Thursday, March 29, 2007

Bistrot du Mail

The Bistrot du Mail is a bib gourmand in the Ixelles district. Having been turned away once because they were packed, this time we made sure to call ahead and reserve.

I've got to say, the bib gourmand category does not translate as well in Belgium as it did in France: here it seems to represent a wider variety of restaurants, and usually at much more expensive prices than in France, and even Paris.

I knew going in that I was going to get the 15€ lunch menu, no matter what, just because I didn't feel like coughing up what would have been required a la carte (the dinner set menu starts at 38€, and would be much more expensive a la carte). I'm sure the waiter could smell this as soon as I was seated, maybe from my grubby levis or my general American aura, as I was certainly treated to cold and snooty, though efficient, service throughout. Pretty much the type of service you would expect from such a sleek and trendy place.

My boyfriend, however, turned up his nose at the appetizer offered in the set menu ("I don't want just an egg for my entree," he said haughtily) and opted to go a la carte instead. He was wrong to have done so, because then not only do you end up paying at least 3 times the set menu price, for just as good a meal, you also end up getting pretty close to what you would pay for, say, the set menu at Comme Chez Soi. If you're going to pay that much money for lunch, you might as well go somewhere that has stars. And if I knew he was willing to pay that much for lunch I would have rather made reservations at Comme Chez Soi.

Anyway. I won't entangle you in one of our petty spats. Shortly after ordering we were served these amuse-bouches: Unfortunately, this post might be lacking in details simply because the waiter was a mumbler; neither the boyfriend nor I could quite catch what he was saying, and he was quite cold so I didn't feel comfortable asking him to repeat either. Basically, the thing on the right is some sort of gourmet carpaccio-foie gras-layered thing, and the foamy thing on the left involved fish and citrus. I am usually pretty weary of those stylish cappuccino or frothy meat mixes, and I was right to be so this time; we weren't crazy about either of them.

And next comes the appetizer that my boyfriend rejected, the "egg" that is so much more than just an egg: A coddled egg floating in a thick potato soup, with chopped mushrooms hidden at the bottom, and topped with crunchy croutons. This was awesome, and I am not saying that just to spite my boyfriend.

He ordered the Solettes bretonnes en croûte de fruits secs, mayonnaise tiède
de beurre noisette, crème balsamique et mesclun d’herbes
(20€)(thank god for online menus ;)): (Fish with a dried fruit crust, served with mayonaise made from hazelnut butter, a balsamic sauce, and salad mix)

For his main dish, he ordered the Filet d’agneau sur tartelette feuilletée d’aubergines et tomates, navarin et mousse de beurre de thym (22€):Lamb served with a "tartelette" of eggplant and tomato, navarin, and a mousse of butter with thyme.

Which was actually not that different from my main dish (in the essential, at least):
Also lamb, with the cutest fried potato babies lining the dish on the right. I'm not sure how I would describe the other accompaniments. It wasn't quite a soup, but it was definitely more than just a sauce, and underneath it all was a bed of mashed potatoes. It was great, even better than the lamb itself in my opinion, which was not uniformly tender. And that glorified potato chip adorning it all? Disgusting.

When my boyfriend's coffee was brought out, we were also served these last sweets:A bite-sized eclair, and a layer of raspberry mousse over caramel cream. Delicious.

I'm not sure I would recommend this for anything besides lunch simply because of the prices, and I don't think its inclusion in the Michelin guide as a bib gourmand (supposedly the "good deal" category) is justified *except* for the lunch menu. Surprisingly, my boyfriend enjoyed it even more than I did (he usually abhors these types of modern bistros), and even commented that he couldn't tell the difference between the cuisine of this place and the one star we had gone to earlier, Chez Marie. Good point. I wonder what makes the difference - in my case, anyways, I prefer Chez Marie simply because of the service. I am American after all, and good customer service is as important as good food in my book. I'll leave the rest for you to decide.

