Breaking news— this is the first time we've featured a foursome; because every once in a while it's kind of fun to add a couple.
The first sign that Cafe Brussels was worth a pop in was when I pulled on the wooden door at 4:30 to feel the lock in place. They close the restaurant midday i.e legit European.
The second sign, why I pulled over in the first place, was the fact that they label themselves as a French Belgian Bistro. Culinary wise, where the French are like, "well, we invented everything." The Belgian are quietly smiling north of them thinking, "well, we decided to use salt and pepper." Though you might not roll out of bed with Belgian on the brain for dinner, maybe now you will. Think of their cuisine as French minus the... ruffles.
The third sign, really the sign, was the ten item deep "Mussels" section, where entrées are served with Belgian fries. Personally, moules-frites was born in Montpellier and there it's stayed until now. At 1718 Houston Avenue, they know how to respect the mussels.
I went basic Betty Moules A L'Ail; steamed mussels with garlic. Owner Catherine Duwez, who is no stranger to the scene, recommended Duvel to pair, and as she walked away looked back to ask, "aioli?"
Like bats above the bar, different shapes of beer glasses are hung, all different vehicles for different brews. The Duvel Blonde is about as big a Belgian you'd want with mussels. It's easy to drink, but complex enough to not be pinot grigio. Side note: Cafe Brussels is a great spot for a solid Belgian beer session; they have it all.
Flavor billows out of a tall pot and inside lies a nest of plump, steamed mussels, almost like they had been cooked on a campfire by the ocean. The broth is made special from the juicy mussels that opened just moments before. Garlic and celery too. Celery is the perfect secret all-star because of its unassuming, vegetal flavor.
The Belgian fries served on the side are sturdy little soldiers. Cut thick, the soft center celebrates potato flavor; unlike when you fry them to hell and back for crispness. Though there is beauty in both. House made aioli to dip into is a must. Yes, get that, get that for real, get two. It's well seasoned with a hint of Dijon, exactly how it should be.
But perhaps what's so perfect about this pairing is the space itself. Café Brussels is comfortable; it's personal. And that's evident in the way Duwez touches tables, a service that more and more feels lost in this whirlwind of restaurant landscape. You can spend money on décor, you can buy yourself a fast-pass to the media with PR, but to find a restaurant with grit and soul, well it's becoming harder and harder to do.
Cafe Brussels is located at 1718 Houston Avenue. It's open Tuesday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday; 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.