I GREW UP IN Kansas; I’m familiar with steak, hamburger, bacon: pretty much any part of a cow or pig that you can eat. But shellfish? Nope, not often, if ever, on the table. So when I went to Brussels for the first time, it also became my first time trying mussels.
I had them not simply because it would be fun to say I had mussels in Brussels, but I figured that of all the places to try them for the first time, it should be here. Mussels, or moules, are the national dish of Belgium. Mussels season is typically from September to February, though it can be earlier; you can get them year round at some restaurants, though not all.
My first mussels experience was to be at Chez Léon, a restaurant opened in 1893 by Léon Vanlancker, and the restaurant is still run by the Vanlancker family. It has 14 different mussel dishes and its own beer. It’s a Brussels institution, which, yes, means there will be tourists there, but there seemed to be locals mixed in with the out-of-towners. There are a few other Chez Léon restaurants, but this is the original.
As I walked down the cobblestone rue de Bouchers, a street filled with restaurants, I realized that I didn’t actually know how to eat mussels. I started paying closer attention to the diners sitting outside with buckets of the shellfish in front of them. I watched as with seemingly no effort whatsoever they used one hand to hold the mussel and with the other wielded a discarded half shell as a spoon to scoop out the meat, then eating it right from the shell. No extra utensils needed.
All right, I thought, I can get my hands dirty. I liked the tactile connection to the food – just get in there and enjoy it.
While you can get mussels prepared in a variety of ways, the traditional dish in Brussels is moules frites; the mussels are cooked in white wine and butter and served with a side of fries.
Fries actually originated in Brussels, and they do them right. They’re thick, crispy, and not seasoned by just upending a salt shaker on them. And what makes them all the more heavenly, at least to me, is that they’re traditionally served with mayonnaise. I always have to ask for mayonnaise at a restaurant in the states when I order fries, but in Brussels, it was assumed.
So I knew that even if mussels proved to be too much fish for my beef-eating palate, I’d have fries to enjoy. I took a seat at a small wooden table in what from the outside had seemed like a small restaurant, but was actually quite large and quite busy, and noticed that at least every other table had a bucket full of mussels on it. It seemed like a good sign. I didn’t even need the menu – moules frites, s’il vous plaît.
I awkwardly scooped out my first mussel, not quite prepared for the very fishy, very rich taste and unique texture. I’d been warned before I left on my trip that they’re a love-them-or-hate-them type of food. I ended up rather awkwardly in between – not rushing out of the restaurant proclaiming a newfound passion for the dish or vowing to never let another one cross my lips — I decided they were perhaps, at least for me, an acquired taste.
But hey, I’d eaten mussels in Brussels, and finished off a plate full of fries. I was happy. Where to enjoy moules in Brussels:
Chez Léon, rue des Bouchers, 18
Au Vieux Bruxelles, rue St Boniface, 35
Restaurant Francois, Quai aux Briques, 2
La Belle Maraichere, Place Sainte Cathérine, 11
Bij den Boer, Quai aux Briques, 60
La Bonne Humeur, Chaussée de Louvain, 244
[Editor’s note: This trip was sponsored by VisitFlanders, but all opinions belong to the author.]