Unrivaled fish and chips at Bia Mara, Brussels

Fried sea bass with truffle mayo and seaweed salted chips

Bia Mara is a neat little fish and chips place near the sleezier streets around Boulevard Anspach. They have a simple concept: doing cheap, sustainable fish and chips, and doing it really well. Having visited a couple of times, I’ve found the weekly special at 12€ to be innovative and tasty, even though one would think fish and chips is a rather basic, and perhaps limited, concept. Recent combinations have included Korean Style Ling with hot red pepper crust and kinchee sauce, Rogan Josh crusted special with lime, mint and coriander sauce, and Malaysian Special Sea Bream with sambal and tamarind sauce. Last time I visited, we tried sea bass with with truffle mayo, and it was just the perfect thing for a slightly hungover sunny stroll on town. Their penchant for curry feels like a true reflection of modern cuisine from the british Isles (although I’ll include the caveat that this in my opinion is true for England – I can’t speak for the quality or popoularity of Irish curry houses).

Curry salmon

The owner is incredibly friendly in that nice, Irish way, and makes me wish I had that special skill of making effortless small talk. The menu changes weekly depending on what fish is available, and great care seems to be taken to ensure that the fish is sourced by sustainable methods. In addition to this, they serve Pellegrino and a beer of the week from a local Belgian brewery. On Sundays, they serve Brunch from 12-16 which consists of their weekly special and a bloody mary. So many good things! Seven meatballs out of ten.

Bia Mara can be found here on the map:


Ethiopian coffee, and my favourite cake in Brussels

Passionfruit and almond cake

Time to write about one of my favourite cafés in Brussels: Aksum. Their great coffee, sprinkled with nutmeg, is hardly a secret, and housed in a small venue decked out with vintage ethiopian furniture, they are often busy. Their hot chocolate is perfect, standing strong against the stiff competition in Brussels. But for me, the true star of this café is a cake – the passionfruit dacquoise. A thin layer of crème brûlée makes it perfectly crispy on top, which is followed by a velvety, intense passion fruit cream inside, and finished with a soft and chewy bottom of almond meringue. I cannot get enough of it. This beauty is actually not made by Aksum, but sourced from a local Marolles patisserie called Secret Gourmand (a hidden gem for ordering whole cakes). Apart from the delicious passionfruit dacquiose, they also serve pistachio and cherry cake, lime and almond cake, and a chocolate cake I never had the pleasure to try. But these cakes, coupled with the friendly service, delicious coffee and nice venue, makes it a good place for a Sunday treat.

Cherry and pistachio cake

Should you be heavily into coffee, Aksum is also a good place to shop – they import coffee beans from around the world, which is ground in a lovely old school grinder by the door. If you want to take some home, they have a selection of different beans and ways of grinding them. The Finnish owner gives clear advice about the best kind of coffee (and takes the time to answer emails about it). Finally, a little trivia for the Swedophiles: you might think of Italians first when listing coffee drinking nations, but people in the Nordics are even more crazy about their caffeine.


Aperitivi at Piola Libri (saviours of the EU quarter)

I’m a little reluctant to write about Piola libri, because it is already always packed, especially on the Apero evenings. Eurocrats seem love to drink and socialise, yet the EU quarter in Brussels is anything but known for its abundance of charming little places to spend the evening. And consequently piola libri is always full to the brim. But don’t let the throngs of suits scare you away: the ambience always remains chic and cosy, often with jazz musicians accompanying the guest DJs. And the owner greets all the girls at the door with a large smile.

Aperitivi

On aperitivi evenings at La piola, this Italian book shop-cum-bar serves up simple yet lovely, complimentary snacks at the bar. You just order something to drink, pay and then help yourself to a little plate of various snacks: feta cheese with chili, assorted olives, pickled onions, sticky rice, foccacia, crustini with various spreads, cold pasta with tuna and capers, and so on. It varies slightly from time to to time, but always hits the spot. There’s no strange ticketing system like in other aperitivi bars in Brussels, so you can go several times (although since it’s a system of trust, it’s one that of course shouldn’t be abused).

