Sunday, November 6, 2011

Fruits de Mer - Our journey to Belgium

Moules Frites!
Yes, apparently it is that time of year! Having grown up near the water, a month with an "r" in it meant it was time for oysters on the half shell.  Here in Europe, however, it means it is time for mussels! Throw in some traditional Belgian frites, and I am in heaven!

After a couple of weekends of hanging in Luxembourg for the weekend, I determined it was time to get back in routine and venture out of the ville.  Given that we are avid seafood lovers (well, the husband and I are - we are working on the kids) and have been land-locked for the last few months, we decided to venture further west into Belgium. Since Joe travels quite a bit, we had some Marriott Miles to put to use. Perusing the company website, I found a great Marriott in Ghent, a small town west of Brussels, often referred to as "Little Bruges". So, I booked the hotel, cleared our family calendar, washed some laundry, and we were off!

Since our previous trips to Belgium did not extend past a few miles into the country (with most of those trips being to the Ikea just past the Lux border), it seemed we couldn't possibly venture into Belgium without experiencing Brussels. Besides, we had received a great recommendation on a restaurant there - with promises of great moules frites! Being the travel planner of the family, my goal for the weekend was to experience as much seafood possible - lunch in Brussels, dinner in Ghent, Sunday brunch overlooking the North Sea and (if time permitted) dinner in Bruges. Well, 3 out of 4 wasn't too bad :)

Our first stop was in Brussels. A short hour and a half drive from Lux, Brussels is a bustling city full of history and... traffic. Not just car traffic, but an abundance of pedestrian traffic as well. We began our quick visit with lunch at Marie Joseph, a fantastic restaurant in the St. Catherine area of the city - an area known for their seafood. I suspected that our meal would be fantastic as soon as we were served the best house-made potato chips! These awesome salty slivers of heaven were just a prelude to even better frites and some fantastic mussels (see the title pic above).  The portions were generous, the frites bottomless, and even my anti-moules son had a great platter of fish and chips. Our lunch would not have been complete without some unbelievable Belgian Chocolate Mousse! Needless to say, our trip was off to a great start!

Mannequin Pis
Next on the agenda was a quick site-seeing trip though the city, with the smaller goal of finding some great Belgian chocolate. This goal was easy enough since we received a few great recommendations from our hospitable waiter at MJ's. We headed off to the city center (Grand Place) to explore. The buildings were beautiful and the people watching entertaining. There was a small demonstration (yes, the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations had spread to Europe that weekend), but otherwise the city was bustling with the typical fall tourists enjoying a beautiful, sunny day in the city. Our quick venture through the city would not have been complete without searching out the Mannequin Pis. If you are not familiar with this common symbol of Belgium, it is basically a small statue of a boy peeing.  Thus, the name. What makes this petite (61 cm) bronze statue a significant focal point of the city is its folklore and its wardrobe. Yes, this lucky little boy has quite the enviable closet (housed in a museum off the Grand Place) with costumes from around the world. The day we saw him, he pretty much resembled a small child in a private school uniform (or perhaps an ad for The Gap.) At that, I will leave you to Google the details on his history and such, but if you have ever seen the Mona Lisa in Paris, you are likely to feel the same feeling of surprise (and a slight let down) when you realize just how small this notorious symbol really is!

The quaint town of Ghent.
Following our quick tour of Brussels, we headed off to Ghent for the evening. The Marriott hotel is located right off the canal and is housed in an older building with a very modern interior. We spent the evening searching for dinner.  Our misfortune was that we had scheduled our short trip during the city's international film festival. Though the city boasts a ton of restaurants (many of which are highly rated and some of which are even Michelin rated), every restaurant we ventured to was completely booked. Finally, around 9:00 p.m. we did find a large restaurant that was able to squeeze us in to a back room. The plus - we did enjoy some local favorites, including a simple chicken soup (Waterzooi) and some tasty ribs; the minus - the crowd was so large our dinner took at least 2 hours, with most of it being the wait for our food.  We did spend a little time the next morning walking around the small town. Most of the tourist shops were open so I was able to squeeze in a little bit of shopping, but we chalked up our experience in Ghent as a "to be continued" since the town seemed wonderful. We just didn't have enough time to really experience or enjoy it.

With just an afternoon left to our journey, we gave the boys the choice of either venturing to Bruges, or heading to the coast. My oldest son happens to be a bit pre-occupied with water (must have inherited our beach genes having grown up off the Gulf Coast of Texas), so his vote, hands down, was to head to the coast. Since we had broken our moules frite quest with the prior night's dinner, this seemed a logical solution that would allow us to get back to our seafood quest! We were not disappointed. Though everyone seemed to have the same idea of spending a cloudless Sunday on the coast, traffic in Oostende was busy and parking took some time. Thankfully, after some dutiful searching, we found a great little restaurant near the pier - B'oot Huis (or, the Boathouse). The restaurant was very quaint and simply decorated in nautical whites and blues. My husband and youngest son stayed loyal and ordered the moules frites. I ventured to the more traditional grilled fish option, while my oldest once again ordered the fish and chips. Only my oldest was a tad disappointed when his fish and chips was not like the previous days' generous helping of crispy fried cod, but was instead some rather amusing starfish and fish shaped fish nuggets. Well, at least the frites were good! My husband and youngest swear the mussels were even better there (perhaps it was the cream they were so lavishly swimming in), and the grilled fish and veggies were wonderful. Even the view was enjoyable, with a suitable ending of chocolate mousse and creme brulee. Okay, so the creme brulee wasn't the best (I definitely should have opted for the chocolate mousse), but the overall experience was great.

Our trip ended with a long four hour drive back to Lux. The time seemed to pass quickly enough as we spent the time enjoying the rolling, foggy hills and finding shortcuts through Belgium in an attempt to avoid the outrageous traffic headed towards Brussels. So, we will keep Bruges and Antwerp for another visit, and will hopefully make it back to Ghent, but for now we will continue enjoying the upcoming "r" months by continuing our quest to find that perfect moules frites!

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