Belgium has always enjoyed a respectable (if somewhat unadventurous) culinary reputation, thanks to its border with the Netherlands and France. On one hand, some say that the local cuisine is classic French cooking served up in Dutch-sized potions, whereas for the vast majority of the chewing world, the only dishes that come to mind are Waffles, Beer, Moules Frîtes (mussels and fries) and of course my relentless weakness – chocolate. (More about that in a subsequent blog)
Not to be outdone by any other European city, Brussels has its fair share of serious eats, modern surprises and tourist traps. There isn’t a single visitor to the city who doesn’t arrive armed with the name Chez Leon as a recommendation from a cousin’s neighbor’s aunt’s sister’s hairdresser’s boyfriend’s therapist. Located on the awning-covered, light-bulb-string-illuminated, beggar-inhabited Rue de Bouchers, the only way to describe the Moules Frîtes at this Belgian institution – is institutional! If the boredom of the wait staff is any indication of how the cooks must feel every time a red-eyed, jet-lagged backpacker orders the exact same dish, it’s no surprise you’re left with a relentlessly lingering aftertaste of salty leaks. For a more pleasantly memorable Moules Frîtes experience, the delightful bistro on Sainte Catherine’s square called La Villette hits the spot. The menu is riddled with Belgian favorites from Grey shrimp to Sole to Entrecote steak.
Their Mussels with Belgian endives is flavored with white beer foam and cream, creating a rich, deep and buttery broth for the generous pot of fresh Zeeland bivalves, and for putting the hand-cut fries to good use.
The equally scrumptious Vol au Vent is best described as a deconstructed chicken pot-pie, with a very simple cream, beer and mushroom gravy. Desserts include the ubiquitous Pancakes and Profiteroles in some form or other, but the Crème Brulee made with Chamay beer is a true original.
Other classic restaurants in the city range from the 90 year old and multi Michelin star honoree Comme Chez Soi, to the hip, trendy locovore kitchens like Alexandre, Delicatessen, and the former suitcase factory La Manufacture – featuring a mind-blowing Burrata with external olive-oil infuser and a hot, crispy and sinfully delicious Goat Cheese Crème Brulee, but what the menu boasts in green olive and pistachio crusts or tarragon sauces is quickly diminished by the complete and abject lack of service.
My personal favorite has to be the neighborhood bistro Le Wine Bar de Sablon. The staggering menu features every part of every creature (snails, brains and sausages included) proudly produced by the tiniest of kitchens.
The Dorade Royale (sea bream) Carpaccio was spiked with red peppers and pickles, giving the fish a smooth, sour and spicy edge. The Rillettes were sinfully festooned in thick duck fat with pickled onions and stoneground mustard for a sharp contrast, but the runaway hit of the day was the Poêlée de Champignons.
A caramelized and sautéed trio of dark forest flavored and freshly plucked moist porcini, chanterelle and hedgehog mushrooms served with steaming hot polenta.
And without doubt, the hands-down best Waffles in town – are actually located out of town. Just steps from the Grote Markt in nearby Bruges, Lizzie’s Wafels have conquered the hot, dimpled vanilla biscuit market. After years of being pestered by insistent tourists demanding waffles, Lizzie finally relented and took the popular all-day breakfast snack to a higher level. Serving nearly 150 super-sized crispy waffles per day with all the obvious (and some less obvious) toppings, Lizzie also created Chocolate “Roses”, which are peach-sized chocolate blooms in three flavors that are lowered into scalding milk for the most decadently wonderful melted hot-chocolate delight the world has ever tasted.