Monday, September 24, 2012

Mamma Roma's Pizza

Spicy mushroom and ham and cheese.

Pizza, it's a fabulous food when done right, an atrocity when done wrong. I haven't decided if what Mamma Roma's is doing here in Brussels is right or heretical. People swear by the place which started out just a few short years ago in Place Flagey. I don't blame my fellow Brusselian's for latching on to this establishment. Honestly, I ordered Pizza Hut the first week I was here (don't ask, it's very complicated) and can tell you that they managed to make a fairly decent fast-food American pizza into rubbish here. The flavors are muted, the toppings sparse, and much like the American version of the same food, you'll be filled only with regret and concern as to why you ordered it. In comparison Mamma Roma's is the Sistine Chapel to Pizza Hut's drive-thru chapel.

Momma Roma's does a couple things right, the first being, the bread. The crust is about as perfect as it comes, doused in oil with a bit of crunch. Then there is the variety of options that you can get on the pizza, and for about 10 Euros you can get two massive slices and a drink to-go. Was it good? Yes. Spectacular? I'm not sure I'd go there. Let's leave it as really, really good. I think both the sauce and cheeses on the pieces I received were muted in flavor and lacking in the abundance. What I did receive I liked.

Perhaps what reinforced my concern for Mamma Rosa's was the fact I handed them a 50 to pay for dinner and whether by mistake or on purpose, the gentleman handed me back my change minus a 20. He quickly fixed it when I pointed it out, but I do wonder if my obvious "Americanista flair" (and poor French) was enough to make the employee think he could pull one over on me. I of course could just be a bit paranoid about the entire mistake, though Saint Gilles did seem a bit shady.

Probably didn't help that I thought I was creative by ordering from their marketing sign saying "morsel" for a piece of pizza. Rule #86, marketing lingo is different than real ordering. It was like me going into McDonald's in the States and ordering "A big juicy, and delicious Big Mac please." Then again I may be reading way to much into this, and "morceu" is an appropriate word. Such is the fun in being new to a language.

With that said, I enjoyed Mamma Rosa's and would love to try more, but traveling half-way across town for pizza, while an adventure the first time, will likely make me hesitant to do it again. Build one in Anderlecht, or near the VUB (Flagey, or the ULB doesn't count) and we will talk. (They'd make a killing on campus.)

Bottom line, great concept, okay execution, really good pizza, and employees with bad math skills.

So I thought I'd update this post. I went to the Flagey location a couple days ago and had a completely opposite experience of what I had in Saint Gilles. Outrageously good food, and amazing service. I believe (if my French is good enough) that I read in the paper that the owner has disliked the way the chain has lost it's quality aspect, so the timing of what I wrote seems on par with a fast-growing business. That said, I'm officially hooked now.

Burger Republic | Best Take-Away in Brussels?

The most expensive burger I've ever purchased.

It would seem my gastronomy radar is improving the more I stay here. Every time you think you find the best  food in town, it's overshadowed by the next meal. However this one does not come cheap. It's a $16 (12 Euro) burger that's out of this world. It could just be amazing since it's one of the few places in town that actually caters real American style hamburgers (though not really).

So what's the deal? Try hand baked bread made daily, homemade truffle sauce, sauteed mushrooms, bacon, gobs of cheese and Irish Angus ground beef cooked to perfection. I'm not saying it's the best burger I've ever had, but it definitely is one of the top-three. It's uniqueness factor alone is unrivaled, with the truffle sauce being the culinary indulgence that makes this sandwich worth 12 Euros. No not really. $16 dollars for a burger? I must be out of my mind! (That's just the burger... fries and drinks are extra.)

I nominate this for the category of AWESOME!
Burger Republic is at Place Flagey. It's the up and coming (may have already arrived) face of cheap eats (figuratively), and good food. Situated right next to Mama Roma it boasts a monochrome dining room somewhere between fast-food and kitsch Americana. Sit and eat, or approach the back bench for the take-away of your dreams. I arrived right at their opening at 7 PM (yes 7 PM, it's a Belgian thing I think) and had a 15 minute wait. Service was nice, and typical. I left with a boutique bag (that's where the money is going) filled with one Mushroom Bacon Burger and an order of onion rings. Believe you me, it was a long-freaking ride home to Anderlecht on Tram 81.

I sat down, pulled out my sandwich and indulged. Love at first bite. It's rich, creamy, flavorful and indulgent. It's by far the best take-aways that I've had since arriving in Brussels. Each bite was like $2.00 worth of food, but like a fine wine, or candy... I loved every minute of it. All I can say is if you have a hankering for an American style cheeseburger in Brussels, but with a European twist (and price tag), then run don't walk to Burger Republic.
Big, juicy, delicious onion rings? Actually they're sort of bland.

