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San Clemente Journal

Brussels Bistro - Traditions Dating Back to the 13th Century

May 23, 2019 09:33AM ● By Donia Moore
by Donia Moore

It’s all here but the cobblestones, even the reproduction of the street market stall for Les Frites, Belgium’s delicious and popular snack of Frites (Fries), complete with garlic mayonnaise sauce. And the small but mighty Manneken Pis of legend welcomes you at the door. 

This charming European-style Brussels Bistro restaurant is the newest addition to the restaurant scene on Avenida Del Mar in downtown San Clemente. Modeled after a small European-style café, the Bistro boasts an amazing menu of Belgian traditional dishes, as well as a varied children’s bill of fare, sure to please the younger gourmands in the family. The star of the show, however, may be the uniquely brewed beer paired with a perfectly matched meal. 

The Beer - the Intangible Cultural Heritage
“Beer, in many respects, represents one of the essential qualities of life.” 
On November 30, 2016, the Belgian Beer Culture was recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. It joined the Holy Blood Procession in Bruges, the Aalst Carnival, the Carnival of Binche, and the Horseback Shrimp-Fishing off the coast of Oostduinkerke, all listed as unique to Belgian Heritage. 

In Belgium, enjoying a fine meal with good friends has been part of the culture for centuries. At Brussels Bistro, the Belgian heritage is honored and respected. From a selection  of over 40 Belgian beers from Trappiste Ale to Fruit Beers to Cuvee des Trolls, servers have been well trained to suggest perfect food and beer pairings. But if it’s wine you prefer, the choices can be by the glass or by the bottle of mostly French, and a few California, varieties.

The Food, Specialties for Foodies
“While Belgium is mostly known for its beers, chocolates, waffles and diamonds, it is also a genuine paradise for those who love gourmet food.”  

Whether you choose to try the house specialty of Les Moules in one of the eight tasty sauces, fresh daily, or enjoy Le Creuset pots of Boeuf Bourguignon, cooked slowly for 20 hours to the perfect, tender doneness, and served over specially made fettuccini, you can be assured you won’t go away hungry.

I recently enjoyed a wonderful evening meal there. I made it a point to try two specific entrees - one with which I was familiar (the Boeuf Bourguignon) and one which I had never tried (Les Moules or mussels in garlic cream sauce).

Entering the Bistro for me was a happy revisit of Brussels from many years ago.
It was a bit like walking through a tiny European street into a neighborhood café -  one where you know your neighbors – and joining in for an after-work brew. While my beer and wine palate is not so finely attuned, I definitely enjoy a fine meal with an adventurous twist. I found exactly that with the help of Jocelyn and Oliver, two of the many charming servers I met that evening. And when one of the owners Nicolas came over to offer his suggestions, between the three of them I knew I would not starve.

The trio suggested starting off with a small pot, or two, of Les Moules. As I had never tried mussels, I was definitely up to the gastronomic challenge. The Bistro orders their mussels directly from Penn Cove Shellfish in Coupeville, Washington and receives deliveries of fresh mussels several times a week .On Tuesdays, you can eat your fill on the restaurant’s special. 

These delicacies were served with Les Frites - authentic Belgian Fries perfectly double cooked in beef fat, with a choice of artisanal sauces. I tried the handcrafted truffle sauce and discovered that it was definitely the way to go for me. 

Their next suggestion was the beautiful Boef Bourguignon. This wonderful beef stew is slow cooked in burgundy wine for 20 hours in a Le Creuset pot and served tableside with a flourish over semolina noodles. The pearl onions glistened in the sauce and the warm hue of the baby carrots warmed the whole dish. The meal was, simply, amazing. A loaf of warm, crusty artisanal bread accompanied the stew, and here was a challenge I hadn’t met - how NOT to eat the bread.

Dessert was a dark Belgian chocolate mousse- smooth as chocolate silk, and now my favorite dessert. Of course, I was ready to slow down and thought I would simply try a bite or two, but next time I looked, I had downed the whole cup. Although Jocelyn assured me it was the smallest of the desserts, it was still a very healthy portion. 
Actually all the portions are very generous. Belgians have a saying that “Belgian food is served in the quantity of German food but with the quality of French food.” 
Believe them

Much of the food served at Brussels Bistro is gluten-free. Try the bacon-wrapped Brie or the Samish Pearl Oysters, hearty salads, Beef Tartare, or even a delicious burger in a lettuce wrap. Almost anything except the breads and buns can be prepared gluten free if you let your server know your needs … even the Belgian Waffles on the Sunday Brunch. 

Your Hosts: Nicholas & Thomas
Brussels Bistro is the fulfillment of a childhood dream of the owners. Chef Thomas Crijns and restaurant entrepreneur Nicolas Servais, friends for 40 years, have both been in the restaurant industry for over 25 years. They wanted to share with all their guests a part of the culture to which they are so attached. They wanted to deliver an authentic Belgian experience for all the senses.

Thomas came to the US first, settling in San Clemente and encouraged his best friend Nicholas to follow. Nicholas has now been in the US with his wife and two children for just over three years. As Nicholas said, they have been friends since they were babies and always knew that they would one day open a restaurant together. To that end, they both enrolled in Belgium’s premiere hotel/restaurant school, Ecole Hoteliere de la Provence de Namur, located just outside of Brussels. The famous school has been in existence since October 9, 1936.

The San Clemente’s Brussels Bistro is actually the second of their restaurant holdings. Their first restaurant was recently remodeled. It’s up the road apiece in Laguna Beach. 

And the little Manneken Pis…

The name of this diminutive statue actually means “peeing boy.” The statue most probably started out as a public fountain, with the peeing boy as homage to the tanners, as medieval tanners let children and street urchins pee on leather to make it more supple. 
Time passed and people forgot how the statue got there in the first place, so incredible legends started to explain its origins. The most popular story states how the little peeing boy saved the capital. In this tale, Brussels was surrounded by enemies. One day they seemingly retreated, but had really put tons of gunpowder under the city. A little boy saw the burning fuse and quickly peed on it. In another well-loved tale the peeing boy is actually a historic figure, Duke Godfrey III of Leuven. As a child, he was put in a basket in an oak tree to encourage the knights fighting in his honor. Every now and then the toddler stood up and peed on the heads of his enemies.

To illustrate how important Manneken Pis is to the Brussels residents, in 1747 French grenadiers from Louis XV of France’s army thought it would be funny to steal the ridiculous statue. Threatened with a huge riot, Louis severely punished the jokers and gave Manneken back to the city, dressed in expensive brocade, embroidered with gold and decorated with the cross of Saint-Louis.

That wasn’t the only war and abduction Manneken Pis survived — he has been stolen, retrieved, destroyed and remade several times throughout history. The little peeing boy made it through the terrible bombardments of 1695 that leveled a good chunk of the city, and was unscathed during the world wars.

San Clemente Brussels Bistro is open from 11am-1pm every night. Sunday Brunch, complete with Belgian Waffles, is served from 10am-2pm. Lunch is served from 11am-3 pm. Dinner is served until 10pm. There is also a special Happy Hour daily from 4-6pm. and $5 drinks and menu items are available. Guests can also watch sporting events on the big screen TV over the bar.

Brussels Bistro 218 Avenida Del Mar San Clemente, CA. 92672, 949-218-8489

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