July 24, 2007
Let me start this post by declaring my love for the Northern European high-speed train network: Northern European high-speed train network, I love you.
Really, can anyone think of anything more enthusing than the fact that London's Borough Market, Amsterdam's rijsttafels, and Strasbourg's flammekueche are just a couple of hours away from Paris, and that the trip to get there does not involve taking off your belt, your shoes, and the filling in your left molar, nor tossing out your only bottle of contact lens cleanser? I can't either.
And to further illustrate that point, Maxence and I have just spent a sunny weekend in Brussels, a city of true gourmands where every other street name has something to do with food -- Rue des Bouchers, Rue aux Choux, Rue du Persil... Here are a few highlights.
Moules-frites at La Bonne Humeur
Of course, we had to kick things off with mussels and fries, and we had the good fortune of stumbling upon these posts by Laurent Goffin. He was writing about a modest bistro straight out of the seventies, complete with formica tables and wood-paneled walls, and his review essentially boiled down to: "La Bonne Humeur = best moules-frites in Brussels." This was all I needed to know.
We headed there on our first night, fresh off the train, and because the restaurant is a little way out of the city center, the walk allowed us to work up a hefty appetite. La Bonne Humeur was easy to spot from afar -- see the swarms of eager diners waiting on the sidewalk? that's where it is -- and we got in line with the others.
Our meal was every bit worth the wait, and if I had to wait again I would -- twice longer, even. Our moules marinières (i.e. cooked in a broth of onion, celery, and butter; pictured above) appeared in their cast-iron pots, steamingly flavorful and jumbo plump, with a side of pale blond fries, not too crisp but not too soft, which we dipped with abandon in the homemade mayo.
The mussels we were served came from the Zeeland region in Holland, where they are harvested at the bottom of the sea, as opposed to the French moules de bouchot, which are farmed on ropes that spiral around wooden poles -- kind of like pole dancing for molluscs.
La Bonne Humeur (literally, "The Good Mood") / map it!
Chaussée de Louvain, 244 - 1000 Bruxelles
+32 (0)2 230 71 69
We got another fix of moules-frites the next day, this time from a brasserie on the Sablon named Le Grain de Sable: the frites weren't quite as memorable, but the moules au vin blanc (same as marinières, but with the addition of white wine) were delectable, and the sunshine falling on our table was the perfect condiment.
Waffles from a street stand
Hot waffles are to Brussels what hot crêpes are to Paris: everywhere you go in the touristic center, the smell of freshly pressed waffles wafts up to your nose from waffle trucks and streetside stands, and who am I to resist such a delicious cliché? My apologies to the light and crisp gaufre de Bruxelles, I much prefer the cakey and caramelized gaufre de Liège, of which I'd be content to eat just the pointy edges.
Chocolate-pistachio ice cream at Wittamer
Wittamer and Marcolini are the two Belgian chocolatiers of highest repute. Pierre Marcolini has a boutique in Paris, so I simply paid the mothership a visit to admire the pastries, which aren't (yet?) sold at the Parisian outpost.
At Wittamer, however, I selected a small assortment of chocolates from the chocolate shop, before we went into the pastry shop to get a waffle and some ice cream -- chocolate-pistachio for me, almond milk for Maxence. I was underwhelmed by the filled chocolates (I like mine to be less sweet) and the waffle (it should be required by law to serve them hot off the iron), but my ice cream, a smooth, dark chocolate base with pistachio caramel swirling through it, more than made up for it.
Pain à la grecque at Dandoy
As long as we're in the sweets department, there is no getting around another Brussels institution: the venerable Biscuiterie Dandoy, famous for its speculoos, pains d'amandes, and assorted butter cookies.
Among the specialties we sampled, my favorite by far was the pain à la grecque, a confection of buttery yeast dough that is rolled in pearl sugar, flattened, and baked until golden and irresistibly caramelized. My friend Sigrid published a recipe last fall (yes, it is in Italian, but why do you think God created Babelfish?) and I intend to try it as soon as my blood sugar stabilizes.
There is a list of Dandoy locations on their website; the oldest boutique on Rue au Beurre (how appropriate) seems to be perpetually packed, so you may want to visit one of the others -- on Rue de Rollebeek off the Sablon, for instance.
In between those meals and treats, we walked and biked and walked some more, we bought excellent Belgian cheeses (a slice of Vieux Bruges and a raw milk, organic Pavé de Soignies) from a shop off Place Sainte-Catherine, and I visited the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée (the museum of Belgian comics and graphic novels) where, misty-eyed and tight-throated, I reveled in the original planches of the BD series that peopled my childhood and adolescence. (Hey, I turn 28 on Friday, I'm entitled to a bit of healthy nostalgia, no?)
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