Brussels, a city that is so often associated with bureaucracy and a beer-centric culture, can get a bad press. Its restaurant scene more so. But peel the oignon and you can discover some true gems, including one of the best old school fish restaurants I’ve ever stumbled upon.
Recovering from cocktails at Arthur Orlans the night before, I was wandering around the Sainte Catherine area of Brussels on a warm and muggy Sunday. It was that kind of inescapable humidity where just your bare existence is enough to make you perspire like an anxious John Redwood miming along to the Welsh national anthem on TV. I was hangry and in search of some air con. I had ear-marked La Belle Maraîchère on a previous reconnaissance mission, but on this particularly sticky afternoon it was the sign with the magic words “salle climatisée” which drew me in. Otherwise, to be perfectly honest, I may have passed it by. The façade of the restaurant isn’t exactly that appealing. Indeed, like many things in Brussels, it can be a little rough round the edges – but delve deeper and there’s more than meets the eye. In this sense La Belle Maraîchère is a microcosm of Brussels itself.
On walking in, two things were immediately noticeable. First, the customers were all Belgians. Secondly, it was full. This seemed slightly perplexing for somewhere that looks like the restaurant equivalent of El Vino on Fleet Street, but it must’ve been busy for a reason. I soon found out why.
Ushered by a maître d’ to the one remaining table, I was sandwiched between two pairs of fiftysomething Belgian couples, each donned in plastic bibs. Both couples introduced themselves and told me that I was very lucky to get a table on spec at Belgium’s most legendary fish restaurant. I had no idea. A free platter of grey shrimps was plonked on my table as I read the menu. My new friends recommended various dishes, things to see in Belgium, and as they hacked away at their lobsters, they picked my brains about Brexit.
One thing I’ve found on all of my European travels since the referendum of 2016 is how much respect our neighbours have for the UK in general – our music, our pragmatism, our humour, even our food (!) – but also, their disappointment and annoyance at the British for being the most awkward, petulant members of the EU, who had opt out after opt out, but then threw it back in their faces. (Of course I apologise and make it clear I was in the 48% but it’s never quite enough). One Belgian co-diner opined that the UK won’t become a pariah state, but nevertheless it will, and already has, become less attractive for Belgians to visit. It is all so sad.
But at least this lunch lifted my spirits.
La Belle Maraîchère has a timeless charm that simply sticks two fingers up at modern presentation or interior design. Today’s Instagrammers may find the setting a little bland, quaint or long in the tooth, and indeed the colour palette is like every textbook from the 1970s: pale pinks, light browns, a predominance of beige.
Even the food looks like photographs from an Elizabeth David cookbook. But does this matter if it tastes great, is technically sound, the fish is all fresh and the menu changes with the seasons? There are classics such as sole meuniere, lobster (available in four different ways), but it was a real treat to try something local, as recommended by my dining buddies. I dived in with the “Zeebrugge” fish ragout, a slow-cooked beauty made with fish from Belgium’s seafood ‘capital’. This is a must.
I followed this with something less ambitious: cod, poached simply, with legumes and a perfectly-made hollandaise (one of those sauces that looks so easy but is tricky to get right). I won’t lie – it looked almost like school food – but it tasted fantastic. All washed down by reasonably-priced wines from a list that understandably leans towards French whites. There are some token red wines in there too, as well as two token meat dishes. Vegetarians and vegans might have some difficulty though.
To finish, a Flemish pain perdu rounded things off perfectly. I’m not quite sure what made this dessert “Flemish” as it seemed like the French classic to me – yesterday’s bread pan-fried in an egg wash and sugar – but it was, again, a sheer joy.
If you want to meet fellow Europeans, who are affable and friendly and only mean well, with excellent fish, this is the place. I will have nothing but the fondest memories of my impromptu lunch at La Belle Maraîchère. As I left, the maître d’ said “next time we will give you the same table!” I very much hope to return.
Place Sainte-Catherine 11A
by J A Smith