You may not know this, but in my “other job,” my agency does marketing for high-end restaurants and resorts. In Las Vegas, we represent two Michelin-starred French cuisine restaurants that were the first to introduce high-level dining to Las Vegas back in 1980. Both of these restaurants serve the classic – Dover Sole – which happens to be a perennial favorite of mine every time I visit.
In Orange County, I’d given up all hope of finding Dover Sole on any menu anywhere. (I’m talking real Dover Sole, the kind that’s flown in fresh, having been line-caught beneath the White Cliffs of Dover in the narrowest part of the English Channel.) Very few restaurants in the United States offer Dover Sole dishes because it’s a delicate, rich fish that must be treated and plated like the royalty it is. Further, it’s not a run-of-the-mill fish, so its expense is one that many restaurants would rather not invest in.
On Tuesday this week, though, I found it on a menu right here in Laguna Beach! Imagine my delight and surprise to discover that Brussels Bistro has been serving up this rare delicacy since Chef Thomas took over the restaurant in June 2004. (How could I have missed this, for heaven’s sake?)
I babble excitedly about this discovery to Chef, himself, and he just blinks at me and smiles. “Of course we’re going to serve Dover Sole,” he says. “We’re from Belgium. You can practically see the Dover Cliffs from our coastline.”
Classic, Sophisticated Belgian Cuisine
Brussels Bistro continues to surprise me. Tucked beneath Forest Avenue, it’s a cozy pub with a Euro vibe. When you first visit, you might think you’re in for pub fare consisting of burgers and fries or Belgian sausages … and you are, and they are all quite fantastic dishes. Chef Thomas’ Bistro Burger still ranks in my Top 4 Gourmet Burgers in all of Laguna Beach, and there’s nothing in town that come close to his “brat-type” Sausages. His Belgian fries are so exacting to those served daily from Belgian “fries trucks” that we can only assume Chef had to sign a licensing agreement to be allowed to offer these twice-cooked-for-crispness fries.
But the pub-style food is just the beginning. This is classic Belgian cookery, a vaunted heritage that nods to high French, Netherlands and German cuisine.
Fish and Shellfish Galore
At Brussels Bistro, the Sole is served “Meuniere” style, literally translated as “miller’s wife.” Meuniere style is rustic in nature, dredging the fish in flour, and serving it with a simple sauce of butter, lemon and parsley. Chef Thomas’ fish is beautifully light and fresh and definitely living up to its name as one of the restaurant’s handful of bestsellers.
Chef Thomas’ menu offers a great variety of fish and shellfish, including oysters, roasted salmon, trout, octopus, shrimp, sea bass (I’ll get to that in a minute), and his famous “Casserole de Moules,” otherwise known as a Pot of Mussels.
Brussels’ Pot of Mussels is so popular that the restaurant easily sells between 250 and 500 pounds of the mollusk every week. It arrives in its own large cooking pot with a side of fries. The mussels themselves are steamed in the pot with plentiful chunks of tomato, basil, a bit of garlic and Pastis (the popular licorice flavored spirit).
Now, licorice and mussels aren’t necessarily two items I’d think to put together, but the spirit adds just a touch of rich, caramel flavor to the mussels. It’s genius.
The Sea Bass at Brussels is a Euro-style dish, too, as it’s baked in parchment paper and arrives at my table as a few of my favorite things: a brown-paper package minus the strings. Ooh, the anticipation of what awaits inside. My server slices open one end and carefully tilts the parchment bag so that the bass with all its fixings neatly slides in place on the plate. It’s a work of art to simply gaze upon.
Per classic French-style cooking, I’m just warning you – there’s a lot of butter here. Big chunks of potato and a combination of finely sliced carrots, tomato, endive and onions hold their own against the rich butter barrage, and the sea bass sits atop it all, sublime and even a little haughty in its flaky perfection.
Not a Fish Lover, You Say?
The Belgian love their fish but, clearly, they have other things to poach, grill, bake and stew, too. Chef Thomas offers a wealth of high-cuisine poultry and pork offerings, including Duck Breast, Stuffed Crepes, Chicken in Puff Pastry, and another bestseller, the Pork Shank with house made mustard sauce.
But if it’s meat you must have, the menu options expand even further. Lamb Shank, Oso Bucco, Hanger Steak and Boeuf Tartare easily opt into any week’s bestselling options. There are, however, perennial favorites that are rarely shaken from that all-time favorites’ list:
Of course, there’s the Brussel’s Burger, which I’ve already mentioned and written about effusively in past dining columns. (It’s the Gruyere and caramelized endive that makes this such a rare treat.)
The New York Prime Steak, with sauce choices of green pepper corn, béarnaise or Dijon mustard a la crème, is always a crowd pleaser.
A surprising year-round seller, Chef Thomas’ Beef Stew simply can’t be outdone. “It’s probably because I use Leffe Brune beer as the reduction base,” says Chef. “It has a slight caramel taste that creates this smooth, creamy flavor. It’s very homey and comfortable.” Rounding out Brussels’ meat top sellers are the slow-cooked Meatballs in a signature Liège sauce.
Liège is one of Belgium’s oldest cities and proudly responsible for the creation of this trademark meatball many a decade ago. About the size of tennis balls, these oversized treats are a mix of pork and beef and are simmered for hours in the Liège, sauce, which is primarily made with a nice, round brown beer and “sirop de Liège,” a black, sweet syrup made from concentrated apples and pears. While you might think the meatballs would end up sweet tasting, they arrive, instead, with this great depth of flavor baked into the very core.
The Surprise Element is IT
What I can say about Brussels Bistro is this: You go to some restaurants with an expectation of what will be. Every time I go to Brussels, I’m surprised … and always in a pleasant way. That, my friend, is the quintessential tour de force. Brussels Bistro never stops surprising.