I think Brussels isn’t happy that I’m staying only for 22 hours.
Not only was I struck with the onslaught of twilight, I was in Brussels on what is known as Easter Monday, a public holiday, and arguably the most important for this predominantly Christian nation. After Grand Place/Grote Markt, it’s only when I surveyed the surrounding neighborhood that I realized I wasn’t going to get much done. As the Marriot’s concierge, staffed by of all ethnicity, by French-speaking Belgian East Asians nearby summed it up: “This is probably the worst night to go out. Most of the bars and restaurants are closed”, going as far out to point that even the place’s own bar and restaurant were closing early. I was frustrated. No, frustrated was putting it lightly. Brussels was literally giving me bugger all.
Sensing my vexation, they offered me a place to go. They didn’t reveal much – couldn’t promise it was still open – but said with a bit of a smug that if it did, I’d enjoy myself. I wasn’t sure if I was liking this fellow at all, but with nothing else on my table, I follow the breadcrumbs to this destination called… What was it? The bad handwriting seemed to spell out what I thought looked like “Chez Leon”. “What was this place”, I thought. If it was any comfort, it was not too far from the hotel, and by extension, the Metro station.
As I made my way down the street, I couldn’t help but wonder how fast the character of the neighborhood was changing with every step I took. Every turn started to look seedy, with fluorescent back-lit signboards giving way to neon ones. I passed by a Middle Eastern food joint, my senses heightened, clutching my bag tighter and double-checking that all my compartments were sealed. In the aftermath of my “incident” in the Netherlands, I was warned, almost consistently, to be weary of all Middle Easterns, and some people of African descent. Was such advice a mild form of racism? Undoubtedly, but with the suspicions frequently fulfilling themselves, you have to be.
Down, or rather, up I went, into the alley, and into a tourist’s trap. There were restaurants stretching as far as the eye could see – completely empty, with touts and their boards promising a 3-course 12 Euro meal complete with all the Belgian food stereotypes of mussels with fries, steak(?) and waffles. I’m alone, so the touts don’t really pursue, most don’t flinch at the sight of my singlehood, but for those in a group, they become a pack of rabid dogs until their prey relent. I manage to make my way – up and down and back up even, clearly searching for this “Chez Leon” which I surmise, should be a restaurant since the stretch is filled with nothing but restaurants and fountains. Still, the touts don’t ambush me. Weird. I surmise that the concept of a table for one is so mind-boggling that they think I’m a lost cause, or it’s hard to swindle money out of a table for one.
I find Chez Leon, by accident, really. I was moving up and down the street, and I was ready to be fed to the sharks when I spotted the only place which didn’t have a tout. And when I stepped in, and was seated, and staring at the table, at the restaurant’s name, I realized that I was where I needed to be all along. The restaurant staff are wonderful, as I’d find throughout the rest of my visit when I dine in Europe’s restaurants – there’s a certain etiquette and professionalism, and a touch of heart that can never be found elsewhere. I’m taken care of, never rushing, never upselling, and the staff do genuinely seem interested in my opinion of the meal. But at the end of the day, I think it’s a two-way street – I always started the conversation in French, sometimes experimenting with phrases off my French language App, before asking if I could speak English, despite knowing very well that they could speak and understand English. It’s the littlest things and some trivial detour that makes the difference. By the time I’m ready to order, I’m treated like a Star Alliance Gold flyer riding in Economy Class – crew going the extra mile and all. I zoom right in on the moules frites – a lovely white wine sauce variant – and a Belgian beer, and that’s happily processed with a bread basket popping up on the table where there was none a second ago.
The bread, a baguette, is like most breads in Europe, cold but nevertheless crisp on the outside and silken on the inside – it keeps getting refilled (it’s sometimes offered, and done automatically on other occasions), but on no circumstance should you ask for it to be refilled, apparently. In my experience in Europe, “asking” just seems to tick them off, so don’t. While it’s good on its own, and with the butter available, do save some for the wine sauce that the mussels is cooked in. If there’s any dish the staff humorously appear most reluctant to serve, it’s the salad. As if it’s part of the law, they bring in the rich bowl of greens with a unique spirit of enthusiasm that could only be described as uncharacteristically and exceptionally lacklustre. Furthermore, they intentionally interrupt you with the thing that you came here for in the first place, the moules frites.
Indeed, once the moules arrive, along with that curiously small bowl of oil-soaked crisp golden brown frites, the greens just vaporize off one’s mind. I couldn’t wait to dig into this bucket of crustacean goodness, the whiff of the white wine sauce strong, potent and flavorful. To be completely fair, the mussels served at Brussels Sprouts in Singapore are undoubtedly bigger, in fact, twice as large as those I’m served in Chez Leon. Where it lacks in size, it makes up for it with fresh, tender, juicy small mussels, with a buttery texture that just goes smoothly. The beer, a complement with no equal. The fries, looking like a good McDonald’s portion, but tasting ions better. By the time I was done, enjoying the white wine sauce broth either by drinking it whole, or pairing it with the baguette, I really couldn’t accept my first refill of frites because I was so full. I loved it all, and I couldn’t wait to return to Brussels (or Paris, because Chez Leon has a branch there, too).