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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Paradise in Sketchy-ville

The Brussels taxi driver did a double take when I told him the address in the Saint Gilles neighborhood next to the Gare du Midi.

Arriving, I suggested a nighttime drop-off half a block from the B&B to avoid making a loop of one-way streets.

“You sure?” he asked. “Be careful.”

Not exactly what you want to hear when you’re just down the street from the police station.

Go anyway. The Art de la Fugue wipes away the doubts as soon as you walk in the door. Gracious hosts, high ceilings and big, beautiful spaces that cleverly mix modern design and flea market chic immediately make you forget the outside world.

Each room has a theme: Farinelli for the princess, Indochina for a bit of Zen, and Lawrence of Arabia for the travel writer. Don’t worry: all cool, no kitsch.

There are televisions hidden in each room, but it’s doubtful you’ll watch – the atmosphere makes you want to read, write, play the piano or linger over a very tasty breakfast.

The kicker? The price – around 100 euros per room per night.

L’art de la Fugue - MAP
Bed & Breakfast
Rue de Suède 38
1060 Brussels
+32 478 69 59 44

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Last One(s) for The Road

Who knew a bitter aftertaste was a good thing?

On a suggestion from the bed and breakfast owner, I check out Brasserie de l’Union on the Parvis Saint-Gilles, which, in my case, was literally off the map.

I have an Orval, mostly because I haven’t yet, and watch the world go by. Spring is in the air – trees are budding and everybody in out on les terrasses, following the afternoon sun like flowers.

There are scads of other places to check out on the square: head across the street (sun or no) to Le Librar for leather jackets, piercings, tattoos and a blessed lack of gawkers or double back to the Maison du Peuple for an afternoon’s worth of Wi-Fi and bourgeoisie.

There, however, a local points me further up the street (and further off the map) to Chez Moeder Lambic where the beer list is long and the service and cheeses are raw – one of the best finds of the trip. If they’ve got it, the Trappist Val-Dieu comes highly recommended, but I start with a Gouyasse the end my Belgian beer quest the way I started – with a St. Bernardus wit.

I’ll be back.

Parvis Saint-Gilles – MAP

Chez Moeder Lambic – MAP
Savoiestraat 68, Belgium
+34 02 539 14 19‎

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Thursday, April 09, 2009

Leave the wine. Take the cannoli.

A quick pause from Belgian beer to say that when it comes to finding the best Italian in the 11th arrondissement, you win, Francois.

Last night, taking the advice of locals and friends, a sommelier friend and I went to Casa Vigata for Sicilian on rue Léon Frot for a hit and miss extravaganza.

The hits:
The Seafood – a clam and artichoke appetizer full of flavor and sauce made for bread dipping, whole-roasted octopus served with just a slice of lemon and a perfectly-cooked breaded swordfish main. Paris can be disastrous when you’re looking for good fish and these guys nail it.

The Cannoli – Leave the gun. The friendly owner makes these daily using a crispy shell, light, tangy ricotta and just a touch of candied orange peel. If there’s better in Paris I haven’t found it.

The misses:
Consistency: Our neighbors ordered two of the same dishes as we did; their octopus was cooked better (mine was slightly over) and their swordfish/caponata portions were significantly larger. They also got a shot of lemoncello with their check. The last is certainly at the owner’s discretion, but all three together leave a bitter taste.

The worst:
The wine – overpriced and, um, bad. A red Sicilian table wine for 40 euros? I love a good Nero d’Avola, but please.

It took us 10 minutes looking at the wine list to essentially decide how we were going to be fleeced and we still lost. My friend was talking about…something when I got distracted by a sip of the white we ordered…

Me: “This is bad.”
Sommelier friend: “Very bad.”

The verdict?
I’ll try again in a year. Maybe.

Casa Vigata MAP
44 rue Léon Frot
75011 Paris

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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Monks Don’t Have Answering Machines

After a good round of gueuze, barman Sebastien starts talking about Westvleteren 12, a Trappist brew that’s rare as hen’s teeth and a whole lot better tasting. It’s often raked as the best beer in the world and is the crown jewel of Café la Brocante.

