John Brunton indulges in inventive cuisine at the start of the Belgian capital's food festival, Brusselicious.
Year-long festival debuts Brussels, Europe's secret foodie spot
Food may not often be one of the obvious attractions for visitors to Brussels, who come to the unofficial capital of Europe on business or politics, for the splendid museums, art nouveau architecture or hip fashion boutiques. But the cuisine here is one of Europe's hidden foodie secrets, and I am in Brussels precisely to look behind the cartoon caricature of a stodgy nation that is invariably portrayed happily tucking into a steaming bowl of mussels or a cornet of "frites" smothered with mayonnaise.
And there is no better moment to come than now - the city is in the middle of a year-long food festival celebrating Belgian cooking, irreverently named Brusselicious.
More than 50 events are planned throughout the year, with several spectacular gastronomic highlights. Six days a week, a sleek white designer tram will whisk gourmets around Brussels for a two-hour, haute-cuisine meal prepared by one of six participating two-star Michelin chefs, well priced at €75 (Dh362).
One of them is Lionel Rigolet from Brussels's flagship restaurant, Comme Chez Soi. "Cooking a gourmet meal in a tram is certainly going to be a challenge," Rigolet tells me with a wry smile. "But it is a great opportunity, and we will use it to showcase the best products you can find in Belgium and surprise people with the high level of gastronomy we enjoy here. For sure, Belgium is a small country, but we are fortunate to have magnificent food suppliers from all over the countryside."
Then, in June, all eyes will turn upwards for "Dinner in the Sky", a breathtaking idea that is not for the faint-hearted or vertigo-sufferers. Each week, a floating restaurant resembling a space shuttle will be suspended from a towering crane above a different emblematic site in Brussels - the Atomium, Cinquantenaire Park, Palais Royal and Cambre Forest. Twenty-two fearless diners will be strapped in with safety belts around a full kitchen, where a stellar chef will prepare an unforgettable meal.
Of course, not all the events are haute-cuisine, and even the noble frite has its own celebration - a month-long Chippy Festival in November, the aim of which is to find the city's best frite. The organisers have drawn up a "Frites Walk", featuring the 10 best stands dotted around town. Honestly, I have to admit that each time I visit Brussels, it is impossible to resist the temptation to try at least one cornet of golden, crispy chips. The Brusselicious website (www.brusselicious.be) has details of the whole 2012 programme, and is also where to reserve in advance, because most events, such as the tram, have limited availability.
What surprises me every time I come to Brussels is the number of cutting-edge gourmet restaurants where young chefs are taking the classic recipes and ingredients of Belgian cuisine and transforming them into exciting modern dishes. Brasserie de la Paix is normally booked out weeks in advance, but I have made my reservation long before and will be meeting the most talked-about chef in town, David Martin.
This elegant Art Nouveau dining room is right opposite what was once the city's cattle market and abattoir, today a seething weekend market filled with Maghreb and African stallholders. David has perfectly preserved the ambience and tradition of the Brasserie, but elevated the quality and inventiveness of the cuisine to gourmet levels. A slice of tête de veau, or calf's head, is brilliantly complemented by a langoustine soufflé; caramelised wild mackerel is served with a dashi bouillon; and deep-fried croquettes, a local favourite, are filled with creamy potatoes and foie gras instead of the usual Ostend shrimps.
In the kitchen, David is experimenting, slow-cooking locally grown beetroot and endives covered in a hard crust of sea salt, and explains his philosophy: "I only serve what I like to eat, so you'll see classic brasserie cuisine here but with my own personal touches, sometimes even influenced by Japanese gastronomy. I hope I'm inventing 'new classics', because why should I just do the same dishes that are on the menu of every other brasserie in the city?"
Chef Martin suggests some hot new restaurants for me to check out. Most of them are away from Brussels's historical city centre, the Grand Place, a magnificent medieval square which sadly boasts the tourist-trap Rue des Bouchers, lined by scores of gaudy restaurants that really should be a no-go area for anyone interested in food.
What a difference, though, when I walk past the luxury boutiques of Avenue Louise, what the Bruxellois call their Champs-Élysées, and arrive at an Art Nouveau mansion where the young chef Vincent Vervish has just opened the innovative Er Pu. Re. The concept here sounds as strange as the name - recipes using teas from around the world or aromas from cigars. When the dishes arrive, I can only describe the subtle, memorable dishes as spectacular: think sole served with a shrimp and smoked tea sauce, or wild duck roasted with a subtle infusion of Havana cigar.
There is the same esprit and humility at another newcomer, Le Selecto, in the funky fashion neighbourhood of Sainte Catherine. This is a no-frills, reasonably priced address, a trend that is becoming known as "bistronomie" cooking.
