Millions of people enter Brussels, the capital of Europe, each week. Most come for business or work meetings, some come en route to visit other places in Belgium like Bruges, Gent or Antwerp, others to work and still some to visit what is the administrative capital of Europe. No one comes for its food.
That is a mistake, because the food scene in Brussels is incredibly varied and surprisingly good. The same can be said of Belgium, an underestimated culinary country, if ever there was one.
Tourists visiting Brussels will normally head to the Grand-Place area and to what has now become one of the largest pedestrian zones in Europe, near the Bourse (Stock Exchange), which will soon be turned into a beer museum and the Place St Catherine area.
They will be lured into one of the many restaurants serving mussels and ‘French fries’. They will know that Brussels and Belgium is well known for its beers and chocolate, but few are aware of the culinary diversity or richness of the country or its capital city.
They will tend to venture into the area of Place Sablon, full of great boutique shops and home to some of the best chocolate shops. The Pierre Marcolini chocolate shop here is a tourist attraction in its own right. As is the long established Wittamer.
Alas, many of the repeat visitors who visit this city so often that they think they know it on their fingertips miss the culinary treats that are on offer in every quarter of this city. Brussels is still not on anyone’s culinary map.
But this is a shame because this city of just over 1 million inhabitants can kick a culinary punch. It is claimed there are over 163 nationalities living here and the diversity in food and wine is second to none.
This city has 28 Michelin stars in total, including the restaurants just outside the city. Although it has no three Michelin star restaurant, a pity given it was the first city outside of France to have a three Michelin star restaurant in 1972, it has four extremely good two Michelin star restaurants and 20 one star restaurants. On top of that, there are scores of excellent restaurants in different neighbourhoods around the city.
The reasons for this are varied. It is known that Belgians take their food very seriously. But there is also a large expat community which is constantly on the look-out for new places to eat. It is therefore easy to test new culinary concepts. And many are willing to test them at least once before they become ‘trendy’.
Many of its restaurants are not well-known internationally and some of the most well known Belgian chefs that have an international reputation like Peter Goosens of Hof Van Cleve, Gert de Mangeleer of Hertog Jan, Kobe Desramaults of In De Wulf and Sang Hoon Degeimbre of L’ Air du Temps are not based in Brussels.
This means that many chefs in Brussels are not really in the public eye. I was surprised recently to notice that some of the top chefs in Brussels are not even active on social media. When I asked people in the industry, why this was the case, the answer was pretty obvious . “They don’t need to push themselves and make themselves visible because they are already extremely busy.”
That’s a pity because there is an interesting story to tell. Will this change? It is hard to say even if the advent of chefs like Sang-Hoon Degeimbre, who is opening his first bistro in Rue de Flandres this coming September, may help turn things around.
The city is also home to some interesting food concepts such as Culinaria, a culinary event bringing together Belgium’s best chefs, the Tram Experience which started off temporarily but has how been running for four years and Dinner in the Sky (for customers and chefs who are not afraid of heights).
Then there are also ‘design restaurants’ that have become Brussels institutions not only for their food but also for their design. For a restaurant in a spectacular setting head to Belga Queen designed by architect and chef Antoine Pinto. Part restaurant, oyster bar, bar and even a club, it is housed in a landmark building dating back from the 18th century and which previously housed the Hotel de la Poste and then the Credit du Nord Bank). If eating in a former bank or clubbing in its vault does not take your fancy, you can always visit La Manufacture, a restaurant housed in a former printing house and then a factory of Belgian leather goods manufacturer Delvaux or La Quincaillerie in a former ironmonger’s shop, designed by a student of Victor Horta.
A visit to a Brussels restaurant normally requires some advance planning. First you need to decide which day you are going and then look to see which restaurants are open on that day. It is not unusual for many of the top restaurants to be closed on Saturdays and Sundays. Some are only open for lunch. But you can rest assured that there are always options available whichever day takes your fancy.
But don’t be intimidated by all this because with some effort and perseverance you will be rewarded with some incredible discoveries.
In ten years of living in this city which has become my second ‘home’ I have rarely if ever been disappointed. The list of restaurants, food or wine shops I still need to visit is never-ending. And with new eateries opening almost on a monthly basis, this list only gets longer and longer.
What is so special about Brussels? First it is the quality of the produce which is available. This cultural melting pot needs to cater for its diverse international crowd. You will be able to find whatever you require and in whichever price category. If you are willing to take the time to shop locally, i.e. by avoiding the large supermarkets in favour of artisans, you will get exceptional produce. And this is the produce which many restaurants are working with.
Many restaurants are focusing on local produce but they are able to find anything from fish to meat to vegetables coming from wherever in the world.
The city prides itself of having had the first ever three Michelin star restaurant outside France, the Villa Lorraine which recently regained its Michelin star. In many ways, this acquisition could be a sign that Brussels means business again. The restaurant is owned by Sergei Litvine, a food connoisseur who has also invested and opened the most spectacular restaurant in the city. It is the Michelin-starred La Villa in the Sky at the top of the IT Tower on Avenue Louise. The chef there is Alexandre Dionisio formerly of Restaurant Alexandre.
You can normally judge a city by its markets and Brussels certainly has a few food markets to make your mouth water. Most are off the beaten track and few tourists tend to visit them despite the fact that the one next to the Gare du Midi (Brussels international train station) on Sundays is one of the largest outdoor markets in Europe. We tend to prefer the smaller more specialised food markets like the Sunday one in Place Weiner in Watermael Boitfort, the Wednesday market at Place Chatelain and the Monday market on Place Saint Job in Uccle.
There are also a number of young chefs who are slowly making a name for themselves. Young chefs like Maxime Colin (Villa Lorraine), Damien Bouchery (Bouchery), Alexandre Dionisio (Villa in the Sky) and Alex Joseph (Rouge Tomate) are surely among the names to look out for in future.
Then there are places like Le Pigeon Noir, Le Passage, Kamo (the only Japanese Michelin starred restaurant in Belgium) and La Paix which are perfect examples of what is on offer in the city. (the list is by no means exhaustive and we will try to cover more of our favourite places in later posts).
When in Brussels make sure not to miss out on the many patisseries. Among the unmissable ones are Fabrice Collignon, Le Saint Aulaye, Van Dender, Pierre Marcolini and Wittamer. For chocolates you are spoilt for choice. From Pierre Marcolini to Passion au Chocolat there are chocolates in every taste and size and these are spectacularly good. But you cannot expect any better. After all we are speaking about the capital of Belgium.
Belgium may not be know for its cheese but it has access to some of the best cheeses coming from different parts of Europe. One of Belgium’s best cheese ‘affineurs’ can be found in Brussels. The name is Julien Hazard on Rue Vanderkindere and a visit is a must for any cheese aficionados. Designed to look like a boutique, the selection of cheese gets no better.
One of Belgium’s best butchers Jack O’Shea has recently opened a chophouse. His meat can be found in three different butcher shops in Brussels. He supplies many of the city’s restaurants as does the other famous Belgian butcher on the Belgian coast Hendrik Dierendonck.
You may want to take a look at some of the bloggers writing about different eateries in Brussels at Brussels Food Friends.
Brussels is probably one of Europe’s most multicultural cities. Next time you are visiting Brussels, take the time to go to places which are off the beaten track. Head to the different residential areas full of restaurants and speciality shops. You will discover a city beyond your imagination.
(Note: This is our 300th article on Food and Wine Gazette and we thought it fitting to write about the city we have been residing in for the past 10 years)