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Friday, September 19, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 4/28/2013

COMMENTARY

Brussels joins my list of favorite cities

BY MARY ALICE POWELL

Oh no, not another favorite city to add to my bucket list of places to make a return visit.

This time it’s beautiful Brussels, with the Medieval Grand Place where I could stand for hours staring at the magnificent 17th century architecture.

Each of the ancient buildings that border the giant plaza is a different style and represents an early craft guild such as silversmiths and brewers. On the next visit I will return to the Cave du Roy in the plaza and get a seat at a small table that overlooks the square to people-watch while eating and sipping a glass of cold beer.

It’s amazing how much better beer tastes in Belgium and how it seems to complement every meal, much more than wine. Belgian beer has a smooth, robust flavor and is always served icy cold in a crystal clear pilsner glass that is engraved with the brewer’s logo.

In the city with a population of 2 million and that some still refer to as the capital of Europe, eating is a national pastime that Americans welcome with gusto. But in Brussels, even the frites taste better than they do as French fries back home. Frites are often included whether or not they are ordered.

Compared to the best-known national foods of chocolate, mussels, frites, and waffles, stoemp was not easily found on Brussels menus. The waiter at Cave du Roy was surprised that Americans knew the name, let alone were anxious to try it. I was determined to taste stoemp after Eleanor, my travel pal, raved about it. It’s a peasant main dish of mashed potatoes and other vegetables that is lightly flavored with mustard. It picks up interest and color when sausage or bacon is added.

Eleanor’s knowledge of European cities is as helpful as it is amazing. Shortly after our arrival in Brussels she said she knew the perfect place to go for mussels. She not only remembered the name, but how to get there on foot. If I would walk as often and as far as I did in Belgium, I am sure my slacks would be looser.

Chez Leon, our destination for mussels, was no disappointment though they were out of season for the local harvest. Like all of the restaurants that lined both sides of Rue des Bouchers, in Brussels’ central district, it also had an outdoor eating patio. At dusk, the barkers in the highly competitive market are out front begging passersby to choose their restaurant. Even in a rainy drizzle, Belgians like to eat outdoors crowded at tables that are close to the street.

The mussels, served with frites, were piled high in black buckets. The portion was 500 grams, which translates to about a pound, or a lot of mussels. The price was $12.80. Picture-perfect with chopped green celery chips mingled through the black shells, the mussels were tender and large and with ample butter garlic sauce in the bottom of the bucket for bread dipping. Curry is one of several other optional sauces.

Everything that we hear and dream about Belgian chocolate came true in Brussels and again in Antwerp and Brugge. It may be an exaggeration, but it seemed that every other store window featured a display of decorative and plain chocolates calling me in to try the dark, the light, the filled, boxed, bars, or molds in whimsical designs.

Belgian waffles are as familiar to Americans as are frites, mussels, and chocolate but the usual time to enjoy one in America is for breakfast. In Brussels waffles are not limited to morning.

Nor are they always plated and eaten with a fork and knife. Walk-away waffles are street food sold for a euro, or $1.30 each. The waffles are hot, crisp, dusted with powdered sugar, and wrapped in tissue to carry. Vendors offer trays of fruits, nuts, and cream to add to the waffles, but no syrup.

Mary Alice Powell is a retired Blade food editor.

Contact her at: mpowell@theblade.com



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