Not so long ago, Hopleaf had a reputation for surly service. The bartenders at this Andersonville bar were just mean. The amazing selection of beers -- dozens of Belgian ales and other microbrews on tap and in bottles -- more than made up for the rude treatment, though, and the place was packed every weekend.
About a year ago, the place underwent an amazing transformation. The apartments above and behind the smokey little bar were gutted and turned into additional (non-smoking!) seating and a kitchen was installed -- and with it, table service. The mood of the bartenders brightened almost immediately, and now it's almost a pleasure to order at the bar.
The beer menu continues to dwarf the food menu, but that's OK -- everything I've had has been excellent, and I'd much rather see a limited but consistently good menu than a laundry list of dishes done poorly. The cuisine is mostly Northern French and Belgian, using artisanal and/or organic ingredients whenever possible.
Granted, the Belgians are not well-known for their culinary offerings. However, Belgium is the birthplace of the inaccurately named "French fry," otherwise known as pomme frites -- and Hopleaf's are some of the best I've had. They come on the side of many dishes, usually with a side of garlicy aioli to dip them in.
Probably the most popular items on the menu are the "Mussels for One" and "Mussels for Two," sizable pots full of greenlipped mussels steamed in one of three broths, served with a fresh loaf of French bread and a pint glass of frites. Unless you're starving, these dishes could easily feed double their purported serving size. To wit: on a recent visit, the four people at the next table were happily sharing mussels for two, and it looked like they might not finish off the whole pot.
We started off with the brandade, a puréed mixture of salt cod, garlic, olive oil, milk and cream, lightly broiled and served with garlic toast points. This is a recent addition, although it's been on the menu at La Tache up the street since they opened. The idea of salty fish may turn off some diners, but this rendition is more rich than salty. It went well with my slightly fruity Belgian ale.
For dinner, I ordered the brisket sandwich, which came on dark pumpernickel bread with sour braised cabbage (ie, coleslaw) and dijon mustard, with a side of frites and a ramekin of jus. While the brisket was fall-apart tender, there wasn't much flavor to it, so I was a bit disappointed. It didn't hold a candle to my usual, the Nueskie ham sandwich -- a huge portion of smokey ham with melting gruyere cheese and apple coleslaw on grilled pumpernickel.
My dining companion ordered mussels for one in the white wine cream sauce, which turned out to be a light but creamy broth loaded with julienned carrots, celery and fennel. He came nowhere near finishing the pot, and I graciously helped him out. The mussels were perfectly steamed, and the vegetables lent a subtle flavor to the broth. My friend sopped up the broth with his bread like a soup and mused about how odd it seamed having such great seafood so far from New England.
There are also several entrees, including half an Amish chicken braised in Duchesse du Bourgogne beer (imagine a beer flavored with balsamic vinegar; one of my favorites and usually on tap at the bar), served with gratin potatoes and grilled asparagus. There used to be a rabbit dish, but it's either out of season or it succumbed to Americans' strange distaste for bunny. Too bad, it was really good.
In keeping with the very European motif, there is no dessert list, but the cheese plate is an excellent selection of artisanal hard and soft cheeses, olives and pickles. And, of course, there's all that beer.
Hopleaf is at 5148 N. Clark St. They're open Monday through Friday from 2pm to 2am, Saturday from 11am to 3am and Sunday from 11am to 2am. Since it's a bar, it's 21 and over, even to eat. Food is served until an hour-and-a-half before close.
Kim Conte is on vacation and returns next week.