Despite the recent terrorist attacks in Brussels, it is important to remember that Brussels is a vibrant and welcoming city that has been an excellent destination for tourists and professionals alike.
As the seat of the European commission, Brussels constantly hosts friends from all over the world. This is evident in the multi-lingual abilities of its people. A French speaker, I polished up on my “Ou est la bibliothèque?” prior to setting off for the Belgian capital.
I was disappointed (and rightly put in my place) to discover that Belgians speak a variety of languages, and French is but one of them. Despite the difficulty of reawakening my dormant French, interacting with the people of Brussels is easily facilitated by their high standards of spoken English, as well as an open attitudes to visitors.
Unlike some European destinations where natives take offence if you haven’t mastered their mother tongue, the people of Brussels seem adaptable and happy to accommodate visitors as the exchange with a waiter becomes a melting pot of mixed vocabulary.
On the topic of waiters, let’s get to the food.
Arriving in Brussels around lunchtime, naturally means one heads straight for the nearest café or restaurant. A small square near the Brussels metro stop from the airport, hosts saxophone players and passers-by strolling through the shops and cafes.
The photographic menu (Good or bad sign, you ask? Read on.) is handed over by a tall and debonair waiter. We risked a pot of mussels in garlic butter, with an insurance order of a mini pizza and a cheese and olive bowl.
The mussels were grand; just grand. The true mussel-ly moment was to be had later on. The true revelation of the meal was the cheese and olive bowl. This was no ordinary cheese and olive bowl, no no no no. This cheese and olive bowl had mustard on the side. MUSTARD. I never really considered myself a mustard-y person before, but I no longer remember a life before this discovery.
The mussels were left to float in their watery, buttery, pot thinking, ‘why did we even bother?’ while the pizza looked pitiful sitting there, all margarita-like.
But as for the cheese and olive bowl… there are no words. No words only to say that it changed my life. The tart flavour of the olives mixed with the ripe cheese and fiery mustard made me want to stick my face in the bowl like it was my last meal.
What an excellent start to the trip.
After dropping our luggage at the hotel, we headed out again in time for dinner. This outing saw us discover my favourite foody moment of the trip: Chez Leon. Chez Leon is a restaurant in the old Brussels foodie quarter, Îlot Sacré, that is all windy streets and maîtres d’s outside establishments, vying for custom.
The restaurant looks warm and inviting, bustling with a variety of clientele; from families to couples on a date, it caters for everyone while maintaining an elegant and down-to-earth air.
Along with delicious beers and excellent pommes frîtes (chips); diners are given the option of multiple variations on the region’s speciality: mussels or moules frîtes. This restaurant is a sure favourite. It has the white table cloths and smart waiters; the food is cooked to an excellent standard but is served without any bells and whistles. Two house labelled wine glasses are placed on the table, the plate of mussels and a steel side dish of chips. Simple; to the point; divine.
Across the small street from Chez Leon is Aux Armes de Bruxelles. It features in the Michelin guide. Another round of mussels was ordered, this time in garlic butter, the classic dish. A fantastically theatrical waiter in full tuxedo served our food and wine in the charming and old world style restaurant that is a Brussels’ classic. Apparently King Leopold III used to dine here monthly with his aide de camp, ordering the sole meunière every time.
Make sure to take in a hearty bruxellois continental breakfast before setting out on your return train and plane journeys. The typical assortment of breakfast food is pastries including waffles, croissants and pains au chocolat; add to this cold meat and cheeses; and of course coffee and jus d’orange (orange juice) and you are more than well fed and ready to take on the day.
This can be enjoyed on the terrace of La Brouette in the main square or Grand Place.
With yet more charming waiters and a hefty pastry filled platter of delights, the morning is easily wiled away people-watching across the ornate square.
My short trip to Brussels was a feast. A literal feast; a feast for the eyes through its architectural beauty; and a feast for the soul as it renewed my love for francophone culture. Love and sympathy go out to this beautiful city and its people.