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San Diego Spotlight : Reasonably Good Fare, and at Reasonable Prices

A guest at the Belgian Garden in Mission Hills gave his order, handed his menu to the server and posed a question to his lunch partner.

“Where can I take my family to eat that has a varied menu and isn’t expensive?” he asked.

That, of course, is the million-dollar question, and has been for about as long as restaurants have existed. Who among us wouldn’t like to eat cheaply and well? Some restaurants have lowered their prices in the last year--if the recession can be said to have any benefits at all, this would be one--but by and large, dining out, even simply, can be a costly proposition.

The answer to the guest’s question, however, was right beneath his nose. The Belgian Garden is unlikely ever to be named restaurant of the year, but much of the cafe-style fare is reasonably well prepared and the prices, everything considered, are quite reasonable.

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At lunch, some specials are priced below $6, certainly a good price for a hot meal. The dinner menu is somewhat more expensive but offers a choice of any entree, along with soup or salad, for $9.95, or a generously served three-course meal of first course, any entree--including the day’s specials--and dessert for $14.95. Ordering a la carte will raise the tab considerably.

The Belgian family that runs this establishment has written a menu devoted almost exclusively to cafe fare, which could be characterized by such thing as the grilled, marinated pork chops and the hache parmentier , a casserole that is something of a Belgian variation on moussaka and layers sliced potatoes and eggplant, spiced ground beef and white sauce. The finished product, baked until lightly crusted, is served with salad on the plate, a typical and likable cafe tradition that is rarely enough encountered in San Diego.

The menu expends little enough time on a la carte starters and settles for such things as smoked salmon with toast, butter and cream cheese, and shrimp or squid in a tomato-flavored butter sauce. On the fixed-price side, however, you can open a meal with a thin slab of Normandy-style pate, finely textured, seasoned highly with green peppercorns and tasting ever so slightly of liver, which gives it definite character.

The alternative to this is a puff pastry bouchee (“mouthful”) filled with soft herbed cheese. This ought to be quite a tasty morsel, but the version sampled had been insufficiently or improperly baked, and the pastry resembled an uninflated tire. Sliced tomatoes and a good green salad, all drizzled with a flavorful, mustard vinaigrette, join both of these offerings on the plate, which, from the Belgian Garden’s point of view, means that the $14.95 dinners actually consist of four courses.

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Given the cafe-like tone of the place, chicken unsurprisingly appears in several guises on both the standing menu and the blackboard that announces the day’s specials. The best of these, somewhat unexpectedly, is the simplest, the poulet grille , a charbroiled breast that before cooking has been marinated in a seasoned bath of olive oil, lemon juice and garlic. Some of the marinade sauces the flesh and it is, simply put, quite delicious. One night’s special, a coq au vin , fell only into the acceptable range; the chicken was tender enough, but the serving only hinted at sauce, while a dish of this sort properly should be lavishly doused.

Yet another special, the cassoulet, was simply disappointing. This famous casserole of white beans, lamb, sausage and other meats usually has the appearance of half-set concrete--which is one reason why not everyone finds himself enamored of the dish--but the Belgian Garden sent out a soupy, half-hearted affair that tasted mostly of bacon. The best that could be said for this was that, like the other entrees, the kitchen piled it on; there is no stinting at quantity here. Many entrees also include the choice of noodles, rice or “Belgian fries,” here interpreted not as pan-fried potatoes but as American steak fries, plunged into the deep fat twice, as they do in France, to make them appealingly crisp and puffy.

The evening menu also offers a steak, a slice of grilled, marinated lamb, baked marinated salmon and the fish of the day, of which there typically are several choices. A similar range of seafood specials is offered at lunch, when the choice may range to rainbow trout (priced amazingly at $5.95), sea bass and sole. The blackboard mentioned the latter as Dover sole, which it certainly was not, but good sole it was, nicely cooked and finished with a light butter sauce that tasted of paprika.

The standing lunch menu repeats a few of the evening dishes, including the excellent grilled chicken, and fleshes out the options with sandwiches, crepes and quiches. Quiche is one of those dishes that seems to rise and fall in popularity, but it is a pleasant luncheon dish and Belgian Garden offers three presentable versions, with ham and Swiss cheese, with spinach and a spicy house pie colored with red and green bell peppers.

Desserts, again in the cafe mood, tend to be better when ordered from the blackboard than from among those included in the fixed-price dinner menu. If you have opted for prix fixe , your options are limited, recently to carrot cake, cheesecake or chocolate cake, all acceptable but undistinguished.

Germany has the reputation for beer, but connoisseurs pay rather more homage to Belgium, which brews up some choice beverages, many of them in monasteries that have made a specialty of brewing for centuries. The Belgian Garden offers quite a selection of these, including some extravagant Lindeman’s brand ales, which are priced at $7.95 a bottle. The descriptions read like notes offered by wine lists. The framboise Lambic, for example, is brewed from wild barley and wheat and infused with raspberries, and a note attributes to it the “light, delicious taste of sparkling raspberry Champagne.” At this price, it should be special.

JUST A TASTE

HIGHLIGHTS OF OTHER NELSON REVIEWS

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THE FRENCH SIDE OF THE WEST, 2202 4th Ave., San Diego, 234-5540. The price has crept up at Midtown’s French Side, which several years ago offered a fixed-price, four-course menu at $12.50 and now offers menus priced from $17.50 to $23.50; the entree determines the size of the bill. This remains perhaps the only local establishment to take a traditional French approach to food service, however, and meals open with the most traditional of starters, a plate of pates, French salamis and other savory bites. The meal continues with a choice of soup or salad, a range of handsomely garnished--if not always expertly cooked--entrees (various preparations of seafood, beef, veal, lamb and duck) and such classic desserts as creme brulee and chocolate mousse. Moderate to expensive.

TRASTEVERE, 5662 La Jolla Blvd., 551-8610. From out of the depths of time, this stylish Italian eatery offers dishes developed--and still served by--Rome’s ancient Jewish community. Specialties include artichokes fried with garlic in olive oil, veal scallops in an artichoke sauce, remarkably tender sauteed lamb chops, and orata con uvetta , or red snapper with a sauce of raisins and vinegar. The larger, non-Jewish menu (it should be understood that the restaurant does not adhere to Jewish kosher cooking laws) includes a wonderful appetizer called spiedino , or omelet-like triangles in an anchovy-powered sauce; bucatini pasta in a heady tomato sauce; a very elegant breaded veal chop topped with peppers and tomato, and chicken with garlic, white wine and onions. The ricotta tart is sweet and light, the ricotta-stuffed cream puffs in chocolate sauce rich and indulgent. Entrees $10.95 to $18.95. Moderate to expensive.

* THE BELGIAN GARDEN 808 W. Washington St., San Diego 296-8010 Lunch weekdays, dinner Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday Entrees $9.95 to $13.95; fixed price dinner at $14.95. Fixed price dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $42. Credit cards accepted


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