2310 30th Street, South Park
I'm not above a little light reading before dinner. So when the menu at Brabant — South Park's newest Belgian theme restaurant — opened with a list of recommended food and beer pairings, I embraced it. But when my waitress handed me a relatively thick leather portfolio featuring an extended beer and wine list, complete with detailed explanations on the different varieties of Belgian beer, I experienced a moment akin to panic. Like that recurring dream where you show up for the final exam of a class you don't remember taking, I was forced into a moment of insecurity: am I well-enough educated to drink Belgian beer?
So back to the pairing suggestions. I already knew I was going to order the house-made bratwurst, because I've already read all about bratwurst in the menus of other restaurants. Evidently it pairs well with a pale ale, which I definitely feel qualified to drink, because San Diego. Delirium Tremens, one of the world's most celebrated ales, happens to be on tap at Brabant — and qualifies — so I ordered like a pro and felt good about it.
My dining companion agreed to order the pulled rabbit sandwich and share. To drink he ordered the Modern Times Saison — actually a local craft beer and only Belgian by affectation. Apparently, he's not much of a reader.
I've brought him along because he once bartended in this space, when it was still the Vagabond, and could easily point out all the changes made by the new ownership. There've been a few, and none of them cheap. Word is, the décor's supposed to bring a distinctly Belgian feel to the place, to make the experience immersive. They've put in some beautiful wrought iron chandeliers and sconces, as well as a number of richly stained wood fixtures, including high-backed booths and some gorgeous shelves behind the bar to show off its alluring bottle selection. The best upgrade has to be the leaded glass French doors that open in front of the bar to the outdoor seating. I can't say for sure they came all the way from Belgium, but have no problem declaring their old-world craftsmanship to be marvelous.
Overall, Brabant has done a wonderful job making the space its own, and true to the world's perception of Belgium, it feels pleasant, inoffensive, well-appointed, and vaguely European without being too terribly romantic or remarkable. When the food arrived, I was ready to jump on the Belgium bandwagon and say obnoxious things like, "They really know how to live over there, those Continentals."
But I can't say that, not just yet. The rabbit meat wasn't pulled, and turned out to be more Bugs Bunny than Peter Cottontail: too tough for its own good. The bratwurst just made me miss the old Sausage King in Mission Hills; it got some of the flavors right, but ran a bit dry and also should have been more tender, especially given that sausage meat is by definition minced.
I have never been to Belgium, so I can't be sure whether there's some leather-bound book somewhere describing the way their preferred way to eat meat as vastly different from mine. But I get the feeling, for all the meticulous Belgian charm that went into making Brabant a tastefully authentic beer destination, the quality of cuisine didn't make that trip across the Atlantic.