Mussels, or moules—the national dish of Belgium—are revered at Waterzooi Belgian Bistro in Garden City, NY, and they create an atmospheric dining ritual with a cuisine that's closer to religious practice than anything else.
It has a good feeling of sanctity and old fashioned quality to it. A cream stucco wall suggests a grotto, while vaulted ceilings and cream-colored stucco walls all reinforce the grotto theme of the dining room. Monastic windows of stained glass attract the eye.
The entrees are delivered with decorum and deference. On the table is a large ceramic vase lit by votive candles that is placed worshipfully. Lifting the lid, a waitress releases a plume of steam that rises into the air; revealing a savory earthy stew drenched in an inky blue juice. Aromatic and salty spices tickle the nostrils. An impressive number of wedge-shaped mussels clatter into the center of a white-rimmed bowl buoyant in a sea of creamy broth as the ladle is dipped into the pot.
Although Waterzooi Belgian Bistro values tradition, they do not hold it inviolate. The room is filled with racy red leather banquettes and the atmosphere is less pious than boisterous. There are couples, seniors, and families attempting lively conversation everywhere you turn. For an age-old comfort, often with a decidedly modern twist, they dip into communal moules pots with crispy fries and housemade mayonnaise.
There is a little research to be done to find out the story behind the name that likely has you scratching your head. Water-what? Those not educated on the term may not be aware that Waterzooi Belgian Bistro is a Flemish term for a traditional Belgian stew that pairs fresh seafood in an aromatic stock with fresh herbs and vegetables before being topped with delicious butter and crème fraîche. This word loosely translates as “water” and “simmer.” When cook food in the liquid, its taste and color is enriched by the additional flavor of the broth.
The Waterzooi executive chef Ed Davis reimagined the Belgian custom of mussels served with fries, using endless variations of the theme, from traditional bouillabaisse to Thai-inspired moules pots. This restaurant was opened in 1998 after a pilgrimage that led to it's conception.
During the 16 years of the restaurant's operation, Davis estimates the restaurant has served roughly three and a half million pounds of mussels. He adds, “Give or take a million.”
Species from Prince Edward Island in Canada are cultivated from line harvests and harvested from deep, cold waters. Because the mussels are never exposed to the ocean floor, the cultivation and temperature help guarantee a consistent consistency year round.
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