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moules... frites... moules-frites!

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I generally try to avoid chain restaurants, but whilst in Europe, I make an exception for Léon de Bruxelles.

It was December 2000. Paris was overcast and cool, but it was still Paris. I was wandering around with a group of friends... Jean-Marc, Jonathan, Elodie, Bruno... I'm sure there were a couple more with us, but my memory is failing me today. (I will remember as soon as I review the events of this evening in my travel journal.) We were all discussing where to dine, and Jonathan asked me if I liked moules. I hadn't the slightest clue of what a moule was until I looked it up in my dictionary... mussels. Having never eaten mussels, I really didn't know if I liked them or not, but the rest of the group certainly liked them, and we were off to find some. We went to Léon de Bruxelles near the Montparnasse Tower, quite possibly on Boulevard Montparnasse.

We sat just to the left of the entrance, crowded around the table. I remember not really understanding how the food was going to be served, and paying close attention as my friends explained the dining options. I selected a provençal-type sauce for my moules. They arrived in a two-handled pot, giving off plenty of steam... I watched carefully as Jonathan showed me the easiest way to extricate them from their shells, then I proceeded to imitate. Not only did I have moules to work on, but we all received a side of frites, and these were immediately refilled upon being emptied. I completed my meal with a 50 cl glass of Affligem. Good food, good company... there was much laughter at my expense due to my nationality (this was during the Florida recounts after the 2000 presidential election), and even the waiter engaged in some good-natured needling. My friends also enjoyed laughing at my penchant for writing in my journal and taking photos at all times... all in all, quite the memorable evening.

With memories of meaty moules circling though my head, I set out for a brief excursion to Belgium in December 2002. I had come to Europe for Jonathan's wedding, and I took a little side trip the following week. My destination would be Bruges, but I always remembered that restaurant in Paris called Léon de Bruxelles. I was going to spend half a day in Bruxelles... I logically figured that I should be able to find a Léon in the city for which it is named.

I did indeed find the restaurant I was looking for, but in its hometown, it is simply called Léon. I found the original Léon, the one that existed before the chain spread throughout Belgium and France. The restaurant has been in business since the late nineteenth century. (Again, my memory fails me as to the exact year, even though this year was written on the tablecloths as part of their logo.)

By this time, I had done more research on the local cuisine. I had learned that moules and frites are traditional Belgian food. Belgium borders the Atlantic, so they have relatively easy access to an endless supply of fresh moules... and they invented frites. Add their near national obsession with beer, and you have a great combination of flavor for lunch or dinner.

For my entrée, I ordered the tomato. This wasn't any ordinary tomato, it was a tomato dressed up for a night on the town. It was stuffed with a salad made up mostly of tiny shrimp... the top of the tomato had been lopped off, and the rim was garnished with Belgian mayonnaise, which looked like it had been squeezed onto the tomato the same way that icing is squeezed onto the edge of a cake. Around the tomato, the plate was covered in shredded lettuce.

That was a good way to begin lunch, but you don't go to Belgium to just eat tomatoes. As my favorite guidebook author puts it, one should "eat mussels in Brussels", so my main course was a pile of moules and bottomless frites. I opted to eat my frites like the French do, so I asked for a side of mustard. Since this was my first day in a country boasting over four hundred beers, and I wanted to make an attempt to taste as many as possible, I ordered three different ones over the course of this meal. I tried Leffe Brun, Jupiler (which I'm not sure is actually Belgian), and Kriek, which, much to my surprise that day, is a bright red cherry-flavored brew.

With these memories firmly entrenched, I returned to the Montparnasse-area branch of Léon in spring 2003. As usual in my travels, I was quite alone, but that wasn't such a bad thing. It was lunch, and the restaurant was quite empty, which struck me as somewhat surprising. After I ordered, I glanced a few times over my right shoulder, back toward the door and the table that my friends and I had briefly inhabited back in 2000. The laughter was still echoing around my mind when the waiter returned with my moules, my frites, and my Affligem.

With all of that personal history as a backdrop, I decided to take Phillip to Léon de Bruxelles last Wednesday. It was the same restaurant that I had been to twice before. We joined a packed house for dinner. Our seat was in a corner, straight ahead from the entrance about ten meters, and a little to the left. A few minutes after being seated, I filled Phil in on the significance of this restaurant to me. I also pointed out that since he didn't hear any English being spoken around us, he could be assured that the food was very good.

Phillip ordered le menu. He chose special sauce. I ordered à la carte. I really wanted the moules à roquefort... roquefort is my favorite cheese yes, but that's also the dish that Jonathan ordered back in 2000 when I was in this restaurant for the first time. I felt a certain amount of symmetry in the world ordering moules à roquefort. Naturally, the frites were à volonté, so all that was left to do was to select a beer. Phillip opted for Coke, much to my dismay... I opted for good old Affligem... it's a yeasty brew with 7.5% alcohol, if memory serves... great strong stuff.

Our moules arrived, and I showed Philip how to prpoerly take them out of their shells, just as I was shown. I told him not to eat any moules that were still closed. I encouraged him to attempt to eat slow enough to take the time to taste each moule, and in so doing, attempt to reverse engineer the contents of the sauce they were cooked in. For my part, I wasted no time in quickly dispensing with every moule in my croque... they never had a chance. After we had emptied our pots and created a mountain of shells on the discard plate, I gleefully dumped my frites into the remaining roquefort-filled liquid and fished them out one by one with my fork before finally finishing the soup off with a spoon. This is quite possibly the best part of eating moules-frites.

After the meal, we both leaned back, completely satisfied with the food, the atmosphere, and Paris in general. I took a last look around Léon de Bruxelles on the way out. Phillip took a picture of the building from the outside. I am already plotting my return.

Created by donetrawk
Last modified 2004-11-05 06:25 PM
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