Living a stone’s throw from San Diego’s 30th Street has some amazing perks if you like great food and high-quality beer. While the communities along this culinary cruise haven’t quite reached their European brethren’s pedestrian and bike-friendly orientation (yet), one new spot has combined an authentic approach to Belgian fare, a Belgian beer heavy menu and some of the best service in the region to create a delicious and unique dining experience. Let me tell you about my trips to Brabant Bar & Cafe…
The harsh weather in cities like New York or Philadelphia may be responsible for the “east coast edge” you sometimes hear about. Having just returned from a trip to NYC, I found the locals delightful, but then again it was June, not January. In any case, San Diego’s idyllic weather that almost always hovers around a mellow “sandals, shorts, and a chance of picnic in the park” may be responsible for replacing that edge with more rounded corners. Fortunately for people who really like food and great beer, Brabant doesn’t allow the laid back warmth that is a hallmark of its South Park home to get in the way of some really top notch work in the food and drink department. When the old Vagabond closed down I wondered who might take over for the charming, Frenchman with the heavy accent and easy smile named Jerome who you could almost always find welcoming guests or sharing a glass of wine. When I heard it would go from the eclectic European mélange that made up the Vagabond menu to a Belgian beer bar, I wondered a bit what we might get. I gave it a week or so to let the owners get their feet under them, hopped on my bike one Thursday evening, and rode past neighborhood dinner favorites Lefty’s Chicago Pizzeria, The Smoking Goat, Zensei Sushi and Alexander’s on 30th and headed south across the Switzer Canyon bridge to join some friends for my own flavor tour de force. What happened next was well worth the trip. (*editor’s note: I’ve since been back for Sunday brunch, lazy Saturday afternoons discussing infrastructure, better use of public spaces, and urban design, and weekday quick meals, so this post is a collection of all those experiences – I didn’t eat and drink this all in one setting. I swear).
First up was this Scotch Egg. Scotch eggs are an interesting little creation. They are made by baking a sort of meat/breading mixture around a hardboiled egg. Check a recipe from Jamie Oliver here. The biggest way to get these wrong, in my opinion, is to either dry out the egg or under-season the breaded casing. This was a solid effort, and I’ve had it three times over the last couple months just to make sure. This version was prepared with house made beef sausage molded around the egg, then breading it and deep frying. Maybe technically deep-frying isn’t super healthy for you, but man this was worth it.
Still on the small starter train, we ordered up these little bundles of classic Belgian goodness [origin of the croquette HERE]. The filling was composed of stewed beef, seasoned with mustard seeds bloomed in beer, fried sage, and carrot greens and served with garlic aioli. That sounds like a mouthful. A flavor-filled, soft, juicy mouthful. And it was. The great thing about the appetizer, aside from the flavor, was that it isn’t so big it would get in the way of trying multiple things. Wife and I ought to have ‘Variety is the Spice of Life’ made into a shirt or a business card or something when we go out to eat. So small servings of really tasty dishes always wins us over.
I’m not done with the food, but this photo gives me a chance to talk about a couple important aspects of a restaurant that often get overlooked. If you read the text in that photo you’ll see that the owner (a young, affable guy probably in his 30’s named Parker – article here) put a truly significant amount of time and thought into creating this concept. If you want to explore the breadth of beer that has its origins in Belgian styles, the separate beer menu is a great start. It is incredibly detailed and goes on for pages and pages. It probably took quite awhile to create. And having spent some time chatting with the owner over the past few months, it’s pretty obvious he takes what he does – and the experience you have in his restaurant – very seriously. Despite that earnest attention and serious effort, he comes across with a nice, easy manor that is exactly what you expect to find in one of San Diego’s best small-town neighborhoods. South Park is a not-so-hidden gem. And it got this way not by being small or by thwarting growth, but (at least in my view) by remembering that we are all just people and being kind to one another makes life a bit easier to live. I love the community, even though it’s not technically my own, and an evening or an afternoon in South Park is really one of those things you must do when looking for a warm San Diego experience with good, funky little shops, great walking and even better food.
Speaking of warmth – and returning to Brabant – the other really impressive thing about the place (aside from the food, the beer, the owner, and the setting) is the service. We’ve had Sydney as a server twice now and I feel qualified to make a few strong statements. You know those restaurants where the food actually tastes better because the service is so good and descriptive and helpful that you leave feeling really great without fully understanding why? Welcome to the restaurant service clinic that is a couple hours with Sydney. Remember that detailed (and lengthy) beer tome I mentioned with countless styles and descriptions? Well, it was so vast I needed help.
