Stuart Forster visits Belgium and orders steamed mussels at Chez Léon in Brussels.
Britain has its fish and chips, Germany has Currywurst mit Pommes while in Belgium the ‘must-try’ national dish is surely mussels with fries. To do that I headed to Chez Léon in the heart of Brussels.
The long-established restaurant is a five-minute walk from the Belgian capital’s iconic Grand Place (Grote Markt), the cobbled market place whose ornamental, Renaissance facades were restored after being bombarded by French artillery in 1695.
Key attractions in central Brussels
I headed to lunch after strolling through the airy Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert (Koninklijke Sint-Hubertusgalerijen), a 19th century shopping arcade whose shops have beautifully arranged show windows. Resisting the temptation posed by handmade chocolates in the Neuhaus store, I turned out of the arcade and onto the rue des Bouchers, which is also known as Beenhouwerstraat. Streets in Brussels carry both French and Flemish names.
Prior to travelling, I’d read much about the complex tensions between French and Flemish speakers in Belgium. For all their differences the two groups appear to share an appreciation of good food. Brussels has a thriving café culture and restaurant scene. French and Flemish influences make the country’s cuisine worth exploring.
Ordering Belgium’s national dish
As you’d expect in a capital city, there are numerous touristy spots to try the national dish. Ask for moules-frites or mosselen-friet if you want to try ordering mussels with fries using the local lingo. It struck me that within Brussels the French name seems more popular for this dish.
Chez Léon draws plenty of passing trade, after all its centrally located. A red and green striped canopy and outdoor tables help give the restaurant an appealing look. It’s the kind of place that locals as well as tourists visit for lunch. It’s mid-priced and known for quality seafood, including grilled sole meunière.
The history of Chez Léon
The restaurant was recommended when I said I wanted to try good mussels with fries. They’ve certainly had plenty of practice making them in the kitchen of Chez Léon, which first opened its doors in 1893. Its proprietor, Léon Vanlancker, already had experience of running the A la ville d’Anvers restaurant, a couple of doors along at 14 rue des Bouchers, and moved to establish Friture Léon. It’s been known as Restaurant Chez Léon since 1953.
Dressed in black trousers, a white shirt and a long green apron, my waiter, André, greeted me and bid me to follow him across the dining room’s stone floor to a table with a green-checked table cloth. Under wooden ceiling beams I noticed a sign reading ‘Chez Léon 1893 Friture Bruxellaise’ and pink neon advertising Grimbergen beer. Others, on the wood-clad walls, mentioned Moules à la Crème and Moules à L’escargot.
Traditional Belgian cuisine
For the benefit of tourists the menu at Chez Léon highlights traditional Belgian dishes with the a little black, yellow and red tricolour. It lists 14 different styles of mussels. The most popular, according to André, was Special Mussels, whose recipe remains secret. He divulged it features Belgian beer.
The country is, of course, famed for its beers. The restaurant has served its own brew, Léon, since 2001, so I ordered a glass. It’s a refreshing, rounded beer with plenty of flavour.
For my starter I spurned the calf’s brains tartare and frogs’ legs with garlic in favour of shrimp croquettes. They breadcrumb-covered, hand-rolled croquettes came with dark green, deep-fried parsley, whose colour and crispy texture reminded me of seaweed.
Between courses I noticed a good number of the tables were occupied, giving the restaurant a lively feel. A mixed group opposite me appeared to be discussing work. To my right a group of American tourists laughed together while comparing the photos they’d taken in Brussels. All told, the restaurant has an informal look and feel.
The kitchen is semi-open, featuring white glazed tiles. A black and white portrait of a chef in a gilt frame hangs to the left of the busy workplace. I kept glancing over, anticipating the arrival of my main course.
When the pot of mussels arrived they proved tender and the sauce tasty. The fries were chunky with a crisp surface texture.
As I left the restaurant I couldn’t help but think of Men at Work’s song Down Under. Six foot four and full of mussels, I headed out satisfied and ready to explore more of Brussels.
Finding Chez Leon in Brussels
The original Chez Léon restaurant is located at 18 rue des Bouchers 18 (Beenhouwerstraat 18) in central Brussels. Call +32 (0)2 5111415 to reserve a table.
Getting to Brussels
London and Brussels are connected by direct Eurostar rail services. Direct journeys take just over two hours. For bookings and more information see the Oui-sncf.com website or call the Voyages-sncf Travel Centre (193 Piccadilly, London W1J 9EU) on +44 (0)844 848 5848.
Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.
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