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San Diego Spotlight : Belgian Lion Still Roars With the Best of Them

Having perfected and wholeheartedly accepted the mass production of goods in this country, we have come to value the work of artisans.

This explains why, when we travel within the Lower 48, so many of us purchase lumpy, irregularly shaped pottery pieces as trophies of our journeys to Dubuque and Duluth. They may not be lovely, but they are one of a kind.

If we had not as easily embraced the mass production of dinner, there would be neither chain restaurants nor frozen dinners. But we tend to deny chefs the rank of artisan, because food, except for desserts that attach themselves to your mid-section and won’t go away, is of a transitory nature. You can’t put it in the curio cabinet for visitors to admire.

The artisan chefs nonetheless persist at their craft to the applause of smallish but loyal audiences. There are more than a handful of such artists in San Diego, yet the one who plays this role best probably is Don Coulon of the Belgian Lion.

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This delightful eatery, tucked away in Ocean Beach at a fair remove from the city’s major restaurant rows, usually fails to enter the conversation when the topic turns to arguing which places belong on the roster of San Diego’s five or 10 best. The Belgian Lion isn’t sufficiently grand to seem eligible for the “best” category. Yet, thanks to Coulon’s insistence on a consistent approach--he treats everything he cooks with great respect--the restaurant probably does rank among the town’s top five.

Belgian-born and trained in classic French cuisine, Coulon--who until several years ago had a day job as a computer programmer--formerly cooked a menu composed of French regional specialties. The menu continues to be dominated by these dishes, and it is in fact impossible to think of another local source for cassoulet de Castelnaudary or duck with sauerkraut. However, Coulon has branched out with contemporary cuisine to the point of offering sauteed sea bass with basil, salmon with bell peppers and green peppercorns, and even his own Southwestern-inspired reinterpretation of cassoulet, made with black beans instead of white, and with peppers and cilantro in the seasoning.

One of several trademarks of dinner here is the canape that arrives as the opening shot of what inevitably will be a large meal. These are simple but appetite-provoking mouthfuls, and recently have run from a toasted bread round topped with melted Brie and a few capers to a more lush affair of toast, creme fraiche , robust salmon smoked on the premises and, again, a piquant sprinkling of capers.

The strictly a la carte menu opens with such classics as the tomatoes Ostendaise, hollowed and stuffed with shrimp and fresh mayonnaise; while simple, this is delicious, and ever so French. The pates, made on the premises, are studded with nuts and other flavorings but rather dry; better to skip along to the moist richness of the marinated herring in sour cream or the handsome combination of ripe tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, basil and green, fruity olive oil. The day’s soup most likely will be a creamy vegetable puree, and, while there might seem more rewarding choices than salad, Coulon elaborates on the theme of well-dressed greenery by adding mounds of highly seasoned vegetable salads to the plate.

Not too surprisingly, Belgian endive appears frequently on the menu, from a salad dressed with mayonnaise to a plate of sea scallops meuniere (sauteed with butter and lemon) with braised endive. This is a rich, not always well-understood vegetable, and the pairing with scallops is a happy idea. Coulon usually offers a daily fish or two, and recently served a mahi mahi in beurre blanc (creamy butter sauce) with a julienne of braised leeks and crunchier carrot strips. Rather modern in style, it was tasty enough, but also similar to dishes served elsewhere; since Belgian Lion is so excellent a source for traditional cooking, there would seem better choices. Among seafood offerings, the best might be the salmon in sorrel sauce, a wonderful combination that is done nowhere better than here.

The tour of French provincial cooking really kicks off on the meat list, which includes Norman-style chicken breast with cream and apples, duck confit from the French Southwest, Alsatian choucroute (sauerkraut braised in white wine with juniper berries, smoked meats and sausages) and the more widely spread civet de lapin (rabbit), a rich but rustic casserole of boned beast braised in red wine with much thyme and other flavorings. With the mushroom garnish, the result is reminiscent of boeuf bourguignon , although the meat is much more delicate. The roast duck, boned and encased in crackling skin, is sided with a pile of sauerkraut, which serves to cut the richness of the meat; this, also, is an excellent pairing.

In the Belgian style, Coulon sends dishes of vegetables to be passed at table, sometimes in overwhelming variety. One recent evening the selection ran to crisp fried potatoes, turnip souffle, squash custard, red cabbage, green beans and carrots in butter sauce. All had been given careful treatment.

Tuesday through Thursday, Coulon supplements the menu with two simple prix fixe dinners priced at $10.50 and inclusive of soup or salad. At present, these consist of crisp sea bass croquettes with tangy white cabbage and homemade, beautifully flavorful tartar sauce, and melting braised endives stuffed with diced chicken in a stock-based white sauce. Both are fine examples of quality bistro fare.

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Daughter Michelle prepares desserts, and these run from the midweek special of pumpkin cheesecake to a light Bavarian cream with lady fingers and berries and a frozen “jelly roll” of chocolate cake wrapped around ice cream flavored with Irish cream liqueur.

* THE BELGIAN LION

2265 Bacon St., Ocean Beach

223-2700

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Dinner served Tuesday through Saturday; closed Sunday and Monday

Entrees $15 to $18.50. Dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $50 to $80.

Credit cards accepted


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