Piola libri

The wine is excellent, if a little more expensive than the average Brussels bar. But since you can skip dinner if you go here, that’s not really an issue. A good glass of spritzer is €5, and a glass of their very decent house red is €4.80. If you go a bit earlier, you can also browse their extensive selection of Italian literature and film, as it is a book shop during the day (with free wifi). Aperitivi is normally served on Thursday and Friday nights, but have a look on their website first, as they sometimes have live readings of Italian literature instead. And make sure to arrive early if you want a seat.

Piola libri can be found at 66-68 Rue Franklin, as seen below on the map:


Moeder Lambic, Belgian beer paradise

It is common knowledge that beer is one of Belgium’s national treasures. So of course, once I moved here I started a hunt for good places to drink it. I have three criteria for a good place: selection, atmosphere and bar snacks. I’ve already found two gems who fill these criteria beautifully: the Moeder Lambic bars. They are sister bars and share the name, but they have very different characters in their own remarkable ways.

The original one is in St Gilles and it’s cosy, wooden, smelly and often crammed. It’s a traditional beer house, and filled with locals, Scottish bums, tourists as well as beer connoisseurs who traveled here especially. The first time I visited and asked for the menu, the waitress proudly exclaimed that she was the menu. And then she asked a range of questions before coming out with a beer specially tailored for me. It was lovely. Me and Mr Tjockis ordered three rounds this way before leaving, and it still only set us back 17 euros. The feel of the place is very local, with people chatting away with you as soon as you’ve grabbed a chair – for better and for worse. When I came back with Mr Meatball we sampled one of their beer cheeses. It was nutty and lovely, and served with malted barley.

Malted barley is completely new to me. You feel a bit like a bird nibbling away on little pieces of dry barley with your cheese and beer, but it actually works rather well. For me something about their flavour brings back dreamy memories of cycling around on dusty roads through newly cut hay. It’s like rose-tinted glasses on demand, as you sit in a rainy and cold asphalted Brussels.

They also serve malted barley in the Bourse branch of Moder Lambic. This place is rather different though: large and modern, though still cosy. It is also conveniently located close to the city centre. The menu – which detail their 46 (!) beers on tap is structured around aroma, bitterness and flavour. This makes picking easy for those who don’t necessarily know what they want. And you need to be well-versed in beer to know here: you’ll hardly find any of the standard Belgian beer brands on the menu, and the spectacular alcohol levels of some of the most famous exports are rare.

The snacks are also succulent: apart from the small bowl of malted barley that accompanies the beers, the cheese & bread selection is extensive. They also serve cervelas with pickle, which is a moreish pale Belgian sausage. Most snacks are sharing-sized, which is perfect when you just fancy and nibble over those delicious beers. And the staff know their stuff: try order poorly matching beer to a particular snack and you’ll be dutifully corrected and given a more appropriate recommendation.

Put simply: these places are both lovely, and they are perfect places for a gourmand as well as a gourmet to sample the best of Belgian beers. You find Moeder Lambic in St Gilles here:

And the Bourse one can be found here:


The many faces of Plat du Jour

Good Plat du Jour

Ever wondered what kind of food Brussels bureaucrats eat? Probably not, but I’m going to tell you anyways. I moved to Brussels a few weeks ago for a traineeship, and this has massively changed my food habits. Gone are the student days of lounging around in the kitchen, watching food shows on iPlayer whilst slow-cooking Coke & BBQ pulled pork. I now spend most of my awake hours at work, in heels and a suit, munching away on bananas and coffee and whatever else I can cram in between my supervisor’s various requests. However, there is one saviour through this new anti-food culture: the EC’s subsidised Plat du Jour.

Decent Plat du Jour

Plat du Jour means plate of the day, and is the most basic of the canteen-food that gets served here. It is normally a plate with some kind of meat or fish, additional carbs (rice or potatoes normally), sauce and vegetables. There is also a soup that comes with it, and a bit of bread. This canteen feast keep you from suffering with blood sugar depression, and only costs €3.75! (Don’t worry, precious tax money are only used to subsidise the food of starved stagiarires, not well-paid bureacrats). And it isn’t always a feast.

