And other adventures in Belgian cuisine
Adventures in Belgian cuisine? Nope, it’s not an oxymoron. The Flanders region of Belgium is home to some of the world’s best restaurants. In fact, the country boasts more Michelin star chefs than France; is much more compact and is probably easier on the wallet than a visit to its gastronomic neighbor to the west. Let’s delve into the country’s culinary delights a bit more closely.
World Expo 1958 is what many consider the “culinary birth” of the country. That’s when Belgium’s famous mussels and French fries combination hit the world stage. Olivier Frey is a local gastronomy expert who works for Brussels International Tourism Board promoting the country’s fine food and restaurants. Besides the mussels and fries; he includes in his list of “typical” Belgian dishes grey Ostend shrimp croquettes and asparagus from Malines, as well as stews such as stoemps (mashed carrots and potatoes) and carbonade à la Flamande, a beef stew. He’s proud of what he considers a “new generation” of young Belgian chefs.
“Many chefs today bring a refined combination of French-Belgian cuisine with a personal touch based on modern cooking techniques, creativity, good ingredients and professionalism,” he says.
It seems the local population is what drives this creativeness and quality.
“They (Belgians) like wining and dining,” says Frey. “They like going out and discovering; they like different styles for different occasions and they like to spend.”
It should be noted however that Brussels is not an overly expensive city to visit compared to other European capitals.
“Many refined fine dining restaurants like Nord Zee, Seagrill, Comme Chez Soi, Bonbon and La Paix are affordable compared to Paris and London,” says Frey. “And generally there are a lot of different restaurants in Brussels recognized by Michelin.”
If you’re a mussels fan, a visit to Chez Léon is a must. This local institution has been serving up the hard shells since 1893. Still in its original location (but now occupying nine buildings and serving 1,000 customers a day) Chez Léon’s fundamental menu has barely changed. They make their mussels in 14 different ways – and their menu boasts more than 100 Belgian specialties. Thierry Scheers is the sales manager for Chez Léon, and he has his own opinion about what makes Belgian food so appealing.
“German quantity with French quality,”” he says. “And our exclusive chips with a worldwide reputation.”
With their menu so based on mussels (they say about 1 ton is consumed at their restaurant every day) they ensure a good supply by importing from the Netherlands. If you are planning a trip specifically to gorge on mussels, high-season for the seafood is mid-July through Easter. (Frey’s hint is to eat mussels in months with an “R” in their name.) If you aren’t a fan of mussels; or wish to try a different Belgian dish; the tomato filled with shrimp or their sole filets Ostend style are tasty options.
Chez Léon is a packed, winding space full of people sitting at tables with buckets of mussels. Take a peak in their open kitchen as soon as you enter. The friendly white-dressed cooks give a wave; even as they are hunkered over steaming pans and vats of frying oil. The rustic wooden walls and tables; covered by checked tablecloths, plus the super staff, make it a laid-back joint.
For a bit of healthier fare; in a stunning space, pop over to Rouge Tomate. Specializing in fresh produce combined with seafood; chefs here take flavorings from France and Spain when concocting their dishes. Linguini with clams and tomatoes, herbs and sweet peppers is nearly bested by their own Rouge Tomate pumpkin risotto, sautéed shrimp and lemon emulsion. Fresh salads include the fun to order “wok of “forgotten” vegetables, almonds and vapor of savory mountain herbs.” And it goes without saying they have a fabulous wine list.
It’s probably an eternal debate among chocolate lovers: Which is better, Swiss or Belgian? Not surprisingly, Belgian makers of this rich sweet prefer their variety.
“Belgian chocolate is highly prized around the world because it has the best quality,” says Marie-Josée Domen, manager of Planète Chocolat, a yummy confectioner’s in Brussels.
“It’s the quality of the selected ingredients, for example, cocoa beans with different flavors are selected,” she explains. “All these flavors combine to make Belgian chocolate, which is usually considered a kind of art.”
Domen says roasting of the beans is another important factor, as is the grinding.
“(We) roast the cocoa beans to enhance the aromatic essences and the grinding is done very fine for Belgian chocolate compared to others.”
Domen says the popularity of chocolate in Belgium dates back to the 18th century. But it wasn’t until creative guy Jean Neuhaus developed a special type of chocolate called “couverteur” to produce what he called pralines, did chocolate’s fame increase tenfold. Pralines could be filled with a variety of different flavored nougats or creams, such as coffee, ginger, hazelnut, pepper, cinnamon, caramel, or even more chocolate. Even today, pralines are what most people consider to be Belgian chocolate. Planète Chocolat is dedicated to all things chocolate; you can arrange special demonstrations, which include the opportunity to make your own pralines, or visit their tasting salon to indulge in all sorts of sweet pleasure.
“The percentage of cocoa usually used around the world is a minimum 35%, while in Belgian chocolate there is at least 43% cocoa. In Planète Chocolat’s chocolate, there is 74% cocoa for the darkest chocolate,” Domen says. “But it’s the know-how and the creativity of the artisan chocolatiers which Belgium is really proud to show off.”
To make sure you enjoy the best of Brussels restaurants, Frey advises speaking with local experts, checking out guides like Michelin and Gault & Millaut or consulting with the concierge at one of the larger, international hotels. He also recommends the website www.brussels-gourmet.be, which is dedicated to local restaurants.
Scheers, from Chez Léon, has the final say.
“When you have discovered Belgian cuisine, you come back for it, thanks to its authenticity.”
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