SARATOGA SPRINGS — In many cities, you’d be hard-pressed to find somewhere to get good Belgian food. About the only part of that cuisine that’s readily available in most places is Belgian waffles, but even those are almost always inauthentic, not really Belgian at all except for the shape.
But recently, the Spa City dining scene gained a new feather in its cap with the addition of The Merry Monk, a Belgian restaurant that’s an offshoot of the eatery of the same name in downtown Albany.
The Henry Street space, former home of Tiznow, is one big, open room with a bar off to the left side and large windows all along the front wall, offering an unfortunately not very scenic view of the Parting Glass and its parking lot across the street. The decor is tasteful, upscale without being stuffy and publike without being tacky.
My husband and I were seated in the dining area off to the right, though since there isn’t a wall between the dining room and bar, we could still see the bar and the TVs above it that were showing a college basketball game, though the volume was muted and they weren’t a distraction.
The Merry Monk
WHERE: 84 Henry St., Saratoga Springs, 584-6665, www.merrymonksaratoga.com
HOURS: 11 a.m. to midnight Sunday though Thursday (limited menu after 10 p.m.); 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday (limited menu after midnight)
OTHER INFO: Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover accepted; handicapped accessible
Our server quickly brought us drinks and a basket of bread, though in this case the bread was actually croissants. They tasted good, but they had been warmed in an oven before serving, which left them a bit overdone on the outside.
We placed our order, and as we waited for our food, we noted that our water glasses were never more than half-empty — when they started to get low, our server would appear to refill them before we ever had to look for her. In fact, throughout the meal, she was attentive, efficient and very friendly, ready and willing to answer any questions we had, without being at all intrusive.
To start off, we decided to split an order of the fried mac ’n’ cheese, which didn’t take long to arrive. It was presented as one saucer-sized, golden-brown mound, which was unusual, seeing as most places that offer this dish serve it in smaller balls. The mac ’n’ cheese was topped with black truffle salt, which was a welcome addition, seeing as the macaroni and cheese inside the breaded and fried crust was a bit underseasoned, though the cheese sauce was pleasantly creamy and the pasta was perfectly cooked. The dish overall wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t spectacular.
For the main course, I ordered the duck Reuben with a side of frites (fries). The sandwich consisted of duck confit, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and fig jam on grilled rye bread. It sounds weird, and actually, it was weird, but good weird — the sweetness of the fig jam played well with the rich gaminess of the duck and the tartness of the sauerkraut, and it all melded with the stringy cheese and crisp rye bread to form a sandwich that was like a symphony of flavors, the fig dominating in one bite, the duck the next, each flavor taking a turn at a solo or duet but all of them working together in harmony.
Fries and sauce
The frites were quite good as well, nicely crisp and perfectly seasoned, with a choice of dipping sauce on the side (I went with the roasted garlic mayo, which was addictively delicious). The frites came served in a metal cup, and when I picked up the cup to move it off to the side, I noticed that it was hot — not dangerously so, not too hot to touch, but clearly, the cup had been warmed before the fries were inserted, so that it wouldn’t make the fries cool too quickly. It’s touches like these that show that the kitchen is paying attention to the details and really thinking through their presentation.
My husband ordered the Carbonnades Flamande, a beef stew braised with Ommegang Abbey Ale, carrots and onions and served over egg noodles. He raved about it the entire time he was eating it, and I could see why: the beer added a real richness and depth of flavor to the stew and its perfectly cooked contents, and the meat fell apart when barely touched with a fork.
Once we’d finished with our entrees, our server piqued our interest with the night’s dessert offerings: framboise ice cream or a Belgian waffle topped with either ice cream and hot fudge or whipped cream and strawberries. My husband was intrigued by the framboise ice cream, and our server explained that it was made in-house from framboise beer, a Belgian raspberry ale.
We were hesitant, explaining that neither of us usually drinks beer, and our server responded by telling us that the beer really tastes much more like raspberry, hardly at all like beer, and if we wanted, she could get us a sample. We took her up on the offer, and she soon returned with an adorably small wine glass filled with pinkish-red liquid and a pink foamy head. In fact, she was totally right: The framboise tasted mostly like raspberry, with only a little bit of beerlike sour aftertaste. But we still decided that we’d be better off splitting the waffle with ice cream instead.
It turned out to be a wise choice. The waffle itself was thick and chewy, with a flavor sort of like the fried dough you might get at the county fair, but studded with pearl sugar, providing a sweet crunch here and there. It was served warm, topped with rich hot fudge and vanilla ice cream studded with vanilla beans. It was a delicious dessert and a fitting end to an excellent meal.
Dinner for two, with one appetizer and one dessert, tax and tip, was $54.83. Given the quality of the food and the level of service, it was money well-spent.