Brussels has always been known as a food capital of Europe: mussels and frites with beer, waffles and chocolate, and one of the Continent's highest per capita concentrations of Michelin stars. Tradition lives on—in the best smoky, old beer bars and weathered bistros, as well as in the handful of good ethnic restaurants. But these days, as this once stodgily bourgeois burg marches into the future, style and variety are the new flavors. The avant-garde fashion designers who set up boutiques in the St. Gery district have been followed by hip restaurateurs, such as Frédéric Nicolay, the brains behind hot spots like Bonsoir Clara, Zebra, Mappa Mundo, and the recently opened Walvis. The city's interior designer du jour, Antoine Pinto, is also making a splash by reinventing classic genres (the bakery, the brasserie) as boîtes that are as much about the scene as they are about cuisine. Did someone say Brussels is booming?
Can tuna tartare dazzle once again? It's a good question to ponder over the jewellike composition of pink tuna cubes, quail-egg caviar, and iridescent-green strips of cucumber gelée. Suddenly one forgives the staid decor that screams hotel dining room (it is, after all, inside the Radisson). Instead, the feeling is a rush of excitement, a realization that this could well be Europe's most creative seafood restaurant (sorry, Spain). While the city's other Michelin-starred stalwarts—Bruneau, Comme Chez Soi—mostly rest on their laurels, Sea Grill's poisson-obsessed two-star chef, Yves Mattagne, is taking Belgian haute cuisine into the 21st century. Visionary, yet keeping a safe distance from the cutting edge, are such dishes as lobster medallions with pomelo tartare, carrot-orange reduction, and the earthy touch of crisp sweetbreads. Then there's the utterly surprising teaming of foie gras and buttery shrimp carpaccio. Bouillabaisse? Mais oui: here, reimagined as a pretty tableau of sea bass, langoustines, and whelks, with concentrated fish broth and rouille sauce poured tableside. In a city of grumpy service, the young, obliging staff is another breath of fresh air. Ditto the adventurous wine list (note the Finger Lakes Riesling) and desserts, like the shot glass of chocolate cream with raspberries and saffron foam. The moral: Never judge a restaurant by its corporate carpeting and piped-in Tchaikovsky. Dinner, $250. At 47 Rue Fossé-aux-Loups; 32-2/227-3120.
Every city would be lucky to have a buzzing brasserie like this one from designer Antoine Pinto. Carved out of a former bank, the vaulted space mixes lavish, original 19th-century details (a stained-glass dome ceiling supported by pink marble columns; extravagant sculpted reliefs) with modern fixtures such as glass globe lights that fade from blue to pink and unisex bathrooms with glass walls that fog up, blessedly, when the door is locked. Belga Queen's raison d'être is the crustacean bar, serving seafood by the piece or arranged on plateaus piled with gray Ostend shrimp, langoustines, and a sampler of impeccable oysters. No less compelling are the updated Belgian brasserie standbys—shrimp croquettes with parsley tuiles and snails with Boon butter and mashed potatoes. Plus, Belga Queen wins my Best Moules Frites in Brussels award: plump, delicate bouchot mussels in a broth so flavorful you can drink it—with fat hand-cut fries in a custom-made porcelain cornet and a cup of thin mayo. For dessert, don't miss the waffles. Dinner, $175. At 32 Rue Fossé-aux-Loups; 32-2/217-2187; www.belgaqueen.be.
On a slightly down-at-the-heels residential street right outside all the downtown action, Notos is a former garage redone as a contemporary neighborhood bistro, with rustic wooden tables, olive-green walls, and Nina Simone warbling in the background. Though the place seems like a well-kept secret, it gained some notoriety a few years ago when its chefs cooked dinner for the Belgian prime minister and a group of visiting Greek dignitaries. The Hellenic contingent must have been thrilled with the food: sophisticated Greek home cooking that's hard to come by even in Athens, let alone on vacation in Mykonos. Drawing on family recipes, the affable Constantine Erinkoglou, an ex-sociologist, makes soft, doughy pies filled with subtly spiced meat; tiny, delicate lamb dumplings in a light broth with a dollop of yogurt and a dusting of sumac; sardines grilled in grape leaves; and a wonderful fava bean and baby artichoke stew accentuated simply, with lemon and dill. Even something normally as bland as chicken breast shines here—rolled in pistachios, stuffed with a sweet Greek cheese, and served in a vibrant orange-tinged sauce. After dinner I lingered over Vinsanto from Santorini, wishing Notos were my local haunt. Dinner, $110. At 154 Rue de Livourne; 32-2/513-2959; www.notos.be.
Shopaholics prowling Avenue Louise have found a brand-new lunch temple in this clever take on the concept popularized by the Belgian chain Le Pain Quotidien. Conjured up by Pinto, the place—which bills itself as the Bread Experience—focuses as much on design as it does on dough. Sculptures resembling alien mannequins preen from Neoclassical niches against pastel-blue walls. By the entrance, a glowing backlit communal table is scattered with international newspapers. Cool oversize lamps hang above small black marble tables where stylish Bruxellois ladies sip Kriek (cherry beer) or Russian Kousmichoff tea (quite in vogue in Europe these days). Even a simple cup of coffee arrives on a decorative tray accompanied by a mini milk bottle and a cookie. Style may take precedence over sustenance, but you can't go wrong with a bowl of smooth artichoke soup topped with a hat of eggy pastry and first-rate sandwiches mounted on house-baked breads. Try the grilled brioche with foie gras carpaccio or the tangy marinated-tuna filet on pain aux olives. Lunch, $45. At 20 Rue Jean Stasstraat.
AUX ARMES DE BRUXELLES
The success of Belga Queen, if anything, made Bruxellois doubly appreciate the classics, especially Aux Armes de Bruxelles, the sort of burnished old brasserie that half the world's restaurateurs are trying to copy but can't. That the restaurant—off the Grand Place and smack in the middle of the city's most touristy restaurant row—has managed to retain every drop of authenticity is nothing short of a miracle. Tourists do find their way to the original rooms, one in neo-Gothic and the other in high Art Nouveau style, with curvaceous chairs and battered bottle-green leather banquettes. To feel like a local, book a table in the cozy Bodega, where there are few things more satisfying than settling in for a long, boozy lunch. It might kick off with a half dozen oysters and a plate of herring with shredded celery root in a white wine sauce, then proceed to a huge, rare double entrecôte—unless you are in the mood for something emphatically Flemish, say carbonnade (beef slowly braised in dark beer), or anguilles au vert (eel in a sprightly green sauce). Like everyone else, you'll end with the wicked chocolate profiteroles. Vive la tradition. Lunch, $60. At 13 Rue des Bouchers; 32-2/511-5550.