Brusselicious: There, you’ve said it. And that’s the hard part. The eating is easy. The year 2012 has been declared the Gourmet Year in Belgium’s capital, with a menu of special activities to showcase what this quintessentially charming city has always done so well. It shines with everything from its galaxy of Michelin-starred cafes to street stands offering waffles or frites and mussels. And, did anyone mention chocolate?
But let’s start out at Mmmmh! (www.Mmmmh.be ), a combo of food, wine and kitchenware shops which also offers classes, including one in what its ringleader calls “the most hated of vegetables”—you guessed it: Brussels sprouts.
No longer the bad boy of the garden patch, four of the city’s leading restaurant chefs taught us, hands on, to prepare it in trendy, new ways: thin-sliced and crispy, with crab and crème fraiche, as a starter; wrapped with other crunchies, in rice paper atop seabass as a superior spring roll; paired with diced potatoes in a rich Gorgonzola sauce for pasta; and, as an homage to trendy molecular cuisine, cooked with potatoes in chicken stock, then whipped till creamy and siphoned into mousse over sausage slices—an avant update of the Belgian granny dish, stoemp (potatoes and leeks with sausage).
As literal icing on the cake, the session ended with a treat from the iconic chocolatier/pastry shop Wittamer, which created bite-sized, green-frosted creampuffs disguised as you-know-what. Meanwhile, around town, you’ll spot super-sized icons of Brussels food products created by artists—an uber-mussel, a maxi-cone of frites, a sprout almost as big as a house.
Not your cup of chocolate? Then sign on for a class at Cooking Time (www.cooking-time.be) , where chefs help guests prepare a lunch of typical Belgian products: today, ivory cod paired with shiny mussels and a sleek sabayon sauce, aside a mold of mashed potatoes melded with leeks. And for dessert, a dice of apples and beets (!) capped by ice cream made of beer—yes beer: another reason for a foodie pilgrimage.
There are 250 breweries in this tiny country, sporting over 2,000 beers—a greater variety than in any other land: Trappist, produced by monks, strong and rich and yeasty, such as Chimay; Lambic (Greuze), fermented from natural yeasts floating in the air, deliciously sour and toasty; and specialty beers such as Kriek, tasting like a cherry Lifesaver, swell with desserts; Kwak, an amber ale; and pilseners such as Duvel, strong as the devil, indeed.
Classes in chocolate-making are offered at Gerbaud, from tempering and molding to the best part, tasting: chocolates from a variety of continents and cocoa-butter strengths and fillings stretching from nuts and fruits to candied ginger.
Sign on for a walking tour (www.vizit.be) with nibble stops at a chocolatier, a bakery, cheese shop and seafood stand. Or jump on the Brusselicious Tram Experience for a city tour while savoring a three-course dinner with wines, prepared by a rotation of Michelin-starred chefs (85 euros). Hotels have gotten into the game by offering breakfast buffets of at least eight local products. Ours at the Royal Windsor careened from artisan cheeses and cold cuts to organic fruits and jams, plus another Belgian icon, waffles.
Time for dinner! To capture the essence of today’s thinking, we chose the year-old Alexandre, where chef Alexandre Dionisio has captured a Michelin star for the likes of his five (plus, plus)-course menu (85 euro) in his stylish lime-and-black dining room: first a parsnip veloute with fume of boudin noir sausage, eels and cockles, exquisitely presented; then scallops paired with veal cheek preceding a choice of venison with poached pears and polenta or sea bass with risotto, pesto, chorizo, leeks and smoked peppers; then chocolate ganache and orange jam flavoring sponge cake; and finally, coconut milk and lemon with Thai basil ice and sesame crumbles. Life is good!
And just as good on our evening at Va Doux Vent, an Art Nouveau bistro (Brussels excels in the style) newly launched by a trio of young cooking tyros: no star yet—it’s too new—but keep tuned. Here our six-course dinner (69 euros) vaulted from carpaccio of scallops and mango with coconut and lemon to fish with celery foam; then roast quail with cabbage, foie gras and essence of parsley and green tea, followed by rabbit three ways. Next, samosas plumped by Belgian cheeses paired with leek salad, and finally, a trio of apple sweets.
And now, to walk it off. Between meals, the city offers a visual feast, leading off with Ground Zero, the Grand’Place. Hemmed by lacy, gilded Gothic structures—town hall, guild houses-turned-cafes—the plaza, Europe’s finest, must be where Disney got his inspiration for a spire-lit fairyland. Cobbled streets trail off in every direction, leading to the naughty-boy statue Mannekin Pis (yes, that’s what he’s doing), the classy Galeries St.-Hubert shopping arcade; and churches like Gothic St. Nicholas, sporting a Rubens painting; ornate St. Jean-Baptiste; and Ste. Catherine with her Black Madonna, near the crumbling towers of the medieval city wall.
Walk uphill, and upscale, to the Upper Town, anchored by Place du Grand Sablon, whose Art Nouveau townhouses now house elegant chocolatiers, cafes, galleries such as the one dedicated to Tintin (there’s also a comic strip museum honoring this local hero), vintage and antiques shops. The outdoor stalls of an antiques market hems the church of Notre Dame du Sablon each weekend. Stop in the church itself to savor its glittering stained-glass windows.
Then head over a few blocks to the Museum Quarter, where the Royal Museums of Beaux Arts boasts three must-see collections. The first is dedicated to the mesmerizing works of homeboy surrealist Magritte—a black box inscribed with his enigmatic quotations (“Poetry is a pipe”) amid the art. Next, the Modern Art collection, and finally, the Art Ancien—a celebration of Flemish masters, including Hieronymous Bosch (maybe the original Surrealist), Jan Breughel (same, as evidenced in the sea monsters devouring a shower of Fallen Angels and his landscapes of lusty burghers), Memling’s serene Virgin, Cranach’s sexy Venus.
St.-Jacques District, near the Grand’Place is the Rainbow District, seconded by Rue du Marche-au-Charbon: more bars, cafes and shops.
Gay Pride May 11-12, 2012
Big La Demense: gay parties Easter and All Saints Day weekends (www.lademence.com)