With France and its famed cuisine just next door, Belgian food can struggle to get onto the culinary map. But as local chefs redefine old classics and start to embrace foreign influences, this small nation is starting to shine with Michelin stars and innovative fare. Here are Belgium's 10 best dishes - and where to try them in Brussels.
As Belgium’s national dish, each pan of steaming mussels is served with a helping of the obligatory chunky frites. Traditionally sent out mariniere-style, with cream, parsley and a splash of white wine, there’s also a hearty version with beer marinade worth seeking out. Most of the seafood restaurants around St Catherine’s Square do excellent moules, but the wooden-panelled Bij den Boer has the added authenticity of only serving them in season between September and February. For a more modern take, Filipino-Belgian brasserie Humphrey (humphreyrestaurant.com) often has new takes on the dish such as umami smoked mussels.
Belgians celebrate their North Sea coast with gusto, and one of the greatest indulgences to be had in Brussels is a leisurely lunch in front of towering silver platters on which oysters, sea snails, clams and lobster nestle in glistening ice. Look out for the Belgian grey shrimp, with all the hard work peeling the shells for a tiny morsel paying off as the sweet flavour builds up on the palate. To enjoy the full theatre of the seafood platter, head to Brasseries Georges (www.greatmomentsinbrussels.be) in the leafy Uccle neighbourhood, where waiters preside in formal black waistcoats and whites, and wine can be enjoyed on a sun-dappled terrace in generous XL glasses.
Whether it’s been brewed by monks for centuries or it's so potent the landlord will only ever serve you a half, Belgian beer is legendary, and many of the nation’s famous dishes include a healthy dose of the tipple. Carbonnade flamande is the ultimate comfort food: chunks of tender beef simmer in dark beer and onions, transforming into a rich and sweet mahogany-hued stew. For this and other meat-heavy Belgian signature dishes, go to Fin de Siècle, a charmingly shambolic dining room with a high ceiling, art nouveau touches, and long shared tables with mismatched chairs.
King Leopold’s murderous reign in the Congo still haunts Belgium, but the two nations remain close, and half a century of colonial rule is reflected in the Brussels dining scene. Food from across West Africa can be sampled in the understated chic surrounds of the Horloge du Sudrestaurant on the fringes of the African Matonge quarter. Its moambe is thick stew made from palm oil and palm butter, with bold flavours of lemon and chilli.
Lapin a la Kriek
Another classic using Belgian beer, here the lean meat of the rabbit is served in a piquant sauce made from Kriek, a cherry beer derived from the sour lambic brew. Enjoy it in diplomatic style at Brasserie 1898 (brasserie1898.eresto.net) in the heart of the European Union district. Just opposite the European Commission, the classic French-style brasserie is a favourite of diplomats and politicians, and former British Prime Minister David Cameron once slipped out of a night of tough negotiations for dinner there.
It is a topic which pits experts in France, Belgium and Britain against one another – which country invented the humble chip? Where the Belgians pull ahead of the pack however is with the boggling array of sauces to accompany their frites. Check out Maison Antoine, a stall in the EU district, where tubs in all hues from pastel greens to vivid reds sit in the window. There are 29 sauces to choose from, ranging from the Belgian staple of mayonnaise, to the intriguing ‘Bicky Hot’ sauce.
Roughly the size of a tennis ball, Belgian boulets (meatballs) are traditionally made with a mixture of beef and pork and served in tomato sauce. For a more interesting take, stop off at small chain Balls & Glory (ballsnglory.be), which has two branches in Brussels. In pared-down industrial décor you can choose meat or veggie options, stuffed with everything from sun-dried tomatoes to truffles.
A starter on practically every Belgian menu, the best croquettes present a crunchy layer of breadcrumbs which gives way to a moist centre of pureed potato packed with the flavours of cheese or seafood. Eat a delicious grey shrimp croquette on the go at one of three city branches of La Mer du Nord (vishandelnoordzee.be), where upturned seafood crates serve as tables, and where the best croquettes in town, razor clams and fish soup are washed down with a chilled glasses of white wine.
Waffles actually come in two forms: the round Liege waffle, moist and doughy on the inside and crisp and caramelized on the outside, and the Brussels waffle, the drier square variety. Confusingly, most of the waffle trucks in Brussels actually service Liege waffles, and one of the best is the ice cream and waffle truck parked near the entrance to the Bois de la Cambre, a large park in the south of the city.
Many Belgian classics are pleasingly retro, from the huge vol-au-vents of flaky pastry filled with creamy chicken and mushroom sauce, to chicory gratin, a Belgian endive wrapped snuggly in a piece of ham and baked with béchamel sauce. For old school food in old school surrounds, visit La Brocante in the working class Marloes distrust, where fuss-free homemade food is served under vintage signs advertising the eatery’s huge range of beers.