Did you even know that there was a café at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center? Neither did Jean Francois Flechet until he had a chance to propose opening a satellite site of his Belgian waffle empire there. Well, maybe Taste of Belgium hasn’t reached empire status, but it’s certainly growing in local impact.
When Jean Francois first tempted Cincinnati taste buds with Belgian waffles at Findlay Market in 2006, it was just one man and a waffle iron, taking on the world. Since then, we’ve grown to love his crisp, sweet treats and Taste of Belgium’s presence at Findlay has grown to two market stands. They’ve also opened in Columbus at the North Market — mid-Ohio’s foodie heaven. The menu has broadened well beyond waffles to include a full line of sweet and savory baked goods, pizza and crepes.
The Café (50 E. Freedom Way, Downtown, 513-333-7744) is located in the southeast corner of the Freedom Center (a separate entrance, so museum admission is not required), with a broad patio looking directly over the handsome Suspension Bridge. Café operations got underway slowly this winter, primarily serving a hard hat special for the construction workers on the Banks crews.
As the weather has improved so has business, with a spring influx of students visiting the museum, and downtown office workers starting to enjoy a short lunchtime stroll.
I’ve walked there twice to see what the Café has to offer. On my first visit, I devoured a sandwich of ham and gruyere cheese served in a split waffle ($7). The salty ham is a perfect counterpoint to the sugary, crunchy waffle and I loved it. On my second visit, I gave the Croque Monsieur ($8) a try. It probably wasn’t fair, since I’d just returned from Paris where I’d eaten a Croque Monsieur overlooking a perfectly manicured park in les Halles. I’m afraid that no sandwich will ever measure up to that one, ever, but Taste of Belgium gives it a good try. I was impressed with the little side salad included — even undressed, it was delicious.
There are loads of menu options I’m looking forward to trying in the future, including “ugly” pizza — homemade, a thin crust with Belgian beer in the dough — with interesting toppings like pulled duck, mushrooms and arugula ($9) or wild mushrooms with caramelized onions, gruyere, and truffle oil ($8). There’s Belgian onion soup (“Just like the French, only tastier”) for $5, and a hamburger (jokingly pronounced “Am-ber-gaire” in Belgian French!) with fries. And Jean-Francois promises that the Café’s baguettes are very, very authentic.
The Café opens at 8 a.m. on weekdays, 10 a.m. on Saturdays and has excellent breakfast options, in addition to the waffles ($4), of course. There are sweet crepes ($5) — banana and Nutella, berries and chocolate, lavender sugar and lemon and cinnamon sugar and honey — as well as savory crepes ($8), fruit parfaits ($4) and breakfast burritos ($5). Espresso coffee is coming soon and the Freedom Center has applied for a liquor license for the Café. When that arrives, hours might be expanded.
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