Nestled between France, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, Belgium is a is a fusion of pan-european flavors and arts. It is home to a strong comic industry that has produced the Smurfs and The Adventures of Tin Tin. Home to writers in exile; both the Communist Manifesto and Les Miserables were written while their author's were living in Belgium. We were able to try some dishes at Houston's only Belgian restaurant, Cafe Brussels.
Cafe Brussels has a long, storied past in Houston; having undergone a few location and name changes, it is currently located in Houston's now iconic first ward. It serves not only as the final outpost for Belgian food but also as a cultural hub for Belgians and several other networks of Europeans here in Houston. While serving fantastic traditional French and Belgian dishes along with an assortment of Belgian beers, Cafe Brussels' ambiance is far less pretentious than many of the French restaurants in town. Unlike many of these which are not actually run by French people, the owner of Cafe Brussels still speaks French, among other languages.
Moules (Steamed Mussels) are an essential tradition in Belgian food culture. As a country, they consume about 30 million tons of mussels which works out to about seven pounds per person, per season. Brussels Cafe has almost a dozen varieties of this dish. We tried the Moules Marinières, which are made with a white wine base are served steaming hot. Moules are served with frites, which, according to some people, might actually be the first "French" fry. We rounded out our meal with some Le Lapin aux Pruneaux, which is rabbit that is stewed in a sweet (very sweet) prune and raisin sauce.
It just so happened that we visited Cafe Brussels during Mardi Gras. This led to an interesting conversation with the owner who is from the town of Binche. Binche is a short drive south of Brussels and is home to a unique Mardi Gras parade which includes extravagant (2-3 thousand dollar) costumes and community-wide dancing and festivities. The feathered hats are made from ostrich feathers and the purity of the color (or lack there of) demonstrate the quality (read: expense). Lent is the Christian holiday--predominantly celebrated in more formal denominations--that leads up to Easter wherein people traditionally fast from eating meat. Thus, Mardi Gras functions as the final "get it while you can" unofficial preholiday-holiday. One of the dishes they eat in Belgium right before Lent is the German-inspired but French-named dish choucroute garnie, dressed sauerkraut. Choucroute garnie is a meat loaded sauerkraut that uses cheap and fatty cuts of pork and sausage and serves as a last mean before swearing off meat for Lent.