In my opinion I'd skip the onion rings. They were good but lacked the flavors of the sandwich. If they were breaded in a chicken breader, then they might have something, or if you're happy to season them on your own, you'd likely find they're delicious. As is they're a bit uneventful.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Hot Dogs in Brussels?

Crispy Barbecue: Soft white bun, chicken
sausage, barbecue sauce, and fried onions.

Perhaps you think I fell of the metro and hit my head. A hot-dog in Brussels? That's what I thought too. There are these ironic deficiencies of very obviously popular foods among Brussels diverse gastronomy network, but then in some tiny corner of town you'll find it, often re-invented with a European twist. Such is the case at HopDog, a small restaurant situated in a crack of the busiest shopping area in Brussels (near De Brouckere). Here's the thing, it's idyllic, and what they're doing there is amazing. Through the window, or a two seat counter you can order up a gourmet hot-dog in rather unique packaging. No this isn't the New York dirty water hot dog, it's artisan bread, high-end sausages, and toppings like crunchy BBQ that round out one of the best take-aways I've had. Which is rather ironic since I'm in Belgium not the U.S.

Lawrence Peter once said "The noblest of all dogs is the hot-dog, it feeds the hand that bites it." Indeed I'm constantly surveying my counterparts for their gastronomic discoveries here in this new world of Brussels, but I'm often left speculating for how much they actually care to try something new. One individual ordered Chinese, something I have two blocks from my U.S. house, another complained of the mass-quantities of cheese used on everything here (I sadly completely disagree with this observation, there is not enough). Who doesn't like cheese?  My room-mate has been on a budget of 3 Euros a day purchasing nothing but durums. When I mentioned my escapades into new foods, their reply was "I'll stick to the durums". Not that there's anything wrong with anything my friends are doing, and we all must explore this city in our own way, but without the exploration of food- that emotional, sensory adventure, how can you say you lived in Brussels? The interesting part, is there's a true lack of information out there on what's good, and what's rubbish. It could take a life-time to figure it all out.

So back to HopDog. Why the name HopDog? Beer fermented sausages? I really don't know, though I can tell you they're out of this world. What was recommended to me as their specialty is their Crispy Barbecue. It leans a bit more towards ketchup than U.S. BBQ, but the combination of crunch and taste is absolutely out of this world. I'm told the bread is baked daily, and most all the ingredients are local. There's even vegetarian (not sure how) and organic options for my fellow woodchucks. It truly is a fun, fantastic concept with amazing food. Now if I can just convince the owner into making me a chili dog. Then I'd be in take-away heaven.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

La Drague | The Art of Seduction and Harassment

La Drague, as in to pick up, as in the initial verbal word play of courting is a popular topic in Brussels right now. Not because the art of seduction is a good thing, but that La Drague has become associated with something very, very bad: harassment. More importantly, the "cat-calling", or often offensive sexist slang or vulgarities that are commonly associated with harassment of women. In America we iconized the concept through construction workers whistling at the passerby woman. Here, in Brussels it's much, much worse.

My first encounter with harassment on the streets of Brussels was last year on a visit to see some friends. Not knowing where anything was or where to go in our unguided free time, me and Shannon ended up in a neighborhood I now know as Schaerbeek. While parts of Schaerbeek are safe, and void of this phenomenon for the most part, other parts are colloquially know as Petite Moroc or La Capitale du Moroc, (little Morroco) in reference to the very high ethnicity of Middle-Easter descent inhabitants. Indeed you feel a bit naked walking down the streets as eyes stare, men follow, and words (which I couldn't understand then) are shouted at your back-side as if it's (ever) going to make you turn around and quickly fall in love.

Recently, a documentary called "Femme de la Rue" on the matter caused quite a stir in Brussels. It occurred before I moved hear, but the effects have been profound. In the video a woman dressed conservatively tries to walk around her neighborhood and receives many remarks. The point being is a woman's dignity in Brussels is always likely to be soiled by the conflict of cohabitation of many cultures here in Brussels unless things change. This is a difficult to swallow for the home of the EU which in 2008 made a very controversial decision to ban hate speech and to reduce social friction. Yet Brussels can't keep the men on the street from vomiting vulgarity right outside their shiny supra-national government buildings. The irony is unyielding and many Belgian conservatives I've become acquainted with (who will remain nameless), even those who are running for election are quietly xenophobic about the Arab culture which they believe is to blame these activities. Worse yet, is they know they're xenophobic, and like in the US with Hispanics, these Belgian conservative think you should either conform or leave.

