“You are going where?” was quickly followed by a dubious “why?” when I mentioned an upcoming Belgium trip to my stateside, globe-trotting friends. “For the food, of course.”
Often overlooked, Brussels, seat of the European Union, is home to numerous Michelin-starred restaurants, Belle Epoque architectural landmarks and of course, chocolate and beer. Locals are generally friendly – if not precise – and the boulangeries are a must in this tiny country that continues to suffer from an identity crisis. With Germany, Netherlands and France as neighbors, it is anything but coddled. French and Dutch are the primary languages and the Euro its currency.
Trams whip through the cobble stone streets of a city that seems more village than cultural center. Chocolate shops and pubs abound. En route to the Victor Horta Museum, we stumble onto a modern chocolate factory, Zaabar (Chaussée de Charleroi 125). More laboratory than confectioner, this shop is a must for vanguard chocolate lovers. With flavors like Madras curry, chili, cardamom, Zaabar pushes the boundaries of the traditional Spice Route. Free samples are encouraged – just don’t forget to use the spoon provided or the shopkeeper will give an earful. Invest in the bars to chop and add to homemade ice cream for a tasty souvenir.
Built in the 1890’s by Belgium’s most celebrated architect Victor Horta, this gem in the Saint-Gilles neighborhood houses the Victor Horta Museum. From the cabinet pulls to the sinuous banister, each detail evokes the quintessential spirit of the Belle Epoque. Arrive early and secure a place in line, as the testy door keeper won’t hesitate to herd out the crowds at closing time. A perfect way to bide time on the line is to indulge in a gaufre, a must Belgian snack food. Routinely sold from trucks, small bakeries or food stands, these sugar-crusted waffles are best eaten standing up, on the go and never for breakfast.
The Belgian company Delvaux, the oldest fine leather luxury goods maker in the world, moved its manufacturing facility outside of Brussels several years back making way for an edgy, fusion, offal loving, seasonal, see and be scene kind of place. The ravioli of wild forest mushrooms is subtle yet earthy. The galantine of hind and figs served with a cranberry foam, rocked. The wine list could set you back so ask the affable waiter for suggestions. My prix fixe came with a chocolate speculoos dessert, a gingery crunchy cookie originating in Belgium. Yum.
Téte á téte with Tintin
No better honor could be bestowed to the ninth art, the comic strip, than a museum housed in a Victor Horta masterpiece building. Large three dimensional displays bring to life the history of the strips of Georges Prosper Remi, who used the pen name Hergé and created the likes of Tintin, Spirou, Lucky Luke and the Smurfs. Tours are available in many languages and are well worth the expense.
Where’s the Manneken?
Thankfully, the Abbot of La Trappe imposed among other things, that mon-steries should be self-sustaining. Belgium has six authentic beer producing monasteries whose pleasantly bitter elixir is sold all over Belgium. If time allows, rent a car and visit them. Otherwise, Brussels has many worthwhile “estaminets” or bars to suit varied tastes and wallets. In search of the famed, yet elusive fountain Manneken-Pis (The Peeing Boy), look for Le Becasse, a tiny estaminet whose origins date before Napoleon was crowned and enjoy an authentic ‘Lambic’. This yeasty beer is not filtered or pasteurized so it does not travel well; it is an ‘only in Belgium’ rite. After a jug or two, it might be easier to find the Mannekin Pis though it could seem even smaller!
Chic and centric
Steps away from Le Becasse is the famed Grand Place, the central square of Brussels that rivals St. Mark’s in Venice for its beauty. Admire the ornate guildhalls that glow beautifully both day and night, but stay clear of the ubiquitous cafes offering fresh crustacean platters. They are all tourist traps. Instead head over towards La Bourse and Dansaert St. Catherine, the hub of chic Belgian centric designers and walk in Kevin Bacon’s chukkas. Arnaud Zannier and Enrique Corbi’s n.d.c. Made by Hand (36 Léon Lepage) squarely places these fashionable shoes and boots on the list of those looking for quality above name.
A relaxing meal can be had in St. Catherine Square where Signore Mastrogiovanni brings his heart to Brussels and his family’s exquisite pasta and pizza recipes at I Latini (Place Sainte-Catherine 2). This cozy space with an Italian wine list even gives smokers a segregat- ed lounge, two flights up, to have their espressi al fumo. The linguini with clams and the bucatini al pesto are not to be missed. Portions are generous so arrive hungry.
C’est moi, it’s Loui.
Relax at Loui Lounge, the clubby drink spot at the Conrad Hotel. More old English than Paris’ Hotel Costes, the passion fruit martini with its delicate balance of real passion fruit and vodka, makes for a lovely after dinner dessert drink. By the way, it helps to pack a Russian dictionary.