Despite being one of the smaller European countries, Belgium has a rather extensive beer brewing and drinking culture that goes back centuries. As a result Belgium is rather famous as one of the world’s top beer countries, and the Belgian beer styles are getting increasingly popular in other countries as well. With several hundred Belgian brews available, you are never far from a beer bar most anywhere in a Belgian city, and in Brussels, our rental flat was just down the street from one of the more regarded ones, À la Mort Subite. It was our first destination upon arriving in Brussels (after a short walking tour), and, on our last evening in Belgium, it was also one of our last, since we all decided another trip to À la Mort Subite was in order.
Our last full day in Brussels was one of wandering and exploring. Sophie went off to see some old sites from when she lived there. Dan went to check out The Royal Museum for Central Africa, mostly a museum about Belgium’s sordid colonial past. And Carol and I decided to do a bit of a walking tour, checking out the botanical garden, the old 19th century homes around Square Ambiorix, and then checking out the Parc du Cinquantenaire and L’arc de Triomphe, the last of these being a rather large and impressive park originally built in 1880 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Belgium. At the Arch, we rendezvoused with Dan and Sophie, and decided to find a pleasant place to eat, eventually settling on Carpe Diem, a brasserie just east of the Arch on Avenue de Tervueren. It’s getting almost to be a running joke at this point, but like a lot of the previous reviews, Carpe Diem is your basic Belgian brasserie, with a menu focusing primarily on traditional Belgian dishes (I must make a note to myself here to try some more ethnic food the next time I’m in Brussels…). But they really do have a good selection of traditional Belgian dishes, including Lapin à la Gueuze (Rabbit in a Gueuze beer sauce), Carbonades Flamandes (Flemish stew), Chicons au Gratin (basically potatoes au gratin), Vol-au-vent, and Stoemp de Saison (basically an elaborate mashed potatoes), as well as a good selection of Belgian beers and side dishes.
After a pleasant day trip to Bruges, we took the evening train back to Brussels, where Sophie took us to one of her favorite seafood joints, La Marée. Is located a few blocks to the west of Place Ste Catherine, which used to be the big open air fish market of Brussels. It isn’t anymore, but that area (especially the restaurants lining the West side of Place Ste Catherine) is still the epicenter of seafood dining in Brussels, and La Marée, while not being one of the big places right on the Place, is still a good go-to place for good seafood.
Well, the next day in Brussels, we again decided to set off for Bruges, and this time we were successful—no drama with the rental flat, and the trains were running on time. So by mid-morning we had arrived in Bruges. Bruges is an interesting little city; it’s the capital of the Belgian province of West-Flanders (and distinctly in the Flemish part of Belgian: put away your French, folks, you won’t be needing it here). It’s also, by deliberate choice, retains a rather substantial medieval feel, between the authentic (Gothic period buildings), semi-authentic (Bruges had a rather substantial Neo-Gothic movement in the 19th century), and modern building codes (intended to keep things looking Gothic), it’s been fairly successful. The result is something halfway between authentic and touristy, but it’s a pleasant destination nonetheless. We did most of the standard Bruges tourist things, including walking along the canals, drinking beer, and climbing the Belfort (Belfry, the central tower in Bruges). After a round of that, we were ready for some lunch. As was, well, the rest of Bruges, including the tourists. But consulting one of several of our tourism guides, a mere block from the central Grote Markt we found Den Amand, a small bistro.
Since we ended up unexpectedly in Brussels for the evening, Sophie decided to take us on another walking tour of part of Brussels, ending up at L’ultime Atome, a nice Brasserie in the southeast part of town (Ixelles). Located a block off of the shopping street of Chaussee d’Ixelles, l’Ultime Atome is basically a neighborhood brasserie, focusing on typical Belgian food and having a rather extensive beer list. The decor of L’ultime Atome also has a bit of the Art Deco look, although more of the 1980s and 1990s “Art Deco Revival” style than true Art Deco, but it’s still a pleasant enough interior, rather spacious as well. If I go back, I’d like to go during the day so I can check out one of the tables outside on the terrace, which has a nice view down to the church down the street. But we were quickly seated in the bustling restaurant and sipping on our beers.
The plan for Belgium started simple: on our second full day in the country, we were going to take the train to Bruges, check out that city, and come back in the evening. That’s when the otherwise spotless good luck I had so far on this trip decided to take a turn for the worse. First, upon going to get breakfast, my brother discovered that he couldn’t get back into the flat with his key. Or the spare key. So we had to wait for someone from the management company to come check it out and summon a locksmith. Then, leaving about an hour late for the train station, we then discovered that the trains were running on a 20 minute delay. Which became a 40 minute delay. And then an hour delay. We decided to go see if things got better after lunch, so we wandered from the train station to the nearby Mont des Arts, where we found Kwint on the terrace, and decided to have lunch there.
Most any time we end up traveling with my brother Dan and his wife Sophie, we usually try to go out for at least one fancy dinner and live it up a bit. When we were in Belgium, we figured this would be a good opportunity to check out Belga Queen, one of the trendy Brussels restaurants that has been a hot spot for several years. Located just down the street from the Royal Theater, Belga Queen is fashioned out of an early 1900s bank, back in the era when banks were pretty much expected to have elaborate, over-the-top, marble interiors. And Belga Queen didn’t disappoint.
As I mentioned in the previous review, Belgium has several well-known food items. The Belgian waffle (the gaufre de liege). Beer. Mussels (les moules). Chocolate. And frites. Yeah, us Americans may think that we love what we call French Fries, but the Belgians really have a serious thing going for their frites. So when my sister-in-law was taking us on a walking tour of Brussels showing us some of her old haunts, one of the places she took us was Maison Antoine. Maison Antoine is a little stand in the Etterbeek section of Brussels in Place Jourdan, and quite frankly, they are the attraction for the area, with long lines snaking through the park up to the two ordering windows. While Maison Antoine nominally has a rather full menu of items (including such dubious items as “Chicken Sticks” and the “Carrero”, a McRib-like heavily processed pork patty), there’s really only one item on the menu worth considering, and that’s the frites (available in two different sizes). And that’s pretty much what everyone orders: the frites, walking off with cornets of fresh frites and condiments for munching either on the go, or by sitting down and eating them with a beer at one of the local cafes (most of which are perfectly happy with you bringing in frites from outside).
Okay, I’m going to start out by saying that this review is of a place that’s not particularly offbeat or unique. You see, pretty much any place you go in Belgium, you can count on three things being widely available: beer, frites, and Gaufres de Liege, aka the Belgian Waffle. Doing a simple walking tour of Brussels, I passed approximately two dozen storefronts, carts, and food trucks selling freshly made Gaufres de Liege, and by the time we got to Square de Meeûs, the nice aromas of freshly-baked waffles had finally defeated me, and I had to stop at Pascalino’s Glaces et Gaufres for a waffle.