So I suppose we're really not all that different, but if the ideals of community and unified diversity (the mantra of the E.U.) are ever going to succeed in this world, then they have to start here in Brussels. Brussels knows it too, and in response to La Drague, last week it is now illegal to curse in Belgium in a way that's inflammatory to another individual. (Like calling somewhat a slut, etc.) It's all pretty nifty on paper, just as many of the laws that stemmed from the 2008 decision are, but enforcing them? Likely a nightmare.

Considering I've been here just under four weeks, my experience as many of the girls I go to school with have reinforced that La Drague is very common here. I've had men follow me home, call me names I've only recently learned in French, and likely countless other things I can't comprehend. It ranges from scary to corny and very quickly gets old really quick. Yet there is this habit to just accept it's a part of life living in this very diverse city. It's part of the culture of being a woman in Brussels and generally becomes little more than a nuisance in everyday life. (Likely why a lot of us just put headphones on and zone out.) The truth is as a writer I know one fact that I suspect a lot of women worry about, but fail to materialize into their justification of acceptance of this harassment: words can become actions. Having visited the Middle-East personally and knowing that there, physical harassment (touching, grabing, etc) often occurs with the verbal harassment, and having experienced it: I'm glad to say it hasn't occurred yet to me here. But with a 150,000 people living in Brussels it's just a matter of time till someone crosses that line and the worst fears of Sofie Peeters and the rest of us in Brussels becomes a new reality.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Durums, the Best Street Food in Brussels?

Best Street Food in Brussels?

So I travel different then most people. Definitely a lot different than most Americans. I would rather have cheap street food from a cart vendor in some back alley than spend 25 Euros on sit down meal. Don't get me wrong, I like a good evening out with friends and wine for the socialization, but when it comes to the really, really good food- I've just found it usually comes from the unlikeliest of places: street carts, hole-in-the walls, and sidewalk vendors.

Brussels is of course known for street-food with their often permanently anchored fritures and gaufre vendors in commune squares selling fries and waffles late into the night. Of course I've already mentioned the pitas from Pita Alley, and the numerous combinations of foods you get from this restaurants. It's all delicious. Then again, I'm always looking for that next fix. I tried the mitrailletes (sub) which I had hoped would be more like the French's Americain (not the Belgian version of minced raw meat which I very much don't like) but found the meat sub-par though unusually tasty. If only I could find one like in France, I might die happy. Of course the baguettes and the traditional sandwiches here are out of this world too, and as I've said before I'm sure there are countless variations of street-foods out there awaiting my purchase, I just have to find them.

One very popular option here in Brussels is the durum. After trying it, I completely became addicted and began a 12-step program which included avoiding certain metro stops which have donner-kebab shops. So far, I'll say it's the best darn street food I've had. What's a durum?  Well here at least it's a tortilla wrap (that they'll call a pita) with spicy chicken, lamb or other mystery meat cooked on a spit, Donair (pita garlic flavored) sauce, lettuce, tomatoes and onions. It's all wrapped up and grilled than rolled into a Middle-Eastern-"burrito" of perfection with some hot-golden Belgian fries. Some shops will add cheese for a bit more, and I can't explain to you how good these things are. Just absolutely amazing!

The question now is what's next, there must be some undiscovered secret saucy, cheesy, delicious street food hidden right around the corner, the trouble is finding that. Till then you might find me hanging around my neighborhood Anderlecht durum vendor enjoying my new European vice waiting for suggestions.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Pita Alley

Pita Alley Gyro?

It's called the Rue Des Pitas, or Pita Street in Brussels Belgium, and it's where you'll find some awesome Greek food, most importantly gryos and pitas. An entire street off the southwest corner of Grand Place is filled with nothing but Greek restaurants.

Which of course makes you wonder, how that happens. Because for the most part all of them sell the same stuff. While I'm certain each has their own flavor, and much like Butcher's Street the phenomenon of similar ethnic food vending isn't uncommon, but what makes one Greek person say to themselves: "Where should I put my pita shop? Oh yes, right next to the other pita shop in the alley." Is it some cover-up for illegal activities, or is there just that much demand for Greek food in Brussels, that the competition doesn't matter?

