Bites of Brussels

Belgium boasts much more than sprouts.

Forget Mexico City or Copenhagen. I’d like to nominate Brussels as the next city this borough should raid for culinary inspiration.

On a recent trip I found the Belgian capital’s cuisine hits all the notes Brooklynites currently crave—now I find myself longing for the briny delicacies from nearby North Sea; the small stalls selling one-hit fatty wonders like waffles and frites; the taps flowing with the country’s tart, sour beers; and the hearty Dutch-French food that splits the difference between bistro and bar.

Plus, Brussels is a cool, complex city: a truly bilingual place where Belgium’s Dutch-speaking Flemish folks and French-speaking Wallonians have historically come together. Brussels began life as a 10th-century fortress, boasts the world’s best collection of Art Nouveau architecture and is steeped in international culture, politics and commerce. Little wonder it’s the de facto capital of the European Union.

Better still, the best of it is walkable, meaning you can earn your street-feasting by sight-seeing, then catch the metro home.

Fall is the perfect time to go, when the city’s many flower boxes are still in bloom, but there’s a real chill in the air, and a long walk followed by a pint of one of the country’s famous spontaneously fermented “lambic” beers seems like an honest day’s work. If you can spare a long weekend for culinary research, here’s what to eat.

Sour Sustenance

Even in Brooklyn, the dry, cidery, sour Belgian beers called gueze—made from aged hops and a blend of new and aged lambics, fermented by wild yeasts—are a rarity. But in Belgium, the stuff practically spills from public fountains: About a mile southeast from the city center, Cantillon, one of the world’s best breweries, offers tours of its 113-year-old lambic “museum” and a beer for just six Euros.

Speaking of fountains, an excellent Brussels pub—three stories with top Belgian beer, cheese and charcuterie—is right across the street from Belgium’s most famous piece of public art: the Mannekin Pis, which is Dutch for a little boy taking a wee. You can see the granite boy hold his tiny wang right from the patio at Poechenellekelder.

Deep Fried & Sanctified

After beer, Belgium’s most famous export is probably pommes frites. France and Spain might argue they created them, but Belgians treat them like art, wrapping thick, twice-fried slices of the smooth local spud call bintjes in paper cones like a deep-fried bouquet.

It’s almost impossible to visit Brussels without eating an excellent frite, but a real friterie—a bare-bones stall like Friterie Tabora in Centre-Ville, or Brussel’s city center—is required if you want la mitraillette, or “the machine gun.” That’s a foot-long French-fry sandwich, often loaded with a trio of deep-fried spicy burger patties or other sandwich meats and several squeezes of mayo and ketchup. When these gut-busting, grease-stained hoagies finally take Smorgasburg by storm, tell them you heard it here first.

Sweets with Spice

The beating heart of Brussels is the stunning Grand Place, a spectacularly elaborate public square in the city center surrounded by 17th-century buildings. And just a few steps away you’ll find the original 1829 home of Maison Dandoy, one of Brussels’ most famous bakeries.

This is the place to try the city’s wonderfully reserved and typically well-spiced Netherlands-inspired sweets: pain à la grecque (sweet crisps of bread sprinkled with coarse sugar), pain d’épices (a cake similar to gingerbread), pain d’amandes (ultra-thin almond cookies) and, of course, speculoos—the spiced Belgian shortbread that’s so beloved even corner cafés deliver a packet of the rectangular brown crisps with your coffee.

The Belgian Beef Steak

In Brussels, brasseries and bistros serve the country’s classic dishes at various price points. If you’re game to splurge, try the 10-year-old Restaurant Lola in the Sablon, an ancient district now known for fancy chocolate shops and a weekend antiques fair. In a bright, modern dining room, Lola serves finely executed versions of waterzooi (the Flemish egg-yolk-and-cream-based seafood stew), carrot-potato stoemp, Belgium’s extra-rich version of mashed potatoes roasted in a ring of pork sausage, and filet américain.

That last one is not a burger, but the ubiquitous Belgian version of steak tartare. Minced raw beef is whipped into pink silkiness with egg yolk, oil, mustard, Worcestershire, capers and shallots. While you can get it smeared into a baguette for two euros at most butcher shops, restaurants serve it with grilled toast points and tiny cornichons. Lola’s is knife-lickingly good, and you’ll see plenty of dainty ladies ordering it for dinner with a side of pommes frites.