Me: “Sydney, what should I try?”
Sydney: Effortless stream of “this is the section of XYZ styles” and “this is where you go if you want something more fruit forward” and—look, I know this all sounds quite hyperbolic. It’s not.
Remember when I wrote about Kyle from Juniper and Ivy (HERE)? Well, this was that type of service, probably even a little better. Great menu knowledge, great service disposition, unafraid to gauge our level of participation and respond accordingly – active involvement in the pre-meal and interlude stages and kind of backed off a touch while we were engrossed in the food. She handled all the little things like pro-actively noticing if we needed more of something. Truly stellar service. And I noticed recently that Dre from Tiger!Tiger! is down there now, too. Which means you have an incredibly high likelihood of getting a server with over the top knowledge, warmth befitting this part of town, and real skill on your visit to Brabant. I suspect it’ll be so good before you head home you’ll want to stay in the neighborhood a bit longer just to have the glow of the experience stay with you. To that end, there’s all sorts of little boutiques right there or if you walk south, make a right and a quick left, you’ll find Progress (random good stuff that’s hard to describe), a new vet named Woof & Purr, and even a Stone Brewing Company store to sample some after-dinner beers if that’s your thing. Again, although I am a North Park guy, I really, really love spending time in South Park.
Let’s get back to the food.
This little treat is like chicken and waffle, only, ya know, made with rabbit. I’m not sure how Chef does it exactly, but he turned what is normally a dish dominated by syrup and maybe a little spice, into a diverse set of savory flavors that are accented with lightly sweet syrup. Perhaps it was the tarragon, thyme and black pepper in the batter combined with the saltiness of the rabbit or the sweet syrup. Hard to know, but this was a fantastic rendition of a dish I really enjoy.
This writing is getting long and I haven’t gotten to the beer, about which there is more to write, so I’ll stick to basic descriptions. This was a salad of romaine lettuce with roasted red bell pepper, candied almonds, gorgonzola, green apple, Turkish apricot, bound with green garlic ribbon, on bed of lemon saffron dressing with strawberry balsamic reduction. A little dressing-heavy for my taste, but he said they were tweaking the recipe a bit. As the ingredients suggest, the flavor profile was great, just needed to idle down on the dressing a bit.
Pictured are the moules frites (Belgian for mussels and fried – fries not pictured) with saffron cream broth and white fish, cognac, green garlic. I’ve had mussels at Brabant three times. And I’ve talked to people who’ve actually done more than pass through Brussels on a train (on my list to return for a proper stay – perhaps on this guy’s Belgian Beer tour (LINK). They’ve been very good every time.
This is from a brunch experience I had. Yep, donuts. Technically they have some other fancy Belgian name, but I forget it at the moment. But for these purposes, just think of them as a better version of what you might get at a typical donut place.
The photo is self explanatory. Just order it and thank me later.
You might be wondering why a denizen of San Diego Craft Beer would deign to show a photo of a beer that is not only not from San Diego, but not even a U.S. craft beer from any of the many, many delicious beer towns around this country. Well, I’ll tell you. It is freaking fantastic. It’s one of the best beers I’ve had since I started drinking beer that was made to taste good rather than to sell some false reality based on shallow stereotypes and bad ingredients. Wait, did I just get preachy? My apologies. I try not to do that. At least not about beer. If you want to drink crap beer, that’s totally fine. Wait, I just did it again. No, seriously, my point isn’t to make you feel bad for liking a certain type of beer. Do what works for you. I’m just saying that craft beer – even foreign high-quality beer – fosters a different sense about what food and drink are and what they can be. If that intrigues you, the San Diego region (including northern Baja in Mexico just to the south) is an unbelievable playground where chefs and brewers are pairing things that make dining experiences something special. And they are doing it at almost every price point, so it isn’t just for people who want to spend $10 on a beer even when they aren’t at a sporting event.
The Klokke Roeland is a high alcohol beer that’ll sneak up on you, so be sure to take it easy the first time around. It’s one of the best Belgian beers I have had and it was one of many styles I could find while I was there. I’m also quite happy to report that Parker has made the choice to add a handful of San Diego local beers to the menu. If you find the Harlot by Societe on the menu, or Alesmith’s Grand Cru, or Benchmark’s Belgian Table Beer, order those. Just take my word for it. They are really, really terrific beers.
My experience at Brabant over the last several months has confirmed what only repeat trips to a restaurant can – that the concept is working and the food is top notch. And, perfectly suited for the South Park neighborhood it calls home, the service is as warm and friendly and helpful as any I’ve been to. It’s a great dining experience. Thanks for dropping by.