I went to find out.  One of the things I'm learning is that most restaurants will love to have you sit down and order 25 Euros worth of food and drink, or you can, if your a cheapskate like myself, go inside order a single gyro and pay 3.50 for the luxury, then walk around and eat it. Same food, but a-la-carte, and way better for the budget. I went to one of the restaurants in Pita Alley today for lunch. My French seemed useless as they kept talking in a language I did not comprehend. Perhaps it was French, but to me it might as well been Latin. However I did manage the word "gyro" which involved a facial expression of understanding from the vendor, and who quickly made me a fist size stuffed flat-bread gyro with Greek coleslaw (not exactly sure what it's called) and the meat from the whirl-o-veal on the counter. Another dwarf fork stuck in the top, I handed them a 5 Euro and got back some change. Perhaps it was lost in translation, but it was then I think I actually got a pita by mistake... oh well... Off I went forking at my gyro/pita, and it was out of this world. The meat fabulous, the slaw out of this world. In fact, it may have been the best thing I've ate since arriving in Brussels, it was that good.

Now I'm told, the thing to look for is a mitraillette gyro. A mitraillete is sub, typically with sausage or some goofy version of a hamburger on it, but the greek version uses the tangy gyro meat instead. I can only imagine it's out of this world. I'm told Plaka has them, but I'm looking for others. In fact I imaging there's lots of interesting sandwiches here in Brussels, I just have to find them.

The cost of water in Brussels

So I'm not setting out to offend anyone, and my limited views are just that, limited.... but I've noticed some interesting trends I think that are worth talking about.

In America, I'd say most people aren't ecological friendly, and they're okay with that. "I drive an SUV, I don't recycle, I take 2 hour showers, yada, yada, yada.... It's my God given right" And we all know how I feel about that. I live (in the U.S.) in a house were every room has motion sensors to shut off lights, where water-flow is restricted with the latest fittings, I'm a member of the electrical "shut-off club" (not sure what it's really called) where I allow the power company to control my A/C unit in the summer. I have programmable thermostats, fluorescent bulbs, yet I live a really great awesome life, that's cheap by US standards.

I realize I'm a rarity in America, and when you arrive in Brussels everyone tells you how ecologically friendly they are, but I've seen very few signs of it. In fact there almost is a hypocrisy, as in they all believe they're participating in some community eco-friendly scheme, but individual do very little than the popular aspects of recycling and public transport.

Now first I must point out my school, is state of the art, and most of the stuff I mentioned in my house is installed there. However throughout the home-stay process it's constantly re-iterated how expensive water is here in Brussels. It's like a manufactured statement designed to limit foreigner's use of water. That's all great and such, but from both statistics I find online, and the answers I received from my host-sister last night it's not that bad at all. Maybe even less than the states, and to make it more interesting, most land-lords include it in rent, so why are they complaining? Environmental consciousness? Then why are there not flow restricted on sinks and showers. None of the three home-stays I've done since my arrival had restrictors of any kind. I did my entire house for under a $100, and cut my water usage to 1/10th of it's previous flow.

Then there's the climatization or A/C/Heat as we call it in the U.S. The Metros and trams have no problem running the heat when the weathers 85 degrees, and worse yet there's absolutely no consistency in temperatures here. Even my high-tech school has the HVAC system blowing hot air out, as we beg for mercy for an open window. Do we really even need heat on the trams? (Ask me again in Dec.)

There are some good things here, like the motion censored escalators at public transport, and accepted use of bring-your-own-bag to the supermarket.

What really is the crazy part to me is the Internet here. Technologically speaking, Brussels is in the dark ages when it comes to Internet and mobile data. Tiny 40 Gig plans a month are common at home, and I can roll through 15 Euros of mobile data in three days. You can't even use the GPS on your phone here without dropping a 5 Euro bill, which puts what is often seen as the city of the future, oddly behind so many other places I've visited. There's so much international-ness here it isn't funny, but ask the average person here about an Internet meme, international news, or even a cult television program from the UK, and you might get a blank look unless they're one of the few who manage to circumvent this bottleneck.

I'm not sure what to make of all this, and whether a blatant disregard like we have in the US is more acceptable than a society which does have some measures of ecological-ness but lacks the technological implementation to not sound like hypocrites (be nice to me) when you dig into the details.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Best Frites (Fries) in Brussels

Best fries in Brussels?

Yesterday, I attempted to obtain the best waffle in Belgium, today I went in search of the best frites, or as we call it in America, Freedom Fries. After staring at myself in the windows of Vesalius's Pleinlaan 5 windows, and realizing exactly how fat I've gotten (living in the U.S.), I decided to pretty much stop eating right then and there. No wonder people look at me strange here, it's not because I'm American, it's because I'm the fattest person in Belgium! Interestingly, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum and I ran into Liz, another study-abroad student attending Veco, outside of the Petillion Metro station. She was in need of a transit card, and I knew where the place was. We ended up hanging out on the way, and then catching a bite to eat afterwards. Social interaction always trumps dietary promises, and I was grateful for the companionship. Where to go though?