“Super rare,” says Sebastian, delicately teasing out the bait. “First you have to call them 400 times and they never pick up the phone. And they’re monks, so they don’t have answering machines.”

Later, he explains, if you get through, you schedule a pickup at the abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren where the monks will give you a case (“Two if you’re lucky”) and write down your license plate number so you can’t come back for more.


He pours a chalice-type glass, leaving the last bit of sediment in the bottom of the bottle.

The beer’s so deep colored that the thick foam takes on a coffee-with-cream color that gives off a toffee and licorice nose so strong it almost makes you want to cut it with a bit of water to get the full bouquet. At 10.5% alcohol – more than twice of what’s in a bottle of Bud - the idea’s not that far-fetched.


A wall of flavor pushes through my mouth and out the sides of my tongue.
There are the toffee and licorice flavors, but a concentrated, sweet and malty earthiness, too. It’s the perfect way to end a beer trip to Brussels and cheaper than a bad pint in Paris.

I buy one for the road.

The abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren

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Monday, April 06, 2009

Suds & Stoemp

My Brussels beer luck holds true at Café La Brocante, found by asking two friendly-looking locals (with all the groceries they were carrying, they couldn’t have been going far) where to go. The café/bar/restaurant is on the square that hosts Brussels’ sprawling and kitschy flea market and all the signs were good – better said, the sign on the front door announces a beer list that included 3 Fonteinen, Oud Beersel and Cantillon – whose brewers I’ve been interviewing in the last few days.

Inside, old regulars play backgammon, there’s a stag’s head on the wall with a pipe in its mouth and a sign that says ‘Please don’t feed the dog’ in three languages. There’s a local dish called stoemp made with mashed potatoes and theirs comes topped with slices of homemade meatloaf; my father would be in heaven.

The barman, Sebastien, coaches us through a couple of beer selections and his knowledge extends not only to what’s on the menu, but what’s not, including a rare kriek lambic (in short, a barrel-aged beer flavored with sour cherries) from 3 Fonteinen.

We order two drinks and when they arrive, he’s got a bit of a doubt so he opens the first, gets both of our opinions on it and, assured, opens the other.

“I love this place and I’ve got plans,” he says, alluding to an idea of taking over the bar when the owners retire.


Café La Brocante - MAP
Blaesstraat 170
+32 (0) 2 512 13 43

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Thursday, April 02, 2009

Good Beer

Brussels – God bless a good lead.

I dropped Anders Kissmeyer of Copenhagen’s Nørrebro Bryghus a note saying I was en route to Brussels and wanted to know where to go for good beer. Within a day, Kissmeyer and his two brewers, Shaun Hill and Kasper Larsen, had a list of brewers, beer halls and lambic blenders to contact.

Shaun recommended the Poechenellekelder bar, a stone’s throw (a short squirt?) from the city’s bizarre Mannekin Pis statue. This close to the touristic center of most cities, it’s generally good to keep your guard up. Instead we were more than impressed by both the selection and the product knowledge.

The list of choices is extensive – even for a beer enthusiast it can be baffling – yet a lot of selection doesn’t mean much without good guidance – “at that point they’re just a stockist” someone said later. Here, however, our waiter Cedric Jamar - a philosophy student who could easily pass for a sommelier - guided by asking just a couple of questions about what we know and what we like and, without presenting options, simply said, “I’ll be right back.”

He came back with two different beers – one exactly what I asked for, and the other, St. Bernardus wheat beer that – with gentle berry smells and crisp flavors, I’d rank among the top ten beers of my life.

I told Jamar so and, with a bit of clever salesmanship, said, “Ah, that’s nothing – if you like that, come back tomorrow and I’ll give you something that’ll knock your socks off.”

I’m on my way.

Poechenellekelder – MAP
Rue du Chêne, 5

P.S. – Hot off the press – I just got word from Copenhagen that Nørrebro Bryghus is going carbon neutral. Cheers, Anders!

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