Sweet frite

A quick European getaway at Watel’s Southtown bistro

Release Date: 2009-01-14

Amid a row of nondescript storefronts on South Alamo, Chef Damien Watel, of Bistro Vatel and Ciao Lavanderia fame, has seemingly transplanted a quaint Belgian bistro into the heart of Southtown. From the small, round tables gracefully lining the sidewalk out front to the exposed brick walls adorned with Watel’s own artwork and pictures of Belgian street life, La Frite convincingly transports customers to a quintessential European bistro without the roundtrip airfare and jet lag.

Belgium borders Germany and France, and its cuisine is known to combine the finer aspects of French culinary technique with the generous portions typical of its German neighbor. In many respects, La Frite carries forward this cultural phenomenon with unabashed Belgian comfort food inspired by a decidedly French theme.

Our Belgium road trip started with a staple of Brussels bistro fare — Moules Frites, or steamed mussels and French-fried potatoes (although the French are routinely credited with inventing the fried potato, Belgium actually introduced the iconic side to the world in the 1600s). As the restaurant’s name suggests, frites are not taken lightly in this kitchen. I was hard-pressed to recall a finer fried potato than those which accompanied our moules and stayed on the table for the remainder of the meal. Each frite is cut thin, fried crisp, and finished with sea salt.

The mussels were equally impressive. Chef Watel provides three preparations daily, all based on the standard white-wine broth but with either curry or fresh tomatoes added. We opted for the traditional white-wine version and did not regret the decision. The generously sized mussels beckoned amid a broth enriched with shallots, garlic, and a hint of butter. Rather than overpowering the dish, La Frite’s rendition offered a delicate balance of flavors that enhanced the brininess of the mussels. My party opted for the dinner-size portion to split as an appetizer, but the plate could have easily served as an entrée.

La Frite’s French roots took center stage with Chef Watel’s coq au vin, a traditional French entrée translated simply as “rooster in wine” (chicken now represents the typical main ingredient), which proved pilgrimage-worthy. Coq au vin generally represents a labor of love, as a time-consuming braising process is required to adequately tenderize the meat. Watel’s kitchen showed its affection for this dish, as the chicken literally fell apart as I approached my first bite. The accompanying sauce was robustly flavored with wine, mushroom, carrots, onions, and sautéed bacon, and expressed the earthiness of the vegetables combined with the complexity of the braised meat. Forewarning to any pilgrims: the coq au vin is a standard lunch dish that makes only rare evening appearances.

During a bustling Friday night visit, we sampled two salad specials with a fall theme. For the first, Chef Watel, who procures his produce locally, paired roasted golden beets with watercress dressed with an herb vinaigrette. The peppery watercress transitioned seamlessly against the seductive flavors of the roasted beets. Across the table, however, a roasted-pork-belly salad failed to deliver on high expectations. The star of the show proved inexplicably tough and almost flavorless.

La Frite’s flounder meuniere, another typical lunch option, did not disappoint. Two delicate filets, lightly dusted with flour, demonstrated textbook pan-fried flakiness. The meuniere’s savory combination of butter and lemon worked in harmony with the flounder, and a side of red potatoes underscored the kitchen’s attention to detail with exceedingly tender potatoes tossed in a vibrant dill-butter sauce.

A dinner special of roast duck with a cherry reduction left me pondering where the kitchen wanted to take me. Admittedly, the duck and cherry reduction were outstanding, but a small side of pasta seemed out of place. Once again, steamed vegetables occupied a familiar spot on the plate, but given their frequent appearances during separate lunch and dinner services, the “special” on this night lacked imagination.

With our road trip concluded, I looked back fondly as Chef Watel delivered impressive comfort food in a uniquely casual atmosphere. The mussels were second to none and easily the best I’ve had in the city. With economic concerns growing, now more than ever folks are yearning for an escape, and although Europe is lovely in the spring, travel funds are not at the top of most budgets. With that in mind, La Frite offers a creative alternative — a European vacation, albeit brief, mere minutes away.

La Frite also features a wine menu, an adjoining casual wine bar, and an excellent selection of Belgian beer.

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