July 16, 2024

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5 Bold New Restaurants to Try in Brussels

6 min read

Brussels, long the realm of stuffy French restaurants packed with gray-flannel-suited diplomats, has suddenly gone bold and bright. Thanks to a crop of young chefs with iconoclastic ideas about flavor and sustainability, the city, in thrall to the rich sauces of Gaul for nearly two centuries, has emerged as one of the most exciting, and affordable, places to dine out in Europe right now.

These exciting talents are transforming the city’s old-fashioned bistros and cafes with spices from places like Korea, Latin America and Morocco, and “putting a vivid modern spin on homey local comfort food dishes,” explained Michel Verlinden, a Brussels food writer and restaurant critic for Le Vif, a major Belgian weekly. At the same time, they’re making the most of local produce like cabbage, carrots, endives and, bien sûr, brussels sprouts.

Brussels may be the capital of Europe, but it feels more like Brooklyn or Marseille gastronomically. Casual, creative and multicultural, it’s a city that’s equally at home with bulgogi and duck breast — even together in the same dish.

Here are five Brussels restaurants worth a visit.

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Many of the most interesting new restaurants in Brussels aren’t found in Îlot Sacré, the high-rent heart of the city, but in outlying neighborhoods like St.-Gilles, an evolving but still more affordable area favored by young creatives.

This explains why the chef Sang Hoon Degeimbre chose this area for Anju, a new local favorite that explores his roots. Mr. Degeimbre was born in South Korea but adopted by a Belgian family as a baby. “Anju” is a Korean word that means food to be eaten while drinking alcohol. In addition to rice wine and Soju, Anju also offers a “sour Korean” beer brewed for the restaurant by the Brussels brasserie Illegaal, along with a great list of natural wines.

In the minimalist, taupe-colored dining room with K-pop illustrations on the walls, this means hearty comfort food. If starters like pajeon — pancakes filled with chopped vegetables and kimchi — or stir-fried octopus tentacles are impressively Korean, the technical prowess of Mr. Degeimbre’s team adds an element of Belgian haute cuisine to main courses like samgyetang (chicken in hot ginseng broth with rice and jujube) and duck breast bulgogi.

Desserts nod at Brussels, too: Bingsu, a milk-based shaved ice, is topped with speculoos cookies from Maison Dandoy, a bakery that dates to 1832, or hazelnut praline from the acclaimed Belgian chocolatier Pierre Marcolini.

73 Rue de la Source, St.-Gilles; starters from 13 euros, or about $14; entrees from €17.

Aster is a good example of how Brussels has cast off the cosseting bourgeois décor that used to characterize its best restaurants. When you arrive at this former pizza parlor, you walk right into the kitchen, where a balletic hive of cooks directed by the chef Túbo Logier is buzzing around several grills. Most guests are sitting at a high-top refectory table beneath dangling lightbulbs, eating and drinking from handmade ceramics instead of porcelain.

The largely plant-based and seafood tasting menu is served in a sequence of small plates, which change regularly. A recent dinner opened with a thrilling quintet of miniature hors d’oeuvres, including finely diced North Sea squid in fermented tomato water, a mille-feuille of smoked eel and pickled celeriac, trout with horseradish and fig, a nest of fried julienned leeks with a quail’s egg, and tiny mussels with winter truffles. A surprisingly bright first course of red and yellow beets with cod eggs and beeswax preceded a poached oyster with cabbage and jus de petit lait — or whey — which offered a simple but brilliant confluence of lactic flavors.

Another standout was langoustines prepared three ways: roasted with an umami-bomb condiment made from fermented vegetable scraps; in a milky bouillon with slivers of clementine and sliced button mushrooms; and chawanmushi (Japanese steamed egg custard) garnished with meat and juices from the shellfish’s carapace.

Mr. Logier’s creativity didn’t relent as the meal concluded with two fascinating desserts: hazelnut ice cream with shaved Belgian blue cheese and apples braised in seaweed, and a sign-off mignardise of smoked white chocolate with sea bass eggs.

202 Rue Antoine Dansaert, Brussels; tasting menu, €80.

You might not expect such a disarmingly friendly welcome amid the Brutalist chic of Brussels’s arty Dansaert district, but that and the menu of contemporary Belgian comfort food at Kline might give you the feeling you’re in a countryside auberge.

Kline describes itself as “locally rooted and globally inspired,” which translates to dishes like brussels sprouts guacamole and braised pork belly with crispy-chile sauce and kimchi. The pork is traditionally raised and nourished with feed made of potatoes and corn, supplemented with olive oil and fresh hay, on a sustainable farm.

Starters like crunchy, round, deep-fried ham croquettes filled with béchamel and chopped Ardennes ham and red beet chutney, with pumpkinseed crackers, are made for sharing. Entrees are arranged under two headings: “Cold and Fresh” and “Hot and Heavy.” The selection changes often but may feature succulent dishes like North Sea scallops with a carrot emulsion and Belgian saffron, and roasted mushrooms with salsa verde and white mole. Desserts recently included a baked Belle de Boskoop apple with Belgian buffalo-milk mozzarella and miso, a provocative composition that lived up to the “Sweet and Sour” heading on the menu.

162 Rue de Flandre, Brussels; starters from €9.70; entrees from €9.80.

The son of Vietnamese immigrants, Linh Nam grew up in Liège and worked for Google in New York for seven years before returning to Belgium and opening Nyyó, a minimalist restaurant with cocoa-colored walls and rattan suspension lights. The menu reflects the triptych of culinary influences in Mr. Nam’s life — Belgium, Vietnam and the United States.

The Belgians love steak tartare — they call it filet américain — which probably explains the popularity of the beef tai chanh served here, with the difference that this variation on the dish is seasoned with a citrus vinaigrette, Vietnamese coriander, crushed peanuts and a quail’s egg yolk. The bahn mi burger riffs on the sandwich with a slice of chicken liver pâté and a beef patty in a toasted sesame brioche bun with aioli, homemade pickles, cilantro and a side of coleslaw, and in Linh’s Tacos, rice-flour shells have a filling of oyster mushrooms seasoned with aioli, coriander and scallion oil.

Finish up with a Liège Ca Phe Cafe, an espresso shot with condensed milk, vanilla ice cream, Cognac and cinnamon whipped cream — a sweet hybrid of Belgium and Vietnam.

38 Rue du Bailli, Ixelles; small plates from €10 to €19.

With its diversity of building styles, Brussels sometimes has the endearing vibe of an architectural thrift shop.

So, too, does Klok, the French chef Florent Ladeyn’s airy restaurant with an open kitchen and big picture windows. Mr. Ladeyn is such an ardent locavore that he’s banned coffee (chicory is served instead), olive oil, lemons, chocolate, vanilla and almost any other ingredient that isn’t produced in Belgium or the north of France.

The menu at this casual spot changes often but may include starters like sweet-potato churros with crispy-chile oil, sea-snail croquettes, and brussels sprouts with fried onions and mimolette cheese. As is true of many new restaurants in Brussels, vegetarians are well cared for, with options including a delicious main course of grilled turnips and celeriac with beets, black garlic and a Flemish mole made with chicory. Mr. Ladeyn’s regionalism comes across in other main dishes, too, including quail à la Brabançonne — braised with endives in sour-cherry-flavored Kriek beer — and roasted French Mont des Cats cheese with fermented honey.

Though many dishes look like the hearty medieval food depicted on peasant tables in Bruegel paintings, their quiet worldliness is a perfect expression of how Brussels likes to eat today.

10 Place Rouppe, Brussels; lunch: starters from €5.50, entrees from €14; dinner: prix fixe only, €60.

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