By Jim Ferri
In Brussels food can be a problem.
It has nothing to do with the food’s preparation or taste. It’s just that in Brussels food is around you all the time. It’s like no other place in the world.
And it’s definitely not the place to go if you want to stick to your diet.
Cafés, Antiques, and Belgian Chocolates
Visiting there on a long weekend, my wife and I made our first stop at the Place du Grand Sablon. It’s a beautiful little square flush with cafés. In fact, the entire square is nothing but cafés, antique stores, and chocolate shops. Luckily we were interested in all three, but it was the Belgian chocolate shops that drew us in.
Rating Belgian chocolate makers and chocolatiers is a very subjective thing. But a few people we met had rated Pierre Marcolini Chocolates (with two shops on Grand Sablon) as their favorite. We headed straight for it.
In it, we found a chocolate shop unlike any I have seen elsewhere. It had some incredible items … chocolate walnut cakes, Napoleons, all sorts of things. There even is a counter to sit at and enjoy your purchase.
Marcolini has several shops about Brussels. At the entrance of the neighboring store, there’s a large glass cylinder, perhaps 4 feet tall, filled with cocoa beans. I leaned over it and inhaled the aroma, getting a chocolate infusion as I never had before.
On the second floor, you can put together your own boxes, a delicious and aromatic piece of marketing. For the chocolate-loving traveler, they also have boxes with each piece labeled with the bean’s country of origin. Other top-rated Belgian chocolate manufacturers on Sablon include the highly rated Neuhaus and Godiva, among others.
Brussels Beyond Chocolate
Our Brussels food foray wasn’t just about BELGIAN chocolates, however. One afternoon we grabbed a package of pomme frites from a sidewalk shop. To me, they were a lot better and fresher than any I’ve had at fast-food places anywhere.
As we walked about, each day I saw several little Volkswagen vans parked by the curb selling “warme watels.” I was tempted but never bought one, even though I was always drawn closer by the aroma of the waffles.
But this trip wasn’t just about chocolates and street food. We also were looking forward to trying a variety of Belgian restaurants.
Looking for more food to sample in Brussels, one evening we went to Les Brigittines, a popular local restaurant. The chef produces exceptionally inventive Brussels dishes that he pairs with beer, although you can have wine if you like. We stuck with the chef’s suggestions and had three different kinds of beer with the dishes he prepared for us.
His main course, called a Zenne Pot, was accompanied by a very sour-tasting beer that melded well with the food. Tasting it by itself, however, we found it to be awful, and the chef told us you couldn’t drink that beer by itself.
Mussels in Brussels
Another evening we went to the restaurant Chez Lyons on rue des Bouchers, continuing our search for more Brussels food. Although once lined with butchers – hence the name – the street is now lined with restaurants, one after another after another.
Mussels in Brussels may be popular, but at Chez Leon they go beyond mere popularity. They are the stars of the show. As you walk through the front door, the white-tiled kitchen seems chaotic with numerous chefs and wait staff scurrying about. Pick a seat near the kitchen, and you’ll see pots of mussels rushed out every few minutes.
It seemed odd until we found out just how large the place is – there is seating on multiple floors in 9 houses joined together. Our waiter told us that they serve approximately 400,000 people a year, and serve a ton (2,200+ lbs) of mussels every day.
The number of mussel dishes on the menu is bewildering, although there are many other items as well. I ordered rabbit, which was very good, and Marjorie ordered the mussels, which were exceptional. I guess they would have to be to attract almost a half-million patrons a year. I’ve never liked mussels but found a taste of hers delicious.
Brussels Food Done to Perfection
Another night we went to the upscale restaurant Cospaia where we ordered a duck and a beef filet. Too often I’ve found that European chefs destroy what should be a good steak, but this time it was done to perfection. The same was true for Marjorie’s duck, which was too large for her to finish. The wines by the glass were excellent also.
In walking about the city, we also came across numerous gourmet food shops. We also found two large festivals in which food and beer were the focus, things close to many Belgian’s hearts.
Belgium, by the way, has an incredible number of breweries since beer to a Belgian is as wine is to a Frenchman. In fact, little Belgium produces more than 1,100 different kinds of beer, more than any other country in the world.
It seems like a perfect subject for sampling on my next visit.