Okay, where were we again? Oh, yeah... Brussels.
As soon as we hit the ground, we could tell this was our kind of town: great brasseries and cafés, tons of street food of all sorts, loads of lovely pâtisseries and confiseries,
and no shortage of intriguing restaurataurants.
1. Dandoy, 31 rue au Beurre, 02 511 0326
Speculoos were right at the top of the list of delicacies we were in search of heading into AEB's European Vacation 2008. They were maybe not positioned quite as high as, say, "beer," but they were pretty close. Suffice to say, we ate our fair share of speculoos while we were in Belgium, we even tried a Nutella-like speculoos spread that's something of a sensation in Flanders,* but the very best speculoos we found were at the legendary Dandoy.
They also looked great.
And the back room of the original Rue de Beurre shop was like a museum.
The front room was all business, however, and Dandoy's speculoos dominated the scene.
We were particularly fond of their cats.
2. Les Brassins, 36 Keienveldstraat, 32 2 512 69 99
We never did find the commemorative plaque, but apparently Edda van Heemstra Hepburn-Ruston, the artist later to be known as Audrey Hepburn, was born just down the street from this neighborhood bistro. No matter, Les Brassins was reason enough to venture into Ixelles.
The food was excellent, with highlights including a mammoth jambonneau à la dijonnaise, a roasted canard de pékin, and such bruxellois classics as stoemp saucisse, but almost as big a draw was Les Brassins' impressive selection of beers.
And we loved that you could order them in 750-ml bottles. Dinner for two with a 750-ml bottle (or two) of some of Belgium's finest beers (like Saison Dupont)... How can you go wrong?
3. Cantillon, Rue Gheude 56 Straat, 00 32 2 521 49 28, www.cantillon.be
The day started off with a visit to the Marché de l'Abattoir in the Anderlecht district. We'd thought that we'd be going to the much more famous Marché du Midi, but it was a Saturday and the Marché du Midi only runs on Sunday. So there we were, wandering around Gare du Midi, looking for a Saturday market, when a helpful gent pointed us in the direction of another market, and when we got there we were glad he had. The Marché de l'Abattoir maybe isn't as friendly as the Marché du Midi, but it's big and sprawling and fascinating.
As the name suggests, the grounds are the site of a former slaughterhouse complex/meat market. These days there's much more to the marché than just meat. It reminded me of a largely Moroccan market situated in Köln that I frequented a few years back, except it was about ten times as big.
Anyway, from there we made our way to our primary destination: the Cantillon brewery.
Cantillon (founded in 1900) is the site of the last traditional brewery in Brussels. The city once had hundreds of breweries; then it had dozens; now it only has one. But it's a gem. Not only is it the last remaining traditional brewery in Brussels, but it just may be the most traditional brewery in all of Belgium. (No small feat, given the fact that there are some 700 beers brewed in Belgium and quite a few of them are brewed by religious orders.) Cantillon specializes in lambic and in gueuze--the former an ancient type of "grain wine" ("the most mysterious beer still existing," according to the folks at Cantillon) that's fermented using only spontaneous fermentation, the latter a "grain champagne" derived from Cantillon's lambic that is fermented a second time in-bottle, and therefore is carbonated.
I've had some pretty mysterious beers in my day, but nothing could have prepared me for Cantillon's lambic. Complexly flavored and totally uncarbonated, it was like a trip through time, to an era long before the Pilsener method revolutionized beer production. As intriguing as I found the lambic, whose charms depend on a profound appreciation of the flavors of grain (all of which have been organic at Cantillon since 1999), I preferred its lightly fizzy relative, gueuze. Cantillon's was more complex than any other gueuze I'd ever tasted, but its depth and its balance were fantastic.
Anyway, the Cantillon brewery doubles as the Brussels Gueuze Museum, so not only did we get to taste Cantillon's superlative product, but we got to tour the brewery/museum. We were fascinated by Cantillon's propensity of cobwebs (in the all-natural ecosystem of spontaneous fermentation, spiders serve an important function), and by its brewmaster's maxims ("Le temps ne respecte pas ce qui se fait sans lui."), but more than anything, we loved Cantillon's cat.
