the brioche bun, and you might be holding the best burger in town, certainly one of them. The fries are probably superfluous, since you've almost certainly had a coneful or two as a starting nibble, but they're also irresistible.
The dessert menu contains at least one item of genuine interest, a parfait ($6) layered with strawberries, whipped cream, and pulverized Belgian biscuits our server likened to ginger snaps. You even get a whole biscuit so you can see what it looks like in its pre-pulverized form. By order of St. Benedict?
LA TRAPPE CAFE
Dinner: Tues.–Sat., 6–11 p.m.
800 Greenwich, SF
Beer and wine
Tricky wheelchair access