Best mussels in Brussels?

It’s a great dish, and not just because it rhymes.

When you go to Brussels, you really do have to eat mussels.

Like so many iterations of a national dish there’s the good, the bad and the just plain ugly. And when you’re talking shellfish, ugly can get really ugly.

If you’re after one of the best specimens in Brussels, you might as well go to the source.

In 1921 Calixt Veulemans started the habit of serving steamed mussels in individual casserole bowls at his restaurant Aux Armes de Bruxelles.

It’s still there.

Aux Armes de Bruxelles is a beacon of calm on a corner in one of the most tourist clanging corridors of the city. All up and down Rue des Bouchers, just off from the Grand Place there are schlocky restaurants with variations versions of smoldering fires, seafood on ice, laminated menus and waiters aggressively spruiking for business.

Aux Ames de Bruxelles has none of these things. 

On a blisteringly cold night Saturday night in December we trudge through the front doors.There are three rooms- as the restaurant grew in popularity between 1934 and 1953 they expanded into the neighboring houses. Their greetings to our non existent Flemish and faltering French are warm and come in English.

Inside it’s all worn wooden windows and banquets that line the walls like church pews. The room is decorated for the season, with garlands nestling in the corners and twinkle lights pottering about. The tables are set with starched cloths and there are pots of yellow mustard waiting expectantly for you.

The crowd is a mix of solo business travellers, locals out celebrating and the odd couple in search of a romantic eve. There’s a long menu with classic Belgian dishes of endive and eel in green sauce, but we, like so many others have come for the mussels.

They’ve got the system here down. There are bread rolls to start, three rustic lumps with a pat of Beurre d’Isgny.  A Haacht Witbier Blanche comes in a baby sized stein with  notes of oat and a whiff of banana, while a carafe of Provencal Rose is as girlishly light as a dress with a sash on a summer’s day. You could go with just a glass, but a half bottle carafe means you can handle the top ups yourself. And there will be top ups. That’s what holidays are for.

Top us, and not thinking twice about tucking into the dish of frites that come as a free gift with purchase.

A sneaky pilfering reach by The Hungry One into my frites

As with most destinations in Brussels, there’s a choice of sauce for your mussels. Marinere is salted water, butter and vegetables. Provencal has white wine, tomato and strips of celery and onion. And hot pepper is a sassy blonde sauce with a kick of spice.

There are richer options containing cream, but the Provencal is where you want to be. The tomato gives the sauce some depth and density, with bits and pieces playing hide and seek in the mussel shells. The crescents of celery give a nice contrast and there are waif like threads of onion lurking about.

It’s all hands on deck from here. We go with the traditional method of consumption- picking the first mussel out with your fingers and then using the empty shell as a clicking castanet to pluck the others from their cases.

Meanwhile service is swift and charming. Our table has been deftly extended so there’s plenty of room to cast away the shells to a plate to the left when their plucked clean. The mussels are fawn coloured and sweet and the chips tread that grand line between an exterior that crunches and an inside as downy as a baby’s thigh. 

They’re very good smushed in mustard. They’re also excellent when swung through the tomatoey depths of the sauce.

 This is the kind of food that lends itself to conversation and wild gesticulating- you’ve already got your hands up and running. It’s also the kind of food that sneaks up on you. It doesn’t feel like much, until you can hardly breathe.

The serving size is as large as a stock pot. Add the bread for dunking and the chips for indulging and it’s a meal that will protect you from the elements outside.

There are options for dessert, including waffles and crepes flambe, but tonight, this is enough for us.  At 8.30pm there are people coming through the doors hoping for a table. Without a reservation, they’re asking in vain and are soon returned to the cobblestone streets outside.

Meanwhile those who’ve done their advance research and made a reservation online before they jumped on the Eurostar can sit  in the warmth, next to a pile of shells, an empty pot and feel very, very smug knowing that they probably just ate the best mussels in Brussels.

Now we just need to go in search of truffles. The rhyme isn’t as good- but I think the chocolate here will be just fine.

Aux Armes de Bruxelles
Online reservations
13 Rue des Bouchers
Belgium 1000
Tel: 32 2 511 5550

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