Just as spiders occupy an important role in a spontaneous-fermentation brewery like Cantillon (hence the cobwebs), so does the house cat. Someone's got to keep a close eye on the granary, and at Cantillon the job has been given to this feisty little fellow. Maybe we were a little homesick for our own cats, maybe we're just a couple of crazy "cat people"--whatever the case, we instantly took a shine to minou and spent a great deal of our tour palling around with him and trying to get him to settle down for just an instant so that we could snap his picture. To no avail.
We also liked Cantillon's caves and their dusty, old vintage bottling machine.
But the highlight of the tour and of the visit may have been Cantillon's wonderfully tart and subtle kriek (as opposed to the syrupy sweet dreck that sometimes passes as kriek), made with real Schaerbeek cherries. Just look at that color!
[If you'd like to know more about traditional Belgian brewing, we highly recommend Edward Behr's "Real Beer in Belgium, the Greatest Brewing Country" from The Art of Eating No. 57 (Spring 2001). Behr's article starts at Cantillon, and with good reason.]
4. ABC Mateos, 46 rue Sainte-Catherine, 02 512 75 47, www.abc-mateos.com
We went to Place Ste-Catherine in search of a street vendor who was reputed to have a heavenly fish soup.
Instead, we found ABC Mateos, a fishmonger that just happened to have a bar set up out front selling freshly prepared Spanish-style seafood dishes, and glasses of wine to wash them down with.
The highlight: Mateos' spicy pimentón-laced clams.
Oh, yeah: they're also celebrating their 50th anniversary this year (!).
5. Greenwich, 7 rue des Chartreux + Lucien Cravat, 24 rue des Chartreux (a.k.a., "the littlest store")
We'd promised someone that we'd pay a visit to Greenwich and its shabby-chic ambiance, complete with legions of chess aficionados, and we were glad we did. We found the atmosphere wonderfully relaxed, and the early-twentieth-century bathrooms were worth the price of admission (free) alone.
Plus, visiting Greenwich led us to Lucien Cravate, perhaps the littlest store in all of Brussels, very likely the cutest one, and conveniently located almost directly across the street. There, Michelle made an important find: a Melitta coffee pot, in pastel green, like the blue one (R.I.Pieces) she got long ago in Vancouver and the yellow one she picked up in Berlin that sits cracked on the shelf. This wasn't the only find to be had at Lucien Cravate--its tiny space is chock-full of 20th-century treasures--but it was the only one Michelle had to have. It's not just about those pastel shades--they also have a special no-drip spout.
6. L'Archiduc, 6 rue Antoine Dansaert, 02 512 06 52 + Cirio, 18 rue de la Bourse
In close proximity to both Greenwich and Lucien Cravate, you'll find the 1930s Art-Deco jazz bar splendor of l'Archiduc. We'd been warned that l'Archiduc had turned into an even bigger meat market than the Marché de l'Abattoir. At 5:00 in the afternoon we ran into no such problems.
Just a gorgeous, surprisingly intimate interior, some "cool jazz," and some drinks to match.
Cirio, on the other hand, which sits right next the Bourse, is just about as big a tourist-draw café as you're going to find at 5:00 in the afternoon (or any time, for that matter). The outlandish fin-de-siècle interior and the matching ambiance keep 'em coming. But we were told we simply had to try one of the their half-and-half cocktails (half champagne, half wine), and we were glad we did. Only 3 euros a pop, too.
7. Viva M'Boma, 17 Vlaamsesteenweg, 32 2 512 15 93
Speaking of interiors... Get a load of this one.
Viva M'Boma (loosely: Long live Grandma!, in bruxellois dialect) was a-buzz with late-night diners when we sat down to look over their menu. Highly traditional, the menu read like something of a Belgian food primer: waterzooi, stoemp and sausage, Ghent stew, sweetbreads with mushrooms... (Okay, I don't know if that last one's particularly Belgian or not, but it sure looked good.) What to choose? Well, they were out of Waterzooi, thanks to a table of six which had just ordered six of 'em (Damn you!), so we went with the sausage and stoemp, and the Ghent stew, both of which were excellent contributions to our ongoing survey. Dessert consisted of speculoos ice cream and raspberries: delicious.
