Monday, April 5, 2010

Spain Trip Part 1: Brussels Layover

I used to travel to Spain several times per year to play music. During my decade of Chowhound madness, I didn't touch my trombone, much less travel for gigs. But I recently returned for the first time in many years, and I'll share the photos in several installments. Today: Belgium.

Please click the photos to expand them, as they're not really meant to be viewed at this size.

When I booked my flight, I was given a choice between a two-hour layover in Brussels and a twelve-hour layover in Brussels. It was a no-brainer: obviously, I chose twelve hours in The Holy Land. I've long worshipped at the alter of Belgian beer (I wrote about it early, long before all the popularity), and feel equally reverential about the country's stupendous mussels, chocolate, and French fries (which should really be called Belgian fries!). Screw France; Belgian is the more ancient cuisine, and they do French better than the French (there are more Michelin starred restaurants per capita in Belgium than in France).

Unfortunately, my eagerness to hang in The Holy Land made me overlook the logistical realities. My flight would depart NYC at 7:30pm, and arrive in Brussels at 7am local time, or 1am my time, at which point I'd not be much in the mood for a spree. But, hoping sheer adrenalin might stoke a few hours of mirth before the inevitable crumbling, I threw luggage into a storage locker at the airport, grabbed a city bus, and made my way - sloppy, bleary, and unshaven - into town.

First stop, near European parliament, was an oh-so-inviting bakery, Paul Bruxelles Bel'art (Rue Froissart 72, 1040 Etterbeek; 02/231.11.31) where I beheld the most welcome of early morning sights for a weary traveler: this amazing blistery crunchy/chewy torsade du fromage, plus a coffee so civilized I'm amazed they'd serve it to the likes of me:

Fruit tart. So flakey, so lardy in the crust....sigh:

Apricot tart. Moist, tangy fruit contrasted magnificently with soft, buttery pastry:

Lovely raisin torsades (unsampled, alas):

Upon subsequent research, the place turns out to be part of a huge multinational chain (Paul Maison de Qualite, "Fondee en 1889") with branches all over Europe, the Mideast, and, uh, Florida. Fine by me; deliciousness is deliciousness. My favorite Montreal Bakery, Première Moisson, also wound up being a chain.

Unfortunately - though, I suppose, quite reasonably - the best frites stand in Brussels, Maison Antoine (1 Place Jourdan), is shuttered at 9am, damn them. Is this not a heartbreaking sight?

But right across from Antoine was my consulation prize: a bourgeois bakery called Allemeersch (Steenweg op Waver 396, 1040 Etterbeek, Belgium‎ - 02 647 47 69‎). They sell attractive this and that, but the real gem is "pralines avec biere trappiste": chocolate truffles made with strong Trappist ale from Westmalle and Rochefort, two of my favorites. They were unforgettable.

Then it was on to lunch at In 't Spinnekopke (Bloemenhofplein 1, 1000 Brussels; 02 511 86 95), an unpronounceable stalwart of old-timey Flemish cookery. It's declined since my last visit; apparently being one of those places that's played "telephone game" through successive generations of chefs, with the result being slightly unfocused, sloppy food. They're coasting on reputation. But unfocused sloppy food by Brussels standards is still a rich pleasure for a visiting astronaut/zombie. Consider, for example, these plump garnalenkroketjes (aka croquettes de crevettes grises d'oostende), croquettes made from tiny grey shrimp from the North Sea (here's a good-loooking recipe):

Like I said, the cooking's a tad unfocused:

Here are mussels topped with creamy/eggy waterzooi, a novel (to me) construction that really didn't meld:

Frites had the right flavor, but were a bit soggy:

But I washed it all down with fantastic gueze from legendary lambic blender Drie Fonteinen, and felt I'd enjoyed a true (if not truly great) Belgian experience:

Obviously, I was in no condition to drink much, but gueze is fairly low in alcohol, so I didn't hesitate to drink four large glassfuls. Woops. I'm not sure how I made it back to the airport, but I did, and was soon on my way to Spain.

Stay tuned, please, for coverage of shocking orgies of charry onion shoots, bodacious potato porn, and an emotional revisit to my single favorite restaurant in the whole world.

Continue to Part 2: Calçots Somewhere in Catalonia


Peter Cucè said...

Nice post Jim. Good to see you writing more along the lines of What Jim Had For Dinner, which is what drew me to Chowhound initially. I wasn't clear from your post as to whether or not you had anything at Paul or not. I went to one in Shanghai and found it perfectly horrible -- bready croissant and terrible espresso.

Jim Leff said...

Thanks, Pete

Hmm....if it's not clear that the first four photos were taken at Paul, then I need to seriously reconsider my formatting. Suggestions?

As I say above, every bite there was a delight. Mileage may vary extensively at other branches.

Pat said...

I'll have trouble waiting for more. "What Jim Had For Dinner" yes, but it takes me back to the ChowTour, that heroic, insane trek of yours!

Jim Leff said...

Ugh, don't remind me! I've been working for three years to recuperate from that Chow Tour.

This is, hopefully, more relaxed. Eating for me, and letting you follow along, rather than eating purely for reporting purposes....determined to find some sort of amazing score or interesting story every single day...

Dave said...

I'm following along happily, too, with a slightly open mouth.

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