Friday, July 31, 2009

So Chic en Belgique (Part I)

The Eurostar's newest passenger

Yes it's that time again - the summer itch has come to haunt us all in our office cubicles (or living rooms, as in my case). Taunting pictures of happy families and couples lounging and swimming at the beach, or exciting city scapes with delicious restaurants are dangled before us by every imaginable form of communicatory portal out there. And suddenly the stifled wanderlust once more rears its ugly-only-because-it's-expensive head: it's summer. And we're all dying for a vacation.

In order to squash the proverbial traveling bug, this year we are doin
g a series of mini trips for our vacation - the first of which took place this past weekend. Living in England does have one benefit: it's close to the rest of Europe. :) As you can guess from the title of this post, we sojourned to what I would definitely consider one of the continent's underestimated destinations: Belgium. Matt had a pair of free Eurostar tickets and we figured it was time we blew this proverbial joint, if only temporarily.

This particular trip was momentous and highly anticipated not only because it is one of the first places Matt and I have visited together where neither of us has already been, but also because it was Master Roman's first adventure abroad. And what an adventure it was.

This will be a two day post - there's just too much to share. :)

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The Chicness That is Belgiqueness
(in anecdote form):

Parts I-III
or, how and why Belgium won my heart one July weekend

I. Brussels: the Place that is Grand.

We made the decision to stay in Brussels for several reasons: it looked like a nice city, I'd read about a million articles calling it Paris' gastronomic rival, and finally, because everyone seemed to say it "wasn't worth" traveling to (Bruges is better according to most) and I had a bizarre feeling that probably wasn't the case. Luckily for us, I think I was right. From the time our cab picked us up at the train station, to the very moment we walked out onto the Grand Place for the first time, we were smitten with the place.

And speaking of cab drivers, I don't know if we just got lucky or if all cab dri
vers are like this in Brussels, but the guy was the nicest most informative one I've ever had (and I live in London - the land of informative, well-educated cab drivers!). He gave us a running tour of the city as we passed landmarks and sites of interest on our way to the hotel. He also recommended restaurants, dishes worth trying, and beers worth drinking. He put up with Roman screaming his head off because he hated the car seat, and even put a little classical music on to try to "sooth the savage beast." He gave us brief and interesting history lessons on the relations between the French, the Dutch and the Belgians, and had a self-deprecating humor that made his obvious national pride endearing.

Roman, hating his car seat.

Shortly after arriving at the hotel, we made our way through the Galerie de la Reine, onto the main attraction in Brussels (in my opinion): the place that is grand. The Grand Place, that is. :) The architecture and atmosphere is enchanting in a way that is Italian-piazza, French-place, and English-square all in one. And at night people gather and sit on the cobble stone square to chat, embrace, and admire the surroundings. Our first night there we were treated to what appeared to be a totally random / impromptu light and music show focused on the main building in the square. It was a romantic reminder of why we love Europe so much: cities are old but very alive. People use their buildings, their awnings, their squares in ways that Americans tend not to. All that plus the fact that the Belgians like Abba enough to have no qualms about blaring "dancing queen" at full volume across their main square completely justifies any patriotism they want to have in my book.

The place that is grand - night and day.

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II. Sceltema vs. Chez Leon: A Moule-Frites showdown at sunset

The national food of Belgium is Mussels & Fries, and they are very proud of their renditions of both. According to the cab driver (extremely reliable source, I know), Belgians consume nearly 80% of the mussels produced in the Netherlands which is apparently one of the biggest, if not THE biggest commercial producer of mussels in the world. I am a fiend for all shellfish, so I was more than a little excited to "get my moule on." Armed with a list of possible restaurants to try in Brussels (sadly Michelin starred places generally don't allow strollers), we narrowed it down to Sceltema and Chez Leon.

The first I had read a single review on and it was recommended by the hotel's concierge, while the second was so ubiquitous on all Brussels tourism websites that I thought surely there was a catch, but I made a reservation anyway. Ironically, they ended up being across the street from each other. We ate at Sceltema on Friday night and Chez Leon on Saturday, the former a well-known seafood restaurant and the latter an old touristic spot with "reliably good mussels."

Each day at sunset we headed over for our moule frites and an appetizer of "Crevettes Gris" or "Gray Shrimp." After the second night, it wasn't hard to choose which mussel house we liked best.

Sceltema was classy, clean, had deliciously plump and fresh mussels, and two of the waiters were twins, so it always felt like the waiter was everywhere you needed him at all times (until you realized he was the twin brother, which took me a disturbingly long time). I'm not a big fan of celery and at Sceltema they served the mussels in a celery, onion and white wine sauce (which Matt loved), whereas at Chez Leon I got
my favorite: Moules Meridionales (tomato, onion, bell pepper and white wine). On the other hand, the frites at Sceltema were served with a sauce made of cream, mayonnaise, and the mussel broth which cannot be praised enough. Oh and at Sceltema you get all you can eat baguette to dip in the delicious mussel juice at the end.

Moules Frites at Sceltema -
a little too much celery for my taste, but still delicious.

Sadly, at Chez Leon the service was terrible, the place felt like a Dave & Busters with its touristy gimmicks and branded beer glasses, and on top of all that, the mussels were puny and there were about a million cracked shells in my pot. Chez Leon can keep their star-studded guest list.
I would rather go back to Sceltema any day.

Chez Leon: Roman Polanski once sat at our table.
Odd and slightly disturbing coincidence.

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III. Belgian Beer: Officially Brenda's Achilles' Heel

Thanks to the above mentioned friendly cab driver, Matt and I knew to order a "trappiste" or "monk
beer" when we finally sat down at a local beer bar for an impromptu tasting. Feeling adventurous, I went for a dark beer and Matt went for a blonde (typical male ;) ). He followed his first with a Kwak - a beer that comes with its very own wooden stand and looks as fallic as it sounds.* I'm glad I only had one as my beer was officially 11% and his 8%. These Belgian monks are not kidding around.

badass Belgian monk beer: no wussy budweiser 'round here.

Official verdict: Belgian beer rocks. Rochefort and Westmalle dark were the first two dark beers I have geniunely liked in my life. And the Westmalle blonde, which one waiter claimed was "the best beer in the world" with "no equal," wasn't bad either, but more to Matt's taste than mine.

Interestingly, Roman also prefers "blondes." What a gentleman. ;)

Real Men Drink Kwaks.

*We first tried a Kwak at our local pub in NYC (David Copperfield's on 74th and York) with friends Sandra and Jed and it has been a long standing and rather puerile joke ever since.

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  1. Sounds like a fun trip! I would really love to visit Belgium! Roman is just adorable - I especially love the picture of him with the beer - too cute!

  2. What a great review of one of my favorite cities. I love Brussels, and had a blast. I was there a couple of times for work and always used any opportunity to score the moules, frites, and biere. What the heck else was I going to eat. I know I should have tried the fancy places, but this was just so satisfying.

    Roman looks like he has his mom's culinary inquisitiveness and is well on his way to foodie bliss.

    Ah, I also miss the Eurostar, why can't American trains be more like European or Asian trains for that matter?

  3. I so love your commentary! When my sister did her Grand Tour of Europe several years ago, she raved about Brussels more than any other place. It's definitely on our wish list of places to visit.

    Roman is often to a wonderful start on his peripatetic life!