Bistrot du Mail
Rue du Mail, 81
1050 Brussels
02 539 06 97
Closed Saturday lunch, Sunday, and Monday


Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Le Pavilion

So we had wanted to go to Le Bistro du Mail, but it was totally packed with no sign of clearing up anytime soon. (Note to self: call ahead next time!) Making our way through the neighborhood to check out the other restaurants nearby, we passed in front of Le Pavilion, which my boyfriend had always wanted to try. This is exactly the type of place my boyfriend loves: casual, cosy, with worn, unfinished wood benches and tables, and full of regulars, eating or drinking or just reading the paper. The menu reflects the atmosphere, as it offers classic homestyle dishes, no frills, for 7 - 14€ per dish. Appetizers and desserts run at about 5€, and they have the usual selection of wines and aperitifs in addition to the obligatory beers.

We arrived just as the downpour really started*, and ordered some of the Hoegaarden on tap to start with as well as a "mixed" platter of charcuterie and fromage. This ended up being a few slices of rosette de lyon served with cubes of cheddar and slices of ciabatta-shaped baguette. I was surprised to see cheddar, in cubes no less, described as a platter of cheese.

For my main dish, I had really hesitated between the fresh salmon and the fish n' dumplings they had, but in the end the waitress helped me settle on the gratin de poissons, a hearty mix of cod, salmon, potatoes, and mushrooms covered with bubbling cheese and sauce. It did not disappoint, though the mushrooms just didn't go that well with everything else.

The menu is full of all the types of meaty dishes that my boyfriend loves, so he had some hard choices to make before finally settling on the jambonneau, which was served in its own dish with mustard sauce and accompanied with steamed veggies and gratineed potatoes on a separate plate. The meat was so good that even I liked it, which is very unusual as I rarely like pork. The joint was tender and juicy, and the mustard sauce had just enough kick to be felt but not too much to be overpowering, though the boyfriend complained that it wasn't mustard-y enough. The veggies and potatoes were good as well, and while eating them the boyfriend (whose diet consists of one primary food group: meat) commented, "See, I like eating vegetables when they taste good." Profound.

Our waitress was awesome - so friendly and sweet, when clearing the unfinished cheese platter we had begun with she asked us if we didn't want to save it for after the meal. We declined, but really appreciated the thought, and she was cheerful and attentive throughout our meal. This is a cute, casual place to keep in mind if you are in Ixelles, and at the end of the meal my boyfriend concluded, "I think this is going to become my cantine."

Le Pavilion
64 rue Defacqz
1050 Brussels
Tel: 538 02 15
Open Monday - Friday

*In Brussels, dark storm clouds are always brewing, the dry periods are few and far between, and I find it even gloomier than London.


Thursday, March 22, 2007

Restaurant Chez Marie

One thing I've noticed about restaurants in Brussels is the large disparity in lunch and dinner prices. Case in point: Marie, a one-star restaurant in the Ixelles neighborhood. Their 4-course dinner menu is 56€, but their 2-course lunch menu is only 17€. Can you guess which one I'm going to blog about?

It goes without saying that the 17€ lunch menu is a steal. Luckily for me, on the day we went, both the appetizer and the main dish were dishes I would have probably picked anyway. We started with the Brandade de Morue, which was topped with a tomato puree and encircled by an herbed olive oil sauce. I've only had this dish once before, at l'ami jean, and this one was much better because it managed to capture the flavor of the cod without being too salty or fishy. I finished every bite.

The main dish was dorade, served with mashed potatoes, carrots, and fresh pear slivers, and a shellfish-based sauce:
The fish was excellent, the mashed potatoes were excellent, the carrots were great, the fresh pear was a strange touch, and I didn't really like the sauce. But that doesn't mean much - I don't like lobster bisque and it reminded me of that; the boyfriend, however, loved it, and sopped up every drop.

Though dessert wasn't included in the menu, I told the boyfriend that we would split a dessert. I chose the Meringue, with vanilla ice cream and served in a pool of warmed chocolate. Doesn't it look like it could be a cartoon character?Of course, sharing meant that I ate about half, and the boyfriend had a few tiny teaspoons of the chocolate. The chocolate was awesome, and reminded me of Angelina's. I didn't even touch the meringue, but the waitress was so sweet and packaged it up for me to take home, and I am nibbling on it now as I write this. Doggie bags - who would've thought they existed, just an hour away from Paris?!

