Thursday, April 26, 2012

Mussels in Brussels

Brussels is an hour’s drive from the Belgian coast but, as a great medieval trading city, it has a historic connection with the sea. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the classic Belgian dish of mussels and fries is the mainstay of many of the capital’s restaurants. It’s a simple, hearty, and nutritious dish that depends crucially on fresh, quality ingredients being cooked to perfection.

In 1561, an ambitious new waterway – the Willebroek Canal – was completed, leading to the heart of Brussels and giving the city a direct link to the sea. The canal terminated at Place Sainte-Catherine, a stone’s throw from the city’s splendid centerpiece, the Grand Place. In the late 19th century, when the canal’s course was diverted and the basins at the city’s center filled in, the area became the site of a huge fish market, the Marché aux Poissons. The fish market has since disappeared, but the connection with the sea remains in the wonderful fish restaurants of Place Sainte-Catherine.
Belgium has acquired a dizzying reputation for good food in recent decades, and its capital is also the effective capital of the European Union, attracting a cosmopolitan crowd that demands high standards. In the Belgians themselves, a culture of good food is instilled from an early age: they like to eat well, but have little tolerance of pretension. Moules-frites (mussels and fries) falls into this tradition. The high-end restaurants here are too grand to serve such a simple dish, and you’re more likely to find it in bistros and family restaurants, but moules-frites is not to be sniffed at. It’s a simple enough dish: the mussels are usually cooked marinière (steamed with chopped shallots, celery, parsley, thyme, bay leaves, and a glass of white wine), then served in large casseroles accompanied by copious frites (fries). But its creation en masse in lively restaurants creates glorious scenes reminiscent of the festive village celebrations painted by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, a resident of Brussels in the mid-16th century.
There is plenty for the visitor to see and admire in Brussels, including a fine cathedral and excellent art museums. But the real joy of visiting the city lies in glimpsing something of its individual character, which nurtured the Surrealist vision of René Magritte, and gave birth to Art Nouveau architecture and Tintin, the famous cartoon reporter. In the same spirit, the Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers produced his most famous sculptural work in 1964–6 in several versions. His Grande Casserole de Moules is just what it says – real mussel shells filling a blackened casserole.
The Best Places to Eat Moules-Frites
La Marée
Portuguese-born Mario and Teresa Alves have been building a solid reputation for delicious fish for over 30 years. Their restaurant’s name means “The Tide,” and the pretty 17th-century red-brick building is full of seafaring memorabilia, alongside old photos of the Marché aux Poissons. But essentially an easy simplicity prevails, so clients can concentrate on the food concocted by Teresa and her team in a kitchen open to view. It is a perfect setting for moules-frites: hospitable, unpretentious, yet with careful attention to detail. Prepared in four different ways (marinière, au vin blanc, à la provençale, and maison), the mussels come to the table in large, cast-iron casseroles. You can dig them out of their shells with a fork or by using an empty pair of shells as pincers; then drink the cooking juices with a spoon. Simple, beautifully done, and classically Belgian.
Rue de Flandre 99, Brussels; open 12–2 PM and 6:30–10 PM Tue–Sat; www.lamaree-sa.com
Also in Brussels
In’t Spinnekopke (www.spinnekopke.be; moderate) is a delightfully atmospheric estaminet (traditional tavern) dating back to 1762 that specializes in Belgian beers and dishes, including moules-frites. Chez Patrick (www.chezpatrick.be; moderate) is another splendidly traditional eatery close to the Grand Place that has been serving Bruxellois favorites including moules-frites for over 70 years.
Also in Belgium
Go to the coast to sample some really delicious mussels and other seafoods. Oesterput (www. oesterput.com; moderate) stands right by the harbor at Blankenberge, and this workmanlike warehouse with a cafeteria-style restaurant serves first-class seafood of all kinds.
A l’Improviste (www.a-l-improviste.be; moderate) is a stylish, modern seafood restaurant with a terrace overlooking the sea at Knokke-Heist that serves classic dishes such as moules-frites with great flair.
Around the World
The high international reputation of Belgian cooking has spawned outposts abroad in numerous formats. London has the Belgo chain (www.belgo-restaurants.co.uk; moderate) – brasserie-style restaurants specializing in Belgian dishes and beer. There are two Belgian Beer Cafés (www.belgianbeercafemelbourne.
com; moderate) with a similar mission in Melbourne, Australia. Elsewhere, look for restaurants specializing in authentic Belgian cuisine. Jeannine’s Bistro (www. jeanninesbistro.com; moderate) in Houston, Texas, is a fine example.
Les Frites Belges
Belgian frites (French fries) set the gold standard: when properly prepared, there are simply no better fries in the world. There are several factors involved. First, the choice of potato: only certain varieties (such as Bintje) are sufficiently sweet and floury to produce the optimum flavor and crispness. Second, the chips must be cut into just the right shape – about the size of a woman’s little finger. Third, the oil (traditionally beef dripping) must be clean and piping hot. Lastly – and crucially – the frites are cooked twice: once to a pale softness; then, after cooling and resting, to a crispy, golden finish. The traditional Belgian accompaniment is mayonnaise. In Brussels, perfection is achieved not just in restaurants, but also in humble roadside stands (called friteries or frietkoten). A cornet of hot frites and a dollop of mayonnaise can be a meal in itself.
Three Days in Brussels
Brussels is full of wonderful sights, food, and drink, and its attractions can easily be sampled by walking or taking the hop-on, hop-off buses.
DAY ONE 
Begin at the magnificent Grand Place, and take a short detour to the city mascot, the little bronze figure of the Manneken- Pis (“Peeing Boy”). Walk back through the elegant Galéries St-Hubert arcade to the Gothic Cathédrale des Saints Michel et Gudule. End the day at the Musée des Instruments de Musique.
DAY TWO
Start the day at the flea market in the Place du Jeu de Balle. Then walk through the Place du Grand Sablon, with its upmarket antique and chocolate shops, to reach the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, a monument to Belgian art.
DAY THREE
Visit the Horta Museum, a shrine to Art Nouveau set in the home of its pioneer, Victor Horta. Then head for the wonderfully quirky Musée Wiertz, a 19th-century art studio. Continue to the Parc du Cinquantenaire, with its three museums: military, historic automobiles, and world-class antique treasures.
GETTING TO BRUSSELS
Brussels has an international airport at Zaventem, three major train stations, and an extensive city network of trams and buses.
WHERE TO STAY IN BRUSSELS
Sleep Well Youth Hostel (inexpensive) is more of a budget hotel than a hostel, with a good choice of accommodations close to downtown.
www.sleepwell.be
Noga (moderate) is a neat, elegant, well-run hotel in a tranquil location, close to the Place Sainte-Catherine. www.nogahotel.com
Le Dixseptième (expensive) is a stylish boutique hotel in the 17th-century residence of the Spanish ambassador, close to the Grand Place. www.ledixseptieme.be
TOURIST INFORMATION
Grand Place; www.visitbrussels.be

1 comment:

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