A couple of weekends ago, my husband and I crossed the border and ventured over to the land of chocolate and moules frites (mussels and fries). I had only briefly visited Brussels once years ago when I had flown to Paris and driven to the most south eastern corner of Belgium to get my dog, Elroy. During that trip, I was only in Brussels for a few hours, and the only thing I really remember about the city was the rather unremarkable meal that I had that night. From what I’ve gathered, the French don’t hold the Belgians in particularly high esteem and think of themselves and their culture/cuisine as being far superior to that of the Belgians. Given that mediocre meal and their reputation among the French, I didn’t exactly have any sort of expectations, but nevertheless, I still looked forward to leaving the hustle and bustle of Paris for a long weekend to explore the home of the European Commission.
My husband has an uncle who lives in Brussels, so we have actually been wanting to visit for quite some time now. From Paris, it’s only a few hours by car, but our plans have been derailed by nasty weather every time. A couple of weeks ago, the weather was looking pretty good, so we figured now would be the perfect time to go. However, just like in the past, the weather took a turn for the worst that weekend. Temperatures started to drop into the 50s and severe storms were forecasted throughout the whole weekend. Regardless, we went anyways, since the weather would likely be lousy at any other point in time because of how far north it is and how close it is to the North Sea.
I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked Brussels (mind you, this was just days before the Belgians knocked us out of the World Cup!). It’s a quaint, yet exceptionnally beautiful city, full of well preserved monuments and impressively lush, green parks. Noticeably absent were the piles of dog poop and litter that are so omnipresent in Paris. The city wasn’t teaming with tourists either, which is a nice change during this time of year. We had no planned itinerary, so we wandered aimlessly on foot throughout the city, discovering it bit by bit, as we often do when visiting new cities. Although we didn’t have a specific list of things to do and see, the mister did have a hankering for Belgium’s famous moules frites, while my only want was to experience their world renowned chocolates, particularly those of Pierre Marcolini, one of the gods of chocolate.
Satisfying both items on our list would have been easy since restaurants serving moules frites and chocolate boutiques are a dime a doezn in Brussels. However, not having done any research on where to eat prior to our trip, we didn’t know where the best moules frites could be found. So, we settled for a tried and true chain, Chez Léon, and it happened to be the original location, which opened its doors in 1893. Despite being a chain, we were actually pretty relieved when we spotted this place, because their mussels and fries are consistently good every time we have them in Paris. And, being in the touristy Grand Place area, there were very few quality dining options. As always, their classic moules marinières and all-you-can-eat fries did not disappoint. After overdoing it on the exceptionally tasty fries, we opted to walk off the meal instead of taking the metro back to our hotel.
And finally, of course, what trip to Brussels would be complete without a stop at Pierre Marcolini? Visiting his boutique and pâtisserie in the chic Sablon neighborhood was quite a treat! He is one of the few chocolatiers in Europe who is actually involved in every step of the chocolate making process. He trots the globe seeking high quality cocoa beans and extracts the cocoa butter, which he then uses to fabricate the chocolates used to make his candies and chocolate-based products. Unlike Marcolini, most chocolatiers use premade chocolates to make their candies. Sourcing the cocoa beans and fabricating the chocolate himself allows him to control the quality as well as the flavors that he is after. With so much care taken in the chocolate making process, it’s no wonder that his chocolates are nothing short of exquisite and quite possibly the best that I have ever experienced.
Not only are his chocolates the best in Belgium, but his talents also extend into the world of pastries, being named the world’s best pastry chef in 1995. One of my favorite pastries is tarte au citron meringuée, and luckily, there was one left when we visited his pâtisserie. Like his chocolates, it’s without a doubt one of the best tarte au citrons that I’ve ever had. The flavors were perfectly balanced, with the lemon custard filling being much lighter and having a bit more acidity than most tarte au citrons I’ve had. Topped with a pillowy dallop of meringue, it was just pure bliss. We also got a sharing sized cake to bring to the mister’s uncles house, and I’m now kicking myself for not taking any pictures of that marvelous creation. It was a chocolate mousse and raspberry based cake with a touch of balsamic vinegar. Even the uncle, who doesn’t really like sweets, and his wife, who is diabetic and doesn’t often indulge in sweets, loved the cake. Luckily, Marcolini has boutiques here in Paris, so I won’t have to travel far to savor his goodies!