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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Noga (moderate) is a neat, elegant, well-run
hotel in a tranquil location, close to the Place
Le Dixseptième (expensive) is a stylish
boutique hotel in the 17th-century residence of
the Spanish ambassador, close to the Grand
Grand Place; www.visitbrussels.be