Brussels staid and elegant buildings lining the Grand Place bely a history far more interesting than their conservative continence indicates. Le Cygne, the townhouse with the white swan, was the butchers' guild, but later, as a tavern, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels worked on the Communist Manifesto. This was just one entertaining revelation Patrick Aerts, tour guide for Visit Brussels, offered about his modest city that’s both the capital of Belgium and, as some say, of Europe.
Restaurant ‘T Kelderke, near Le Cygne, is in the palace of the Dukes of Brabant. Actually, the building never was a ducal home, not even a palace, but rather seven townhouses with the same facade. The restaurant’s in the cellar. The muted colors of the vaulted stone room softly glow in this traditional Belgian tavern. Hearty servings of stoemp, the national dish of mashed potatoes and steamed vegetables, are paired with thick grilled sausages. An earthenware dish arrives fresh from the oven with shucked mussels covered in a bubbling cheese sauce and, with traditional Belgian blonde ale, it’s a satisfying lunch on a chilly damp afternoon.
Grand Place 27 is a temple to Belgian chocolate. In the 19th century Jean Neuhaus invented the praline. Despite dozens of superb Belgian chocolatiers, the Neuhaus brand is still gold. Yet since this is the Grand Place, there must be another story. The house was once home to Victor Hugo during the great writer’s exile from France’s Second Empire. Hugo must have savored the creamy rich taste of Neuhaus’ superb chocolates.
Brussels has a remarkably well preserved and extensive pedestrian friendly historic district that traces architecture from Roman times through art deco. That’s why it’s startling to stand in front of a life-sized statue of Tintin at the entrance to a 17th century building. Even more famous now that Steven Spielberg’s produced the recent movie, the beloved Tintin was created in the 1940’s during the kingdom’s post war recovery. Writing under the pen name Herge, Georges Remi’s Adventures of Tintin became a 20th century sensation sparking a continuing Belgian love affair with high quality illustrated comic books.
The Comic Cafe is an imaginative combination of book store, cafe and comic book literary salon. Yet after this pleasant introduction to comics as high art, and good coffee, eyes become accustomed to wall after wall of enormous frescos painted on the sides of buildings throughout the historic district. Favorite scenes from cherished comic books are immortalized as public art.
Next to comic books must come the Belgian love of seafood, especially lowly mussels. Steamed mussels come in as many variations as pizzas in New York, and are just as sought after. Michelin star La Brasserie du Jaloa is Chef Gaitan Colin’s seafood house in the old city. Tables in the small outdoor space front an impressive display of iced fresh fish and seafood which become the appetizers and entrees of the evening. Many tables shared a du Jaloa favorite, a multi tiered stand brimming with a mountainous assortment of iced seafood including lobster in the shell, oysters, clams, shrimp and snails.
The interior is simple and elegant. No tablecloths, not much decoration, but the lighting is impressive. A trio of small spotlights, one each of red, blue and green, play subtly on the pale walls. The lights were particularly effective on an accent wall papered in rich red with du Jaloa’s logo. The imaginative menu started with a pate of sardines and white cheese. First impression was of a liver pate due to its look, but it was a subtle blending of flavors that finished with a hint of fish.
A carpaccio of swordfish was Mediterranean influenced with paper thin slices of swordfish napped with olive oil, ripe olives, tomatoes, onions, bitter greens and a chiffonade of zucchini with sea salt. Very subtle flavors and a delicate texture. A Coup de Cava was a nice wine pairing with its bubbles and light, crisp taste.
The entree was a deconstruction of a classic Belgian dish of steak and fries. Thick slices of tender rare beef in a rich caramelized onion demi glace sauce were topped with thin green beans and crispy smoked ham. The beef was prime and the fries home made in beef fat for both flavor and lack of oiliness. They were served in the traditional paper lined cone. A perfectly fine house cabernet sauvignon was a good choice since its strong fruit flavors and slight acidic notes balanced the rich beef.
Dessert was iced coffee with whipped cream that was actually a coffee milkshake with an intense vanilla flavor. Walking back to the Radisson Blu Hotel, streets were still pleasantly full of people enjoying the evening. More than one was munching on the sweet pastry pain a la Grecque or lined up at waffle stands. Brussels may be a nerve center for the European Union, but its residents enjoy their city with all the calm afforded a quaint village.