Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Eating in Belgium

What I want my photos to be of here are simply the miles of display cases full of gorgeous hand made truffles, chocolates, confections, and pastries. But as you all know, my photography sucks, my camera is ineffective and capturing images through glass, and I feel awkward, rude, typically American, and possibly inappropriate if I walk into a shop where one piece of chocolate can cost over $5 and try and take snapshots. There is no way I can describe (or even imagine, without actually seeing them!) how stunningly gorgeous and creative so many of these chocolates and desserts are. Literally my first mission upon arrival in Belgium was to get my lips on some chocolates... we had some delicious pastry in Amsterdam, but I was still feeling particularly dessert deprived. I know that will not be a problem while we are in the chocolate capital of the world!

Next for me because it was first for Will was Belgian beers. I have definitely developed a strong appreciation for Belgian and Belgian-style beers.

What is fun about being in a huge metropolis like Brussels - and especially Brussels, as a world banking center and headquarters for the European Union - is how international the food scene is as well. While mussels and frites are supposed to be a Belgian specialty (in addition to chocolate and beer of course!) we have in just a few neighborhoods passed more Lebanese restaurants than I think exist in all of Seattle. In Amsterdam, there were Argentinian and Indonesian restaurants in proportions that far-outweighed what I would have expected, often times multiple establishments all on the same street. Our first night in Brussels we visited a Bulgarian restaurant: Kocharata, in Saint-Gilles neighborhood. The cuisine influences were strongly aligned with what we recognize as Greek - moussaka, shish kebab, phyllo, as well as it's own versions of other traditional Eastern European dishes like Goulash and Borscht.

We started off with an order of the borscht, which came with a phyllo and egg pastry pictured below, very much like an omelette layered between phyllo. The borscht was amazing, and packed with all kinds of interesting ingredients. You can see in the photo how deep red the tomato broth is, but when stirred with the spoon, there was a creamy base beneath. I'm not sure if it had some dairy in it or if the red was just the beef fat raising to the top, but even if the description sounds undesireable, it was delicious. The soup was filled with tender hunks of stewed beef, spaghetti noodles, potatoes, cabbage, tomatoes, celery, cabbage, carrots, and lots and lots of herbs.

Bulgarian borscht (top) and phyllo/egg appetizer (bottom.)
I first ordered the moussaka as my main course, but they were out for the day, so the waiter suggested another of his "favorites" - unfortunately, I can not remember what it was called. But it was a lamb, pea, potato, and okra casserole baked in an individual (well, enough for two!) serving dish topped with a thin layer of egg to finish the top. It was very well seasoned with herbs and spices. The other main we tried was the goulash, which was stewed beef and onions in a thick, rich sauce served over rice.

Bulgarian goulash and lamb and pea casserole. In the upper
right you can see the condiment dish of the spice and salt blend.

Another night we tried Lebanese food at the restaurant less than a block from our apartment, Mont Liban. We didn't realize until afterward that it is highly regarded. I ordered a sample of a cheese stuffed puff pastry, and a spinach stuffed pastry appetizer. Then stuffed grape leaves (essentially what in Greek cuisine would be dolmades) with an herbed, lemon, and rice filling and what as called mousakaa and described as an eggplant and garbanzo bean dish. I was expecting a dip, but it was much more of a vegetable dish and it was fantastic. Beautiful pieces of eggplant and whole garbanzo beans in a tomato-based seasoned sauce, served room temperature. I'm not sure if it is supposed to be eaten with a fork, like a salad or a side dish, but I spooned it into pita bread. We also had kafta, which was ground meat formed into sausage-like logs cooked in a very spicy tomato and onion sauce, garnished with lots of parsley and toasted pine nuts.

Appetizer of spinach (top) and cheese (bottom) pastry.

Stuffed grape leaves.


Kefta (ground meat formed in logs) in a spicy tomato/onion sauce.

