Part 3 >> Some thirsty Philadelphians have embarked upon a beer pilgrimage this week to Belgium, where they will collaborate with the legendary Brasserie Dupont on a special brew to be poured at Philly Beer Week this June. But first, there is the adventure. Stay tuned to The Food Department - philly.com/Food's new blog - as The Inquirer's Craig LaBan reports back between sips from the land of tripel and saison.
The biggest drawback in traveling with a pack of beer fanatics on a pilgrimage to Belgium is that they take the term “liquid bread” too seriously.
True, this is the land where the phrase was coined by brewing monks who drank their yeasty treasures as sustenance during times of fasting. But this Philly Beer Week crew is following that holy example to an unexpectedly impressive level, as visits from one fantastic brewery to the next blend with one must-see back alley Renaissance-era tavern after the other without nary a mention of lunch.
“Guys..I’m hungry,” I say with my best serious face. “How many beers have you had, Tom Peters?”
“Ah, this is my first beer of the day,” he’ll say every time, whether it’s his first or fourteenth.
“Take the edge off,” says William Reed one morning, sipping coffee with his left hand. “Put the edge back on,” he’ll say next, hoisting a cup of Duvel on the morning train.
And no one raises their hand faster than Mike “Scoats” Scotese when the proposition of another round is offered. And so on, and so on.
I, however, am a finely tuned eating machine. I need regular meals and frequent coffee stops to remain at my peak. So in the interests of all, I’ve done my best to explore some of the edible wonders of Brussels, too. Roll the highlights, please…
Fritland: I’ve long heard about the glory of Belgian fries. Fritland, the bustling quick-serve sausage grill and “friterie” just off the Grand Place, is proof that the legend is true. The super-crisp exterior harboring fluffy potatoes inside is shockingly fresh and irresistible. But order a “mitraillette” sandwich, which piles those frites into a crusty baguette onto a nutmeg-scented sausage link of boudin blanc with refreshing cabbage slaw and the spicy goo of “Andalusian” cheese sauce, and you have the Bruxelois equivalent of a cheesesteak with whiz and the works. But better.
Dandoy: Since 1829, this pastry shop near the Grand Place has been turning out the intricately molded classic spiced shortbread biscuits known as “speculoos.” It is the waffles, though, that would bring me back here. There’s so much sugar in the batter, that when they’re heated to order, molten rivulets of caramel ooze out and crystallize into a crunchy amber sheen along the waffle’s crevices and corners. Add a scoop of ice cream, and someone’s ready for another beer.
Speaking of beer, there is no shortage of “bonnes addresses” for in-the-know connoisseurs like Tom Peters. Here’s the short list.
Moeder Lambic Fontainas: 46 beers on one of the best draft systems in Europe, and one of its most passionate promoters in owner Jean Hummler.
Blues ‘n’ Booze: a time-worn corner bar with a jukebox playing actual 45’s of Jimi Hendrix and Dylan; be forwarned - the entire 20-something crowd knows all the lyrics as they sing along to “California Dreamin’.”
Bar Bizon: a smoky bi-level speakeasy with classic rock concert tickets pinned to the rafters, Brasserie de la Senne and Hoegaarden Grand Cru on draft, and a rockin’ sound system to match.
Delices & Caprices: a retail boutique where the exuberant, aproned owner, Pierre Zuber, wants nothing more than to sit you down at one of the mismatched tables and pour you a rare one-month-old lambic from Girardin, then tell you the entire story of its creation. It’s out-of-the-way, but it’s no wonder Peters and the three American pilots we encountered there always make it a point to seek it out.
Back to food. Brussels is a town with plenty sophisticated fine dining – but also some fantastic bistros. Few are more charming than tiny Restaurant La Villette, whose dark rafters, red gingham curtains and Swing jazz-era soundtrack are as timeless as the excellent blood sausages, juniper-scented salmon tartare, beer-stewed beef carbonnade and especially the crème brulée infused with Chimay.And when
La Villette is a fixture on the tourist radar, as we found out when the fellow from Portland at the neighboring table (also a former Kennett Square resident) pronounced Philly’s beer scene to be substandard – unawares that he was speaking to three of the city’s biggest craft beer bar icons. (They politely set him straight.)
There are no such tourists, though, at Frites René, a wonderfully preserved bistro that is more or less only known by those in the Anderlecht neighborhood near Cantillon. Dating to 1936, it has always been known for the top notch potatoes fried in beef fat (yes, even better than Fritland.) But in recent years, it has also become known as one of Brussels’ best destinations for mussels. I ate them gratineed in herbaceous green pools of snail butter. I ate them piled by the kilo into a steaming pot of garlic cream and shaved fennel. I even at them raw on the half-shell – a first for me – and was surprised to taste a fresh and briny snap that reminded me of a very mild and delicate clam.
When it’s time to eat, and Brussels’ best flavors are waiting to be explored, no one needs to ask me twice.