Well if you ask around where the best fries are, the one friture that continuously comes up among the gaggle of responses is the third generation  Maison Antoine at Jordan Place. It's not in a overly touristy area (which is a good thing), but is rather easy to find. Get off at Shuman Metro and walk around the traffic circle till you see Rue Froissart and head down it till you run smack-dab-into-it (about a five minute walk).

There we ran into a backpacker who confirmed the reputation of the place, as it was the one place which he had been recommended to go on his walking tour.

The specialty of Maison Antoine is their tartar sauce, and I can confirm it's perfect. They promptly wrap your fries in a spectacular display of showmanship, salt them, then place the tartar sauce on top. Hand over your money, and pop a dwarf fork in your cone of potato perfection. The fries are twice fried at two different temperatures in beef fat, similar to the way McDonald's does it in the U.S. (Though McDonald's now synthesizes the flavors artificially after being sued by a vegetarian.) Not only were the frites good, but the service too. So is it the best in Brussels? I'd say it has to be darn close.

In addition to being off in a shady square (as in covered by trees) where you can enjoy your frites, there are several bars adjacent which allow you to bring your frites over, sit down and order a beer (look for the picture of the frites on the wall). How cool is that? So to recap, we've got a secret location, great ambiance, the possibility of having beer, and great fries. Winning!

I'm quite convinced this could be my secret hang-out now. In addition to the fries, they have tacos (not sure how that's going to go down), Mitraillettes (sandwiches with fries in them [for the UK crowd: chip buddies],[ex]),  and even the good ole American hot-dog. Personally I'm dead-set on trying a Cheese-Crack, whatever that may be. Now if I can just find a friture willing to put cheese on my fries.... hmmmm....

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Best Waffle in Brussels : Jean Gaston

This is Dandoy's attempt.

Waffle-Land, otherwise known as Belgium is split not only with their culture and language, but also their waffles. You could call it a Tale of Two Waffles, as everyone has their preference as to what is the best waffle. Me, I like the Liege waffle with its caramelized sticky sweet sugar, and I'm far from an expert but in my short time abroad I've had some truly great waffles, and some rather horrible ones too.

The worst of course are the ones in cellophane which I would never ever buy, but people keep trying to give me. It's like candy corns back at home. Everyone gives them out for Halloween, never eats them, and then passes them out the following year to someone else. I'm certain there are remnants of the first candy corn ever made sitting in someone's pantry in the U.S. Which brings us back to the waffles. Why in the world would you ever buy the store bought kind when you can either make them fresh yourself, or buy one almost everywhere in this fine city of Brussels?

This is the best Guafre in Brussels!
But the really good ones are hard to find. There's of course the McDonald's-like chains of of cheap waffle makers, typically in tourist locations like the Grand Place, and the mobile versions in ice-cream trucks. If waffles were crack,  these would be your playground drug dealers selling the drugs to the five year olds. Somewhere in Brussels there is a gathering of lethargic tourists that have grown to fat to leave and sit on a remote park bench twitching every time they hear the ice-cream/waffle truck song rolling down the street. Their eyes glazed over, their mouths foaming for just one more cheap fix to get them high on Pearl sugar and carbs.

Look for the white trailer truck!
Of course when you want the best, and you're not pan-handling for second rate waffles, you're going to pay out the derriere for the centrally located Dandoy most people (even Belgians) recommend for the best waffle in Brussels. Funny enough they're near the tourism black-hole of the Grand Plaza too. (Metro: Gare Centrale) It's a near-200 year old tea room that sells biscuits, cookies, and waffles: both liege and Brussels. A plain "Natural" waffle costs about 3 Euros, and it's out of this world. They also add toppings and you can be served on a plate with a fork too if you're too high and mighty to get your fingers sticky.

1.60 Euro a piece.
But the absolute best in Brussels in my opinion is Jean Gaston's. This, the undefeated champion of waffles in Bruxelles ALWAYS has a huge line around the markets where their mobile waffle truck arrives. So you see, getting the best isn't the easiest. I waited for four month after arriving in Brussels till I could make it to the Stockel Market (Metro: Stockel) to buy deux of the most beautiful waffles I've ever seen in my life. The market is open every Saturday till 3 PM and is one of the best kept secret in town. Jean Gaston's can usually be smelled half a kilometer a way at the Metro as they cook/bake them fresh on the spot with traditional methods. These waffles will change your life! In fact you're doing yourself a de-service if you settle for anything less than these or choose to leave without a Gaston waffle.

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