We had started with an excellent aperitif, the house version of a kir which was called something like a buguy (I have googled in vain and can't get the name right - anybody want to fill it in for me?), and shared a 1/2 bottle of wine (21€). The wine list is impressive - at least 4 pages long, in 10 pt font, and most bottles run in the 30 - 50€ range. They also have quite a selection of wines by the glass. As far as service, the two waitresses we had were sweet, and they adjusted the speed of the meal to the customers: while there were definitely some business lunches going on, we were one of the first tables to arrive and the next-to-last to leave.

Though the exterior is unassuming, the interior is very cozy. The boyfriend and I each had different impressions, facing opposite sides of the room. The left side is all dark wood paneling, with rich details in purple and gold, and reminds me more of a coffee house or lounge. The right side of the restaurant is covered in gilded mirrors and framed black and white photos, and gives it more of a brasserie feel.

Either way, we both loved our meal and we definitely got our money's worth. Damn it feels good to be back in Europe.

The full menu (click to enlarge):

Restaurant chez Marie
Rue Alphonse De Witte 40
1050 Brussels
Tel: 02 644 30 31
Closed Saturday lunch, Sunday, and Monday


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Le Chou de Bruxelles

For my first night in Brussels, of course I wanted to have typical fare: mussels and fries. We went to Le Chou de Bruxelles, a cute little place not too far from the boyfriend's apartment, which offers around 30 varieties of mussels, all between 18 - 20€. My boyfriend opted for their menu, which is a good value: 25€ for 3 courses, which includes the entire menu, with only a handful of items that have a meager 2€ supplement.

He started with a casserole of seafood, which was gorgeous. Mussels, clams, shrimp, and a crawfish, with a good amount of delicious sauce at the bottom.
I ordered, of course, mussels and fries. The bib pictured at left is what the waiter tied onto me before serving us. I thought it was a joke, but it wasn't. I still took it off halfway through because I am not messy enough to justify (or suffer through) wearing a bib!
I just wanted some typical mussels, and I decided to go with the 7 herbs variety. As with the boyfriend's seafood, the quality was excellent and the mussels were really fresh. Unfortunately, I was disappointed, since the quantity of celery overpowered any of the herbs. The dish would've been better named as celery with a side of mussels. But I bet their other varieties of mussels are awesome - just stay away from the celery is all. The fries weren't that great either. While I normally wouldn't go into such much detail on a side, the fries are a crucial accompaniment to the mussels! Here, they were more comparable to doner-kebab variety fries (greasy, soft, and mushy) than the "frites" they serve at a neighborhood bistro back home (crispy and sprinkled with herbed salt - yum). Can you believe I'm saying that the brussels-style fries back home are better than the authentic brussels fries themselves? Well, it's true.

The boyfriend's main dish was the magret de canard, served with tiny bundles of endive, green beans and carrots, and ruffled potato slices. The duck was topped with cherries and looked very nice.
For dessert we shared some sorbet; after my glass of Hoegaarden and our shared bottle of Chinon, plus jet lag, this was the perfect light ending.

And now to the negatives. This was a bizarre moment when we were ordering, as my boyfriend pointed out a spelling mistake and the waiter tried to make a joke, "oh, it was an African that typed the menu." Sorry? We were both astonished. And then when we paid there was a mix up that never got resolved. To give some context, my boyfriend is somewhat disorganized and absentminded about money - he just carries a fistful of cash, credit cards, and assorted receipts and business cards in his pocket, which makes him prone to losing things. At restaurants, I scrutinize every item on the bill; he just glances at the total if he does even that. This time, he didn't, and just threw down the money he "felt" would be enough. Well, he was way off: the total was only 75€ but he put down 3 50€ bills. The waiter brings back change out of 100€, but of course there is no way to prove that my boyfriend put down 150€. I'm sure he's right - he went to the atm just before and withdrew 200€, and had only one 50€ bill left. But who would do such a thing on a 75€ bill? Stupid, stupid, stupid. Even assuming the waiter did just make an honest mistake, then that is a stupid mistake as well. Or maybe the boyfriend dropped the bill on the street after the ATM. I was more upset about it than he was - 50€ isn't something to laugh about - and I told him that I hope it taught him to 1) always check the bill and 2) use a freakin' wallet, or at least a money clip! We'll see if he ever learns...

Le Chou de Bruxelles
26, Rue Florencestraat
Brussels 1050
02/537 69 95
Closed Sunday, Saturday at lunch, and Monday at lunch