8. Marché du Midi, adjoining Gare du Midi, Sundays
Having missed the Marché du Midi the day before, we decided to return the next day to see if it lived up to all the hype. In short: yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Just the hubbub and the produce alone were hugely impressive. Michelle almost started crying--poor dear!--when we passed crates of red currants for 4 euros each. She could barely restrain herself.
But the true coup was the Moroccan crêpe we'd been tipped off to. Our friend P.K. has a weekly ritual on Sundays that begins with a trip to the Marché du Midi with his kids for Moroccan crêpes. Our expectations were high, but frankly we just weren't prepared for this taste sensation. You get these delicacies from a large Moroccan olives and cheese specialist right next to the train station. Off to the side, they've got a couple of griddles working at high capacity, producing big, beautiful, fresh crêpes for the throngs. You step up, you place your order, and then you get your choice of fillings. The classic is a combination of spicy olives, a soft, ricotta-like cheese, and honey. Yes, olives, cheese, and honey. Sounds crazy, but it really was just about the best thing either of us had ever tasted. Ever. Fresh Moroccan mint tea sweetened the deal even further.
Afterwards, Michelle was so excited when we passed this monumental bullhorn on Place Rosa Luxemburg, that she stepped up and harangued the passing crowds for a good ten minutes or so.
When I finally wrestled her away from the bullhorn, we continued on our way to the flea market, where, for a second or two, I thought I'd found a portrait of my grandmother.
9. Place Flagey and environs
What can we say about Place Flagey? It's a little off the beaten path, and it doesn't have the reputation that Brussels' flea market does, but in some ways it's just as much of a treasure trove.
First (and foremost), there's Frit Flagey, right across the street from the Place. Our ongoing survey of Brussels friteries is still very much in progress, but so far the best we've found are those at Frit Flagey. The permanent line-up says it all.
We lined up for a good 20-30 minutes for our lovely cones, but we never once questioned the decision (even with an ominous-looking storm brewing). We knew these were worth waiting for, and we were right.
Then there was the Flagey repertory cinema (part of the Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique family) housed in a gorgeous Art Deco arts complex (that was formerly a broadcasting center). We just happened to stroll by to see what was playing, and when we found out that The Third Man (one of our all-time favorites) would be starting in about 45 minutes, we settled into a cozy neighborhood bar and wrote some postcards for a spell.
We thought about going back to Frit Flagey again after the film, and it wasn't easy to pull ourselves away (frites for lunch, frites for dinner--what's the problem?), but there was another place nearby that we wanted to check out: Mamma Roma (5 Chaussée de Vleurgat). Aside from the film reference, we were intrigued by rumors of breathtaking pizza al taglio. And Mamma Roma delivered.
I don't know if Mamma Roma's slices quite qualify as "grandma slices", but they're awfully close and, more importantly, they were just phenomenal. Seriously. It's official: Brussels has great pizza. Our two favorites were the pachino piccante with sweet cherry tomatoes, lots of garlic, and lots and lots of crushed red chilies, and the crema di zucca, which added pancetta and smoked caciocavallo to its delicate squash purée. Unreal. Great operation, too. The pizzaiolo looked like some entrenched Italian hippie, and they sold their slices by the kilo.
10. Comus & Gasterea, 86-88 Quai aux Briques, 02 223 43 66
Last, but certainly not least... Actually, it's funny. Comus & Gasterea was the very first find we made in Brussels. We stepped out of the Place Sainte-Catherine metro station, started to make our way towards our lodgings, and we walked right past Comus & Gasterea, and we knew, we knew. (Of course, the huge queue out front was a bit of a tip-off.)
So we dropped off our bags and we rushed right back to try what appeared to be some superlative artisanal ice cream. And it was, friends. Comus & Gasterea draws comparisons to Maison Berthillon in Paris, and with good reason. Our two favorites? Michel Comus's dark, luscious cherry and his lovely vanilla, which Michelle promptly declared was the very best she'd ever had, bar none.
* Does this mean that children all across Flanders are essentially spreading cookies on their bread as an afterschool snack?
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Okay, where were we again? Oh, yeah... Brussels.