Our third night for dinner, we tried O Restaurant. It offers an a la carte menu, but the recommendations are to go with the yeux fermes (eyes closed, meaning they won't tell you what's on it until after you order it) Chef's menu. It comes with 3, 4, or 5 courses, and with or without paired wines. It was an excellent value at 25E for the 3-course menu, and we were very pleased. We first received an amuse bouche of frothed asparagus soup. I think it may have been white asparagus, or a mix of white and green, because the color was very pale, but that also could have been because it was foamed, or because of the additional dollop of creme fraiche on the top. Either way, it was excellent. But we have seen so much white asaparagus in the farmer's markets that I was anxious to try it.

Foamed asparagus soup.

The entree course was veal sliced so thin it was almost transparent. I honestly don't know for sure what the preparation was, but I believe it was cured because of what seemed to be a dark and perhaps seasoned edge, but the slices were so thin it was difficult to tell. It was served under a dark sauce that I would have thought was peppery because of the color and the grainy texture of the spices in it, but it was very mild and not at all peppery. The server told us the word in French, but she was unable to translate it, and I didn't recognize it enough to be able to look it up later. It was also garnished with chopped fresh tomatoes and a delightfully dressed mixed greens salad.


The second course was lamb in a lamb and tomato reduction with roasted tomatoes and roasted potatoes. There were also the blissful white asparagus, which were so incredibly buttery they almost didn't have an asparagus flavor at all. I suspect that they are prized for their more mild flavor and their softer consistency, but I also expect that this particularly buttery preparation may have made these chunks of spears an even more delectable experience. The dark line along the rigth top edge of the plate was a fresh rosemary olive oil, that provided the perfect complement to each of these components by simply dragging the tines of the fork through first before stabbing a mouthful.

Lamb with tomato, potato, and white asparagus.
Finally, for dessert was a scoop of vanilla ice cream in a strawberry "soup" - I'm sure there is a much more charming French word for this preparation, but that is how the server translated it. As you can see, it's not a compote or a sauce. But the strawberries were definitely stewed in the broth, and I detected some light, fruity wine notes in the liquid. The biscuit was flavored with fresh mint and some type of crunch that I think was a seed rather than a nut. The whole texture was of crisp carmelized sugar but with a much brighter flavor than being just sweet.
Ice cream in strawberry soup with mint cookie garnish.
Near the touristy Grand Place, where there are still some high end shops mixed in with the more knick-knacky souvenier places, we stopped for some handmade nougat. We selected the pistachio variety. It is sweet without burning the back of your throat, and has a delicious nuttiness and soft meringue-y texture that melts in your mouth.
Detail of pistachio nougat.
The slice that we purchased ended up being quite a bit more expensive than we were expecting, so we thought we were done with "treats" for this area of town and this time of our day. Then we happened past Rose de Damas Oriental Pastries.

Rose de Damas Oriental Pastries, near Grand Place in Brussels.
You MUST go here.

The window displays were magnificent. We were completely enraptured and not at all craving sweets or treats but were nevertheless allured in by the call of the East and her honey-sweeted nut-laden breath of crispy, crackling ,sticky-oozing delights. The owner of the shop was busy with other customers when we walked in, and I could tell he was spending a great deal of time giving them directions. I started to get a bit frustrated while we were waiting to buy something they were trying to get concierge trip planning. However, when they were satisfied, he ended up spending almost 30 minutes talking to us about his family, how he got into the business, the pastries, how he learned the techniques, and his world travels. He was fascinating, kind, incredibly knowledgeable, and we walked out with an entire box full of pastries, instead of just a taste or two. My favorites of the 7 different ones we tried were the pistachio bird's next and the deep fried sesame (not pictured.)
Pistachio bird's nest

Fig spiral.
Deep fried flour dough with orange flavor and honey glaze. I found this recipe for these after the fact.

We didn't try this one, but it is pastry with a pistachio filling.
We tried a similar one that was yellow pastry (same flavor,
just different coloring) stuffed with a walnut filling and shaped like
a log. It was delicious, but not quite as pretty as the above with the
perforated and crimped-edge pastry.

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