Monday, May 28, 2007

Karyn's Picks and Pans: Brussels

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Grand Place - Hotel de Ville (Town Hall)

* Hotel Sabina - I booked the cheapest place I could find that didn't get absolutely heinous reviews. This was adequate, and quite by accident, it was also very close to the autobahn where we came in, so it wasn't a very long drive in town, which was good for my sanity (I didn't drive, but the traffic still freaked me out, and I had to help navigate - HAHA! - which is no easy feat in Brussels). The hotel was a bit shabby and dingy, but at least it was cheerful and sanitary (I hope). We had a quad room, which was up on the top floor (8 flights of steps), and they had an elevator, but it was a bit dubious, so we took the stairs each time. We had a private bath…shower and sink in one closet, toilet in another. There were 4 twin beds, two of them pushed up together so that it was king size. Otherwise, the room was quite cramped. This place, like our hostel in Berlin, was popular with backpackers. The service was friendly. Breakfast is included in the price, and it's your standard European breakfast buffet which I've described more than once before. I think we paid roughly $30 each for one night here. Not bad. It was located fairly close to the Grand Place…less than 20 minutes by foot. One night here was fine, but I don't think I would like it for an extended stay. It was near a hospital and we constantly heard sirens throughout the night, so noise was an issue. Parking is also an issue, but we just got lucky. There was a parking space on the street on the block where our hotel was located, so we just parked there. Because our rental car had Netherlands plates, we didn't get ticketed, because they can't make us pay it. So our parking was free.

* Greedy Lunch - This place was right down the street from our hotel (by where we parked, actually), and we found ourselves here because we got to the hotel half an hour before our room was ready, and we had time to kill, and well…it was noon. There was a line out the door, but if you go inside and seat yourself, it's a full service restaurant. They had a huge variety of sandwiches, soups, salads, and even pastas…most everything was customized to your specifications. Sue and Lindsey shared a Salad Niçoise, which they declared to be very good, even though it didn't come with dressing. I had their sandwich version of the Salad Niçoise, so it was basically a tuna sandwich with olive oil, and there was the added element of green beans, which was most interesting (I did not get potatoes, egg, or any of the other components of this salad on my sandwich, and for that, I guess I can be thankful…although egg would have been good).. Lori had a roast beef sandwich with shaved parmesan. My sandwich was edible, but I would not order that particular sandwich again. I would, however, eat here again (if I ever had reason to), because everything else looked really really tasty, and it's obviously a very popular place to eat. It's on Rue du Nord, but I can think of no reason that tourists might venture here, unless they are already staying at Hotel Sabina.

* Devina Finest Belgian Chocolates - This is the place where I got my chocolates on my first trip to Brussels, and this is where I came back. The service is impeccable. The ladies working behind the counter were generous with the free samples. They were also extremely charming and funny, and they let us know what chocolates they personally didn't like, something that I find remarkable in customer service (you would expect them to say that all their chocolates are good, right?). We spent quite a bit of time here, and they were very patient and helpful as we made our selections. It is certainly true that good customer service results in good sales. Even though we purchased a couple of pieces at Neuhaus earlier in the day (I was really interested in trying their violet flavored truffle…in a word - blech!), we bought most of our chocolate here. Although I'm sure all the chocolate shops in Brussels are excellent, this is my personal favorite. (Located on the Rue Marché aux Herbes…right behind the Grand Place).

* La Maison du Miel - I made it a point to come back here, after having dropped some euros here on my first trip to Brussels. As you might expect, "The House of Honey" sells honey (in various flavors), but they also offer bath products, candies, and even honey flavored liquers. This time, I splurged on a jar of their chocolate honey, and a container of their excellent hand cream. (Located on the Rue Marchè aux Herbes)

* Rue des Bouchers - This narrow, cobbled alleyway will entice you with its fairy lights and quaint sidewalk cafes. Don't be fooled. This street is not for the faint of heart. This is an alley containing ONLY restaurants, and while it might seem a good bet for finding dinner, be aware that you will be harassed by the waiters as you walk down the street. "Madame, you must eat here! Four courses only 12 euros!" Ad nauseum. The restaurants are all basically the same and they all basically offer the same menus for the same price (the first few restaurants after you enter Rue des Bouchers were charging 18 euros…go further back for the lower prices). After being accosted by nearly a dozen waiters, my aunt finally told one, "We'll eat here for 10 euros each." He agreed, but only if we were seated inside.

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Rue des Bouchers

This restaurant was Le Petit Bedon. As the name suggests, the menu was primarily French. We were first given an aperitif - a small glass of white wine mixed with blackcurrant. I enjoyed it very much. Next came a starter (and a basket of bread and butter), and we had a small range of choices. I got the smoked salmon, which came with diced raw onion and dill. I remember there being salads and soups as well, and Lori had shrimp in garlic butter for her starter. For the main course, I got lamb chops, which came with fries. They weren't great lamb chops…they were very fatty and there was actually very little meat. The fries were good though. Lori had a pepper steak, Lindsey had grilled chicken breast, and Sue had the grilled salmon. They all enjoyed their meals more than I did. There were also mussels on the menu, which are a Belgian specialty (just not this time of year…it's mostly a winter delicacy). Dessert was included too, and this was a crème caramel…and not very good, really. All of us ate only a couple bites and then pushed it away, but then again, I've never been a huge fan of flan. But still, we paid 10 euros for our meal, and our waiter was great. His name was (swear to God) Fatty, and he was Tunisian. He was so interested in talking to us, because his wife is getting ready to move to America. He was really funny too. A Black-Eyed Peas song came on while we were eating (Shut Up), and he sang very loudly along with it as he served customers. We were cracking up.

Anyway, if you're looking for an exquisite meal, avoid Rue des Bouchers. But if you want a French meal for a reasonable price that gives you some variety, this is a fine place to go. Don't be afraid to haggle - 12 euros is a great price for a 4 course meal, but 10 euros is even better. If you end up at Le Petit Bedon, say hi to Fatty for me.

* La Cure Gourmande - This place is EVIL. EVIIIIIIIIIL. It's bad enough that there are hundreds of chocolate shops in Brussels, but now you have this place. They sell gifts on the second floor, but before you can get there, you have to walk through a first floor of caramels, macaroons, and something they call "chocolate olives." I bought 6 caramels here…SIX…and they cost me over 9 euros (in USD, that's more than $11). They were large caramels, but still…wow. I got 2 each chocolate, vanilla, and a salt flavor. Anyway, I have tasted all 3 flavors by now, and they weren't worth the price. Good yes. Nine euros worth of good? Absolutement non! I should've spent the nine euros on more chocolate. It's a fun store to look around in though, and I was particularly drawn to the smell of the coconut macaroons (which they don't actually call macaroons there, but that is more or less what they are). It's right off the Grand Place, so it's hard to miss.

Is it any wonder I gained 3 pounds on this trip?

By the way, at this moment, I am eating a Granny Smith apple drizzled with that chocolate honey I bought in Brussels. Ah. Mon. Dieu. God bless those little chocoholic bees. ;)

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