Awful Plat du Jour

My worst plat du jour experience so far was in our neighbouring building at Berlaymont, where I was served incredibly dry slices of beef (just look at the threads hanging off it in the picture above) with cold cauliflower and potatoes with thick skin. At EEAS it tends to be alright, as you can see from the other images (all but the above are from there). And at my first day at Madou, I had a delicious bloody steak with gratin dauphinois and decent béarnaise sauce.

Poor Plat du Jour

The soup you are served with the Plat du jour is often a bit of a token soup, I would guess it’s flour mixed with stock and some dried vegetables. It does not taste of much, but it comes free with the plat du jour so I’m not complaining. I just don’t eat it. So far, I’ve been grateful for the canteen standards, especially with the discount, however I have a feeling they do not meet Berlin standards. In the German capital canteens are often open to the public. The best canteens in Berlin are apparently the Nordic Embassy ones (I’m saying this without bias, it’s just what I’ve heard), and I can’t wait to visit them for some of their €5 venison ragout with home-made mash. In any case, attempting to pass the security staff at the EEAS, as a member of the public, would be overkill no matter what they were serving.

As long as the weather allows it, the best option for eating around the Commission buildings in Brussels may be to get a good baguette or sandwich and enjoy the autumn weather in a park. There are sandwich bars spread out both inside and outside the Commission buildings, and they serve nice stuff – the last weekly special in the EEAS was a carpaccio and parmesan sandwich. But since the weather seems to have definitely turned this weekend, I suppose that will be a preserve for the summer stagiaries. Until then, it’s all Plat du jour for me.


Belgian street food no. 2: Snail soup in St. Gilles


After a little break in blogging due to my move to Brussels, I’m breaking my silence with snail soup, aka Caricoles comme à Bruxelles (like everything else, it sounds a lot more appetising in French). My landlady claims this is one of the most common kinds of street foods in Belgium alongside waffles and frites,  but this is highly disputed by Miss Salted cod. Either way, my curiosity  got the upper hand, and I felt obliged to try a pot. An old lady sells these from a stand in the daily market at Parvis in St Gilles, which happens to be my local square (a market which is really lovely by the way, and also open on Saturdays). You can buy twelve escargots in broth for 4 euros, which isn’t too bad if you just want a little try.


Now, I’m a massive fan of French Escargots de Bourgogne, which tend to be smaller, slightly more tender snails drenched in parsley and garlic butter sauce. The soupy Brussels snails, however, did not quite fall to my taste. The broth was great for a cold afternoon in the ubiquitous Brussels rain: warm  and spicy, with loads of celery and white pepper. However, the snails were a bit too large and chewy for me, and did not quite hit the spot for my slightly tender weekend post-beer stomach. Perhaps it was the fault of this particular snail soup stand, but my next culinary street food adventure is probably going to be more safely frites-based.

Now, if you do want to try out the snail soup, or just visit the lovely Saturday food market in St Gilles, you can find it below on the map:


Review – Frites at Frit Flagey, Brussels

I went flat hunting in Brussels last weekend, and my first food experience over there were the best frites I’ve had my entire life. (You have to discount times of hungry drunken euphoria over soggy chips, because as we all know, hunger is the best sauce, and I’m pretty sure alcohol only adds to that truth). The Belgians are of course renowned for their chips, and it is fully possible that I will sample even better ones during my stay. But these were beautiful: golden, handcut in odd sizes, in large shapely cuts, balancing perfectly between being shoestring and a chip shop chips. They must have been double fried because every single chip was perfectly crispy on the outside, but soft and velvety inside.

In typical Belgian chip stand fashion, you have a confusing array of sauces to chose between. As you can see above, you have a slightly wider choice than ketchup, mayo and brown sauce. For me, this choice is always simple: pick Andalouse. Andalouse is the best chip sauce ever, and I’ve had it sneakily imported into the UK for the last four years. I even composed a special bacon and cabbage sandwich around it (which may see the light of this blog on a rainy day…). The base of Andalouse is mayonnaise, but then imagine smoky, spicy paprika and chili, and soft hints of curry, and you are kind of on the right track. But words don’t do it justice: you have to sample it yourself.

Frites Flagey is an excellent place to try it, and for €2.60 you get a large cone of frites with your choice of sauce. Perfect street food, especially on a crisp autumn day. And don’t feel guilt over eating just chips – it’s one of Belgium’s national treasures.