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The Gossiping Gourmet: Enjoy mussels without going to Brussels

June 26, 2012|By Elle Harrow and Terry Markowitz

Short of eating outdoors at one of the multitudinous restaurants on the main square in Brussels, where mussels and fries ("moules frites") are the specialty, you can replicate the experience — minus the airfare — by dining at Brussels Bistro in Laguna Beach, the only authentic Belgian restaurant in our area serving this iconic dish. It even has al fresco dining.

Tucked away several steps below street level on Forest Avenue, this small and casual restaurant features five preparations of mussels plus the creative cooking of Chef Thomas Crijns riffing on Belgian cuisine. Of course, there is an extensive selection of beer, the national beverage of choice.

As you descend the stairs, you will find yourself on the outdoor patio, complete with fireplace and heaters for cozy dining. Inside, are brick walls lined with attractive beer plaques, brightly colored metal-topped tables and a casual, friendly atmosphere.

French speaking wait-staff add to the ambience. We had the pleasure of being served by the very handsome Matthieu, who was as charming and helpful as he was good looking.

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When in Brussels, one must have mussels and so we did. We chose the Provençal preparation with white wine, tomato, basil and a hint of Pastis (anise-flavored liqueur).

The mussels varied in size. The large ones were voluptuous and tender and just a few were small and tough.

They were distinguished by the rubbery band, which attached them ferociously to their shells, but once detached, they were quite delicious, as was the saucy broth. Their very good crusty bread was perfect for sopping up the juices,

Brussels Bistro is featuring foie gras on their "specials" board for this month since after July 1 the delicacy will be illegal in California. You will have to go underground or find a corrupt fowl dealer to savor its pleasures.

Chef Thomas has pulled out all the stops to create a unique appetizer using this rich fatty delicacy, sautéed, resting on tarte pastry, layered with apples and floating in an olive oil and mustard cream sauce.

Unfortunately, the greasy sauce made the pastry soggy and the foie gras itself was not the kind that causes you to close your eyes and sigh. It was a good idea but it didn't quite work.

The loup de mer, a type of European seabass, was prepared en papillote (sealed in parchment paper) with the quiveringly fresh fish lounging on a bed of shredded carrots, leeks and tomatoes, enhanced by only lemon and herbs.

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