The many gourmet highlights of Brussels make it one of the most enjoyable city break destinations in Europe
It seems a strange coincidence that Brussels was chosen as both capital of the EU and headquarters of NATO. Ask any historian why and you’ll be regaled with a host of geopolitical reasons, but ask the same question to the thousands of politicians and officials who live there and they’ll jokingly tell you that the real reason was because of the fabulous food!
Take a stroll around the pretty gabled lanes of the Lower Town and you’ll soon see what they mean. At night the area becomes transformed into a giant al fresco dinner party. Penguin clad waiters scurry around carrying steaming bowls of waterzooi (creamy chicken and vegetable stew), while beer enthusiasts from all over the world spill out onto the pavement from cosy estaminets (wood panelled bars) clutching a kaleidoscope selection of weird and wonderful brews. The atmosphere is irresistible and for visitors, a few days spent sampling Brussels’ gourmet highlights makes for one of the most enjoyable short break experiences in Europe.
Brussels stands at the crossroads of Europe and this is reflected in the cuisine, which is a wonderful fusion of northern heartiness and French sophistication. Think of a fabulous meal in a top Parisian restaurant, double the portions and voilà, you have a good idea of why dining out is the main passion in life for the Bruxellois.
Brussels’ best traditional cooking is found in the city’s atmospheric fin de siècle brasseries. Le Scheltema is one of the most famous and, in common with other traditional eateries, shellfish figures prominently on the menu. In the 19th century mussels were transported from the coastal river estuaries to provide cheap lunches for the factory workers but have now become a mainstay of Belgian cuisine. Order a kilo of moules à la marinière from the sparkling iced shellfish bar and wash them down with a crisp Chablis. For an entrée, try the sweet baby sole swimming in a fresh, buttery grey shrimp and lemon thyme sauce and you have a nigh-on perfect seafood dinner.
The Bruxellois love their traditional restaurants, but in recent years a new generation of young chefs, many graduating from the internationally acclaimed Institut Emile Gryzon, has revolutionised Brussels’ restaurant scene. The institute is renowned for its experimental approach to ingredients and presentation and nowadays you’ll find dozens of sleek bistros serving up astonishingly creative dishes with brilliant artistic flair.
The scrubbed-up warehouses surrounding Brussels’ canalside docks are home to several of the city's new wave of restaurants. Switch has a cool monochrome décor with bold flock prints and is staffed by a multilingual crew of charming students. Can scrambled eggs ever be glamorous? When they’re spiced up with baby asparagus tips, a drizzle of truffle oil and translucent slivers of smoked eel, the answer is a resounding 'oui'. Follow this heavenly starter with a herb-encrusted, blushing pink loin of lamb and round off the meal with an explosively refreshing strawberry sorbet topped with crunchy sugared pistachios.
Across the road, discover your inner carnivore at Viva m’Boma, which endearingly translates as 'long live Grandma' in old Bruxellois slang. With gleaming white tiles and, disconcertingly, the odd sheep’s head staring down at you, this quirky eatery is housed in an old butcher’s shop that once specialized in offal for the dock workers. The restaurant has resurrected many of the intense casseroles of yesteryear, creating a craze for offal that has swept Brussels. If you’re squeamish, try the steaming beef carbonnade. It’s as tasty and satisfying as your Grandma’s Lancashire hot pot.
Brussels is the original fast food city and with irresistible smells wafting out of friteries, it’s impossible not to give into temptation. There’s always a hot debate in Brussels about which friterie is the best in town but Chez Antoine regularly comes up tops. The secret behind the perfect frite is size and temperature. A one-centimetre diameter ensures a fluffy centre, while a two-minute blitz in searing heat guarantees a perfect golden crunch. Topped with a thick dollop of home-made mayonnaise, many a Eurocrat’s silk tie has been ruined over a lunchtime cornet of Chez Antoine’s frites.
Pralines have impeccable aristocratic credentials and date back to the court of Louis XIV. The Belgians, with a passion for all things French, quickly transformed praline-making into a fine art. Place du Grand Sablon is home to Brussels’ top chocolatiers and is nirvana for travelling chocoholics. The best shops resemble top Parisian boutiques, with sparkling seasonal collections taking pride of place in the exquisite window displays. 1950s design is all the rage right now and you’ll find sleek 'New Look' curves, angular splashes of colour and the odd chocolate Dior stiletto thrown in.
With Belgian beers on the brink of world domination, you might wonder why such a small country produces such an astonishing number of brews, over 700 at the last count. The Catholic Church is largely to thank. During the Reformation, monks in most North European countries were sent packing and with them, many local brewing traditions were lost. Belgium however remained Catholic and the merry monks of Flanders and Wallonia have happily continued to perfect their beer making skills up to the modern day. This, coupled with the fortuitous 1919 Vandervelde Act, which forbade the sale of spirits in Belgian pubs until 1983, ensured that Belgium now has the most diverse and internationally acclaimed range of beers in the world.
There’s no better place to sample Belgian beer than in a Brussels estaminet. These are often hidden down dark, narrow impasses (alleyways) but once discovered, they’re the cosiest spots in town for beer tasting. A l’Image de Nostre-Dame is a typical example, with low wooden beams, a red chequerboard floor and shelves full of historic curios. Try the draught Saint Feuillien Blonde, champagne light and infused with subtle herbs, or the Grisette, a refreshingly bubbly forest fruit lambic. Each estaminet has its own specialities and with beers as good as this, it’s little wonder that Brussels was chosen as Capital of Europe.