The chef, Olivier Morland, insists that he is not looking for Michelin recognition, believing the ingredients should be the star rather than the chef. He insists on using the finest vegetables, fish and meat, and simplifies his recipes to allow the natural flavours to stand out, in dishes such as warm Zeeland oysters served with a fruity quince compote, or creamy polenta smothered with wild mushrooms, peppery rocket and slivers of Parmesan.
The chef who is inspiring much of this culinary revolution in Brussels is Christophe Hardiquest, hailed in 2011 as Chef of the Year by the influential Gault Millau Guide. His celebrated Bon-Bon restaurant has just moved premises to a highly exclusive address on Avenue de Terveuren, the exclusive neighbourhood favoured by ambassadors for their luxury residences. It means getting a cab, but I cannot visit Brussels and miss the chance of tasting Hardiquest's unique cuisine. He has expanded on his "atelier de cuisine" concept, and now diners sit at a long counter manned by a brigade of enthusiastic young chefs inventing dishes in front of them, all under the watchful eye of Monsieur Hardiquest.
Don't even think of asking to look at the menu, because dining here is all about surprise, with dishes changing every day. I tasted a sea scallop carpaccio with oyster gazpacho, pigeon roasted in a crust of sesame seeds accompanied by a spice consomme, a sensational déclinée of eel, prepared with foie gras and apple, tempura-fried, and a powerful foam "cappuccino". But tomorrow the selection will undoubtedly be completely different.
The fact that Brussels is one of the world's most multicultural cities is apparent just by sitting in a cafe, where customers are chatting away in a dozen different languages. This means that parallel to traditional Belgian cuisine and gourmet fine dining, food lovers can discover a melting pot of restaurants specialising in delicious ethnic cuisines. These range from funky African diners that reflect the roots of Belgium's former colonies to a thriving Chinatown and colourful North African quarter. Then, there are dozens of eclectic locales that mirror the various nationalities that work around the EU headquarters - everything from exotic Greek to surprising Norwegian cuisine.
I start out in the ultimate ethnic restaurant, Hemispheres, which showcases the cuisines of more than a dozen countries across the globe, complemented by exhibitions and concerts. This welcoming spot has become something of an institution for cultural tolerance, with diners relaxing in a sumptuous decor, ordering an Algerian chorba soup of tomatoes, coriander and cinnamon, lamb kebab with Egyptian spices or Caribbean chicken with mango, while the dish of the day could be Brazilian seafood rice.
The creator of Hemispheres is Soraya Zekalmi, a Moroccan-born restaurateur and singer who, in typical Belgian style, effortlessly slips between speaking English, Arabic, French and Flemish.
"While the Bruxellois may love their old-fashioned home-cooking such as stoemp, a delicious take on bangers and mash, waterzooi, chicken stew, and a thick fillet pur steak and heaps of frites, they are also very open to trying exotic cuisine; more like the Britons, in fact, than our closer neighbours in France," says Zekalmi.
Soraya directs me first to L'Horloge du Sud, in the lively African quarter of Matonge, whose menu ranges from freshwater tilapia fish from Lake Tanganyika, marinated in lemon and chilli, then steamed in a banana leaf, to kedjenou, a rich guineafowl stew that is the national dish of the Ivory Coast. Then, for a complete contrast, I stop off at Up North, a smart new address specialising in Norwegian food. Chef Egil Haaseth not only serves classic smoked salmon and tasty herrings, but also inventive dishes such as cod cooked with dried lamb and a tangy blueberry sauce.
The obligatory last stop for an ethnic food tour of Brussels has to be the aptly named Marche Exotique, which takes place every Sunday morning. Hundreds of stalls are anarchically spread across scores of streets outside the Midi train station. The electric atmosphere here is more Marrakech than Brussels, with noisy vendors selling dozens of different olives, fragrant oranges, fresh herbs and pungent spices.
Every Sunday, crowds of North African immigrants line up, waiting for buses to take them back for family reunion holidays in Algeria or Tunisia, but if you have a look at the colourful restaurants at the heart of the market, around the Place de la Constitution, you will be surprised to discover they are nearly all Spanish and Portuguese, reminders of a much earlier wave of immigration to the Belgian capital. Close your eyes and you could be in Lisbon or Madrid, with scarcely a word of French or Flemish being spoken.
The atmosphere in these market restaurants is noisy and a bit rowdy, but the food is out of this world. Sit down for a lazy Sunday lunch at Oh! Fadista and you can feast on a tasty caldo verde soup followed by bacalao dorado (salt cod scrambled with eggs and potato). Lovers of Spanish cooking should head to La Laguna, which for 50 years has been serving tempting tapas from the Asturia region, such as grilled sardines or octopus à la gallega. And you won't find moules marinières or frites anywhere on the menu.