Rochester has needed a good Belgian beer bar for at least a decade — which, coincidentally, is almost exactly the amount of time that I've lived here. Despite the excellent beer bars and microbreweries that have bred like rabbits across the region in recent years, the lack of a true Belgian joint has been a noticeable void in the city.
About five months ago the partnership that owns Murphy's Law took over the basement space on East Avenue most recently occupied by Alexandria, transforming it into a chunk of Oud Brussel. At first glance, it looks like they succeeded admirably. The bar room is cozy, full of dark wood paneling and half-timbered walls. Enameled beer signs in French line the walls, lit from above like Stations of the Cross for beer acolytes. And the row of gleaming taps behind the bar — the labels written on tiny chalkboards to emphasize just how fresh the beer is here — are a thing to behold. There's even a bas-relief of the Manneken-Pis on the sign outside. A statue representing a toddler having a pee is as potent a branding statement of Belgian beer bars worldwide as the Golden Arches are for bad hamburgers and cultural imperialism.
Partners John Diamantopoulos and Tom Masachi engaged Ryan Dalton (who also acts as executive chef at Murphy's Law) to develop the menu and oversee the kitchen at Victoire, which the staff pronounces "victory" rather than the French version of the word. Dalton hung more than three quarters of the menu on moules frites, the quintessential combination of steamed mussels and french-fried potatoes that's as Belgian as a Trappist monk.
The mussels at Victoire are pretty amazing. You get a pound of plump and tender shellfish per order, ever so slightly briny but never fishy, and there wasn't a single bad one in any batch I sampled. The cooks at Victoire go farther than the usual white wine or beer with some sort of aromatic combination that you get everywhere in Belgium. Instead they work with a palette that includes charred tomatoes, bacon, housemade sausage, bleu cheese, coconut milk, lemongrass, spinach, lobster broth, champagne, and cream, as well as more familiar ingredients like shallots, leeks, garlic, thyme, and other herbs, turning out flavorful and sometimes arresting combinations of flavors.
You will be very grateful for the plateful of toasted french bread that comes with each order, allowing you to fish half-melted bits of bleu cheese or savory slices of sausage out of the broth after that last black shell has clattered into the bowl of empties. Add in a snifter full of Brooklyn Brewing Company's Fiat Lux (a witbier with plenty of hops, some lime zest, and coriander to zip things up a bit) or a darker Gulpener Mestreechs (a combination of a Flemish brown ale and a Dortmunder bock with some wild yeast thrown into the mix making it lip-smackingly tart), and you have as much of a meal as you will ever need.
Victoire has atmosphere, it has sensational beer, and the mussels are exceptional. But moules without frites are like ground rounds without hot sauce, and the frites at Victoire are sadly subpar. I sampled the fries three times, once even stopping in during a time when I knew the kitchen wouldn't be overtaxed so that I could try them at their best. On my first visit the fries were pallid, limp, and cool, even though the mussels were still boiling when the pot hit the table. On my second visit, I specifically asked that they serve the fries crispy. Instead, they came out virtually burned — cooked to a dark mahogany brown, crunchy from the surface all the way through, and oil-soaked. The third time I tried the fries, with dinner on a not-very-busy Wednesday night, they were dark brown, oily, and somehow still floppy.
I know a thing or two about making fries — I do it at home as frequently as my wife will allow it — and not even the errors here were consistent, each of them pointed to specific but distinct failures in the preparation or delivery process. I understand from talking to Diamantapoulos and Dalton that they are looking into the matter and hope to solve the mystery soon. I very much hope that they can. A superlative order of moules-frites is a thing apart, and well worth waiting for.
Mussels are easy to make well, and they are fast — five to seven minutes from the time the order is submitted to when it heads out to the table. Good fries take longer, and they require careful attention to the process and timing. The same is true for making a good onion soup, or a good beef stew. Both dishes demand good technique and attention to tiny details at every step of their preparation to achieve something special. The onion soup at Victoire, a meager portion served in a cast-iron pot, lacked that sort of attention. The onions were undercooked — odd for a soup whose primary ingredient is caramelized onions cooked until they nearly dissolve — and it tasted like someone had added a fistful of sugar to it (perhaps to speed the cooking of the onions), rendering it virtually inedible.
Similarly, the Belgian carbonnade, a beef stew enriched with potatoes, onions, and spinach served over egg noodles, suggested a lack of care. The beef was stringy, the potatoes were slightly undercooked, and the bright-green spinach languished in a salty broth bereft of roux — or even starch from the potatoes or noodles — to transform it into a passable sauce. The overall impression was less a stew simmered long and slow than a sauté pan full of ingredients quickly heated and doused with soup before being rushed out of the kitchen. Even the two tiny fried potato and cheese croquettes atop the dish were disappointing; nicely crunchy but overwhelmingly salty.
None of the problems at Victoire are insurmountable. In time, the restaurant will overcome its growing pains get its frites together. I'll have another beer while I wait.