Haut Chocolate

You can’t escape bonbons in Belgium: Chocolate arrived with Spanish occupation in 1635, and today dozens of the world’s best chocolatiers have outlets in every neighborhood. The one you should really make a point to visit is the original Neuhaus chocolate shop in the mind-blowing Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, an ornate shopping arcade built in 1847. Not only was the filled chocolate and the decorated chocolate box invented right in this shop, they’ve barely changed the decor since Neuhaus was still a working apothecary. It’s as beautiful as Neuhaus’s hand-filled nougat pralines.

Little Crevette Grise

If you have only one afternoon in Brussels, here’s your game plan: Breeze by the Mannekin Pis, the Grand Place and the other sights in the central city, then head northwest to Noordzee at Place Sainte-Catherine.

This outdoor seafood stall—Noordzee is Dutch for North Sea—sits on the edge of the small canals that were once Brussels’ central fish market, today surrounded by seafood houses hawking sidewalk seating and oysters on ice. Some are tourist traps; others, like elegant old La Belle Maraîchère, are like stepping into Brussels circa 1895.

Visitors and Brusselites alike gather around Noordzee no matter the season, grabbing a glass of wine or beer and a small plate of very fresh, very simple seafood. This modern fish shack serves what has to be Brussels’ best version of croquettes de crevettes—fat fritters filled with the North Sea’s tiny brown shrimp. The crustaceans are also often laced with mayo and stuffed into a giant tomato, or boiled and eaten, head, shell and all.

Irons in the Fire

The essential thing to know about real Belgian waffles—other than that they are best made fresh and eaten right on the street—is that you must try two kinds. There is the Brussels-style waffle, a thin, light and airy rectangle made when yeast batter is poured into a mold. And then there is the Leige, named after a city in east Belgium, which is a sloppy, puffy oval, made by smearing a thick, sweet batter with a paddle onto a hot iron.

Just please keep it simple: Though either can be doused with almost anything your sweet tooth desires, both are best served with just a smear of Belgium’s fine chocolate or a dusting of powdered sugar. Le Funambule serves them both from a window just around the corner from Mannekin Pis, where it has stood since 1867.

When in Bruges

The home of Belgium’s best-known bistro staple—pommes frites paired with a kilo and half of steamed black mussels—is Belgium’s Flemish Coast, an easy day-trip north from Brussels by train. Bruges is the now-famous capital of Flanders, built around a series of ancient canals. The beauty of its center—painted gingerbread houses down curvy cobblestoned streets—has become a backdrop for a zillion shopping tourists, but it’s still so pretty it shouldn’t matter.

For great mussels you’ll find no better than those at Poules Moules, which has updated its 17th-century building overlooking Simon Stevin Square in farmhouse chic. They also serve poules (roast chicken), but you’re here for proper moules-frites. They’re delivered straight to the table in their thick black pot of steaming liquid—choose from Pernod, Bruges-brewed beer or au naturel—with a yellow tin pail of fries.

Mustard Maker

Halfway to Bruges is Ghent, another canal-crisscrossed city that’s essentially Bruges’ Brooklyn cousin. It’s worth the stop alone for Tierenteyn-Verlent, the 223-year-old Dijon mustard shop across the street from the city’s greenmarket.

Way back when, it was opened by Adelaide Verlent, a widow who sold spices until a relative learned how to finely grind mustard seeds in France. Though the shop moved next door in 1862, the counters, jars and cabinets are all original, and they still sell pleasantly sharp mustard by the container, filled to order from 200-year-old mustard barrels. You can still order yours in a gray stoneware crock stoppered with cork and, if you ask, they’ll wrap it in a plane-friendly fashion. If only the filet américain and la mitraillette could be so easily carried home.

Want to recreate our Belgian tour? Find addresses and photos of our stops here

Photo credit: Vicky Wasik

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Rachel Wharton is the former deputy editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She won a 2010 James Beard food journalism award, holds a master’s degree in Food Studies from New York University, and has more than 15 years of experience as a writer, editor and reporter. A North Carolina native and a former features food reporter for the New York Daily News, she edited the Edible Brooklyn cookbook and was the co-author of both Handheld Pies and DiPalo's Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy. Her work also appears in publications such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Saveur.