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Bland Ambition

Belgian cooking is New York's unlikeliest new foreign fad since the work of Jacques Derrida. Will it catch on? Stranger things have happened.

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When was the last time you came home, plopped your Prada computer case on the Barcalounger, turned to your beloved, and said, "You know, honey, I'm just dying for some Belgian food. How's about you?"

Considering the relentless invocation of Audrey Hepburn as one of this century's high-water marks of style and taste, what could be more appropriate than gorging on the grub of her homeland? Could any opportunity offer a more fitting excuse to wear that little black dress? Besides, almost every other country's cuisine has already had its moment on the front burner.

And yet, widespread popularity has proved elusive for Hepburn's home cooking. No Food Network chef regales us with tales and recipes from his latest eating binge in Antwerp. Sure, Café de Bruxelles has been a Village outpost forever, but talk to any regular, and invariably (and unfairly), the first thing he rhapsodizes over is the French fries. Waterloo Brasserie opened like cannon fire two years ago but instantly became known as much for its inconsistency and extensive waiting times as for its mussels. Zagat lists three other Belgian restaurants in New York. Not exactly the makings of a culinary juggernaut.

Yet within days of its opening, Markt was as hopping as a free Lauryn Hill concert, and rarely has a new restaurant immediately attracted such a disparate clientele. The mahogany-filled, handsomely utilitarian, Stickleyesque beer hall is consistently brimming with folks from downtown, uptown, the Five Towns. Suits stand three deep at the 60-foot bar alongside lounge lizards, while couples of various persuasions, big families with little kids, and lots of aging club kids (looking a bit stunned, since they thought they alone ruled the meatpacking district after dark) are all seated and served with no detectable favoritism.

Even more unusual is that each diner seems to have a different-shaped beer glass. Markt serves 30 brands of Belgian beer, each with its own chalice, and the cheerful staff insists on fetching you a different mug to go with every new bottle. In fact, good luck trying to hold on to the same glass. You may think it doesn't matter. To Belgians, it does. And it's precisely because Markt is so faithful to its origins (even the furniture, fixtures, and sea salt come from across the sea) that this welcoming, energetic, and well-priced tavern may still fail to be the flash point for any oncoming trend.

For more than a decade, New York palates have been sensitized to relish extremes. A diet studded with kimchee, red-pepper flakes, wasabi, chutneys, hot mustards, and a myriad of chilies has led us to expect that each first mouthful will be the start of something big. But if this is what you've come to crave, you shouldn't be shopping in this Markt. For though the multitiered platters of fresh seafood will delight anyone who automatically dives into a raw bar, the pervasive flavors of Markt's prepared food may prove shockingly tame, with sauces too uncomplicated to satisfy feisty desires. The management calls the fare "bistro," a word that means one thing in Europe, too many things in America. However, it makes more sense to categorize Markt's offerings as what the English call pub food.

For example, forget Mr. Van Damme. Here are some real mussels from Brussels, big, juicy, and available four ways: in Hoegaarden, a citrus beer; in white wine and a little pepper; in light cream with fennel; or with sea salt and vegetables. The menus of more expansive chefs would combine all these ingredients into one bowl, not a trio of them. Yet each is a fine dish, though none is a bread sopper. However, these broths were never designed to stand on their own.

Markt's menu is the gastronomic version of chic simple. When it states that a Liégeoise salad is bacon, string beans, onions, and red bliss potatoes, that's it. It's the quartet's freshness, not its embellishments, that makes the mix so ingratiating. A sizable portion of sweet lobster has nothing but tomato confit and some sesame-seeded avocado for competition. If you long for Markt's ham hock in an oddly smoky pea-and-asparagus soup, the coriander-and-leek-infused bouillon with mussels should charm more. Tomato-and-gray-shrimp soup is advertised as "the one and only." Okay. Compared to what? It's light and pleasant, but the gray-shrimp croquettes could be mistaken for dense dinner rolls.

Waterzooi is stew done gently, available three ways: chicken and vegetables in chicken stock with cream; monkfish, lobster, and vegetables in lobster stock with cream and herbs; fish du jour and seafood in fish stock with cream, herbs, and vegetables. Daniel Boulud may not be losing sleep over this lack of diversity, but the kitchen evidently has no problem sticking with what works. Nor should you. There's a lovely lobster in fennel and cream; fine unadorned roast halibut with cauliflower purée; salmon roll that could have been swimming half an hour ago; and seared skate so tender you may not miss the usual capers, quince, or shiitake-dust crust. Of the two meats, the lamb is leaner than the steak, though its mustard crust seems to be participating only with great reluctance.

Airiness and dessert together are not part of our American heritage. So crêpes and bavaroises will probably not initiate any thoughts of emigration, but Belgians do have one great flag waver in this category: Callebaut chocolate. To this palate, it's far more lusciously intense than Valrhona. The house pours the stuff on vanilla ice cream, turns it into chocolate torte, and swirls it into mousse. These treats could be worth franchising, but a Markt will probably not be opening at a mall near you anytime soon. All the more reason to venture over to 14th Street for a mug of Rodenbach and a clean break from your usual red-curry shrimp and Singha or chiles rellenos with Dos Equis. Look how we fell for Audrey Hepburn. Who knows? That tomato-and-gray-shrimp soup may be next.

Markt, 401 West 14th Street (727-3314). Dinner, daily 5:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.; brunch, Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Appetizers, $5 to $12.50; entrées, $16.50 to $24; all major credit cards.


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