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Bingeing in Brussels
Published in Verve Magazine | March 2013

On the seventh day in Brussels, I felt like a stuffed turkey. There are several people responsible for this state – of– affairs and they will be named. Although in their defence, its Brussels’ fault, with the most delicious European fare on offer. And I am here to take part in the 30 years long French vs Belgian cuisine debate. Who gives a bigger bang for the buck.

Pascal Devalkeneer has a bemused smile on his face when I ask. It’s midnight in midweek May, but the garden area in his restaurant is buzzing with happy diners, many Euro wealthy regulars. I observe Pascal flit from table to important table, whilst supervising his kitchen simultaneously. Earlier, he had welcomed me to his legendary restaurant, Le Chalet de La Foret, saying,‘For you,la degustation !’ with a promise to return and chat later.

So later is now and this is what I have indulged in the last three hours. Almost raw Mackerel, sliced and served on a pate of butter and Japanese yuzu herb, dressed by a rhubarb jus. Razor Clams with Cantillon Gueuze beer and savage celery, salted cucumber with sea weed butter. Crisp sautéed baby lamb sweet breads in a cassolette of bean marshes and morels drizzled by a herb mousseline.

Those were just the starters! See two words jump out? Beer. Butter. Yes, the Belgians not only produce slurpilicious beers, they also cook in it. And to make it all go down the gullet smoothly, they add butter. Mind those waistlines, ladies.

Minding his is Monsieur Devalkeneer (The Falconeer),Tai-Chi lean and a face more suited to detective roles in French flicks. In a verdant setting of landscaped gardens , he presides in his kingdom, reached by a fifteen minute drive from the centre of Brussels. A college dropout whose cuisine art combines top quality produce with imaginative blends of flavours. And no, its not molecular gastronomy thankfully. “Its like making a damn good film every night, without worrying about an Oscar”, was Pascal’s modest way of describing his double Michelin crown.

Belgium has 16 restaurants boasting two Michelin stars, 3 restaurants with three (!) Michelins and ___ with single Michelins. Now you know why the gastronomic world views Belgian cuisine so greedily. Accompanied by two bottles of Premier Cru Les Buis Nudant red wine,I greedily gorge on the mains:”Petits gris Snails, Frog legs, Spelt prepared as a risotto; Seabass with laurel leaves, little artichokes and confit lemon; Pigeon breast on young beets and truffle sauce. I am already stifling burps before dessert.

You can burp satisfied at over 1,800 restaurants that serve food from street – cheap to café cuisine to Michelin experiences and a number of high quality bars. Coffee houses are called Salons de Thé. Also widespread are brasseries, which usually offer a large number of beers and typical national dishes.

Culinary conundrum. Who invented chips ? The French of Belgians ?The French claim the ‘frite’ was invented by Parisian street merchants circa late 18thcentury. Belgians claim potato chips were first fried in Namur, southern Belgium in the 17th century. Brussels famous food critic Eric Bosschman seals the argument with, “The French eat them with meat. The British with fish . But us Belgians, having taken it to a cultural high, bestow it the importance of a dish by itself !” Pass the ketchup please.

So yes, vegetarians rejoice. You can breakfast, lunch and dine on sizable portions of pommes frites (fried potato chips). My mission was different however. I just wanted to eat mussels, which the city I famed for. Friend Dominique Andre takes me for lunch to Chez Leon, which opened its doors in 1893 and never closed since. ( Calculate the millions of mussels they mjust have sold!).Located on the popular Rue du Bouchers( Butchers Street) in the heart of the city, it’s a must eat place surrounded by dozens of similar restaurants.I ate Moules Frites( fried mussels) with tartare suace and a Maes beer. Yummm. Dominique told me there are nine ways of cooking mussels ( snail butter/ provencale/ or just raw). The next night, with US Ambassador Joe Pomper and World bank Director Paul Cordario, I dine on Moule frites Provencale at the chic Armes de Bruxelles restaurant. Double yumm at triple the prices!

Chocoholic like me? Opinions about Belgian chocolate being superior to the French may just be true. Brussels is a stronghold of chocolate and pralines manufacturers. The big four have their outlets in a square called PLACE DU GRAND SABLON, located in the center of the city. Wittamer has the chocolate boutique and next door runs a crowded , very popular café. The snobbiest one is Pierre Marcolini and the friendliest store to visit is that of Godiva.

Your jaw is just about to drop. While 99% of Americans are busy scarfing down as many $2 Subway “sandwiches” as they can, the 1% are eating fucking diamonds. Oh yes really: Belgian chocolatier Wittamer has put together this here $240,000 chocolate praline, and it costs so much because presumably it’s really good chocolate but also because they threw a 3.63 carat diamond on top. Also: dark ganache, caramel, ginger, and edible gold leaf. It comes in a jewlery box and the diamond is actually set in the chocolate. Not sold? Eh, like you have $240,000 to blow on chocolate anyway. See you at Subway!

Here are renderings of “The Cube,” a portable pop-up restaurant created by the Milan-based architectural design studio Park Associati and commissioned by the appliance maker Electrolux. The restaurant, featuring a laser-cut aluminum skin, was “conceived to be placed in unexpected and dramatic European locations” and will offer lunch and dinner for eighteen guests at a time.

Its first stop? Apparently it’s headed to Brussels, destined to be placed on top of the Parc du Cinquantenaire (see the photos above). It’ll be open from March 25 through July 3.

The Belgian Michelin-starred chefs Sang Hoon Degeimbre ( L’Air Du Temps, Noville-sur-Mehaigne) and Bart de Pooter (De Pastorale, Reet) have been commissioned to prepare the meals and will alternate dates. And yes, you can get still get reservations — there are still a few spots left! Lunch is 150 Euros ($207) and dinner is 200 Euros ($277) per person.