The Belgian capital already boasts some
of Europe’s most eclectic and offbeat cultural centres, exhibiting
artworks that range from masterpieces by Rembrandt, Brueghel and Van Eyck
to the iconic surrealist paintings of René Magritte and Hergé’s
timeless drawings of Tintin. What is less known is that the grand
buildings housing these museums are also fabulous locations for restaurants,
brasseries and cafés.
David Martin is one of the most talked-about chefs in Brussels, voted ‘Chef of the Year 2010’ by the influential GaultMillau Guide, and anyone wanting a table at his Michelin-starred Brasserie de la Paix should realise it is already fully booked up to August. So Brussels foodies heaved a sigh of relief when he opened the Bozar Brasserie, a buzzing new locale, presenting many of his signature dishes at very affordable prices. The Bozar is not just one of the most exciting museum in Brussels, but one of Europe’s leading cultural venues, a stunning palace designed by Victor Horta, that showcases cutting edge art exhibitions, classical and funky concerts, cinema and cabaret. The director of the Bozar wanted to recreate the ambiance of the original brasserie that was exactly located here when the museum opened in 1929, and the result is a big spacey dining room, where classic Art Deco design contrasts with an ultra-modern open kitchen. The food offers a choice between traditional favourites such as succulent Entrecote steak served with a rich béarnaise sauce and of course, irresistible ‘frites’, or exotic caramelised wild mackerel with a dashi bouillon, or an inventive ‘deconstructed’ version of the classic ‘croquette de crevettes’.
The restaurant with the perfect Brussels location, right between the Museum of Fine Arts, whose collection rivals the Tate Britain, and the Musée Magritte, is simply called ‘Museum’, with a menu that reflects a new concept that just happens to be called CultureFood. Seasonal products, locally produced with a limited carbon footprint will take pride of place, and the ever-changing menu is overseen by experienced chef Frank Meschler, who previously cooked in his Two Star Michelin restaurant in Alsace. The bar has also been radically transformed, into an ‘épicerie’ preparing a daily choice of homemade soups, salads and quirky tapas like ‘sucettes de Chimay’, beer lollypops, and ‘brioche perdue’, a Belgian take on bread and butter pudding, served with beer ice cream.
Healthy food is also the star of the surprising Green Attitude café, set in one of the city’s most offbeat sites. The BELvue Museum hosts a rather academic collection devoted to the history of Belgium, but down below is the brilliant Palais de Coudenberg, a not-to-be-missed underground promenade through the archaeological remains of a sprawling ancient palace that was destroyed and built-over some 300 years ago. It is a breath of fresh air afterwards to come up for lunch in Green Attitude, where a long salad bar is filled with a farm-fresh cornucopia of organic products - radishes and grilled aubergines, parma ham and aged Gouda cheese, quinoa and taboulé - and a different pasta dish is prepared each day. The system is self-service and the price is determined by the weight of goodies piled up on your plate.
For those looking for a heartier meal, feasting off vast portions of tasty, old-fashioned Belgian specialities, then it is best to walk over to another unique cultural venue, the Belgian Comic Strip Center. This is housed in an old industrial warehouse, another splendid Art Nouveau gem created by the ubiquitous architect, Victor Horta, and the brasserie here is even named after him. The Brasserie Horta is a vast luminous salon with waiters darting between tables balancing trays piled high with plates and mugs of foaming beer. Don’t come here to count calories, though, as the dish of the day could be tender beef cheeks marinated in red wine, a juicy ‘poularde’ hen cooked with truffles, or ‘civet de lapin’, a jugged rabbit stew. And then who can say no to a sticky Brussels waffle topped off with whipped cream? Although the Center may look at first like an attraction park for kids, don’t be fooled by the giant model of Tintin’s ‘rocket to the moon’ in the entrance, as this is no tacky Disneyland, but a fascinating museum exhibiting hundreds of original watercolour illustrations of the Smurfs, Tintin, Lucky Luke and dozens more, which transforms the humble comic strip into what the Belgians call ‘The Ninth Art’.
The restaurant located on the rooftops of the MIM - the Musical Instruments Museum which has an impressive collection of antique instruments, has a huge open-air terrace and unparalled views over the city of Brussels. The magnificently restored turn-of-the-century building in which the museum is housed used be a grand department store, the Old England, and the antiquated original lift slowly takes you straight up to the girded steel and glass dome on the top floor, with a 360° panorama. The cuisine is classic bistrot fare, from ‘filet américain’, the Belgian version of steak tartare, to ‘boudin’ sausages served with mashed potatoes and apple sauce. And if the sun is shining, this is the perfect place to come from an al fresco Champagne brunch.
Rue Ravensteinstraat 100
Place des Palais 7
Musical Instruments Museum
Rue Montagne de la Cour 2
The Royal Museums of Fine Arts
Rue de la Regence 3
20 Rue des Sables