Nothing quite compares with mussels from Brussels, and this unassuming restaurant has a reputation for excelling in all things moules. For me, the gastronomic experience starts as the pot is delivered before you and then the lid is lifted, and you inhale the glorious vapeurs in anticipation of the delight that lies in store. It does not disappoint; a healthy portion of moules crowned with the freshest celery served in a marinière sauce. I conclude by pouring my chips into the pot to soak up the remaining liquor.
The proprietor presents the table next to ours with a candle as he plays some tacky Belgian pop music. At first, I think that it is how they celebrate a birthday here, only to discover the music box is a new acquisition as the act is repeated at the other table of regulars – after all this is a Saturday night and cause célèbre enough.
The following day, I awake slightly later than usual – nothing to do with the beer the night before, of course – and return to saintly Catherine, to join the procession of devotees queuing outside the stall at De Noordzee. Staff dish out bowls of fish soup from a large cauldron for a few euros. Breaking with habit, I wash this down with a glass of white wine – rather than beer – as this seems to be what is expected, although there is also the option of Champagne for those who prefer their stall-standing fish soup experience to be conducted premier classe. Like the meal the preceding evening, the quality is of the highest order.
Earlier, we set off from our apartment in the up and coming St Giles district to stop off at the delightful Brasserie von Schueren for coffee. I get the sense of an Islington café some thirty years ago only transported to Montmartre. People sit and read, or meet their friends and chat. Trendy in an alternative artistic way – more designer than designer clothes – Hoxton before the Hipsters, as the riffs of Hendrix morph into Miles Davis.
From here, it is a short stroll to the flea market at Place du Jeu de Balle, where I narrowly resist the temptation to buy a fish-shaped container for nibbles that would have shamed even the most excessively kitsch dinner party. A jazz band plays in the corner of the square to a packed audience despite the winter cold, and I notice another punter walking off with the fish.
The rest of the day blurs into obscurity, as only the best of Sundays can.
Mindful of my remit to experience the culture of Brussels to the full, the following day I stride off with purpose across town from St Giles, where I pop into Brasserie von Schueren for a coffee, across town to the Botanical Gardens some five miles away. Along the way, I pass through the Grote Markt and up to the Museum Quarter where I marvel at the grandiose architecture. All are wonderful in their own way, but I feel like an interloper in a strange land. I’m tempted to pop in and say hi to Magritte, but isn’t Brussels a living museum and its main exhibit the beer.
Eventually, I discover myself back at St Catherine, where I stray into Monk bar, before returning to Le Coq to reacquaint myself with broken-hearted moustachioed sound engineers and lambic beer.
The journey back is swift and smooth. Having purchased Eurostar’s Standard Premier ticket, I am served a meal accompanied by a perfectly reasonable Syrah Pays d’Oc. I check my map once more – this time from the sanctuary of my carriage – to discover we have now passed into France, so I can drink my wine without feeling any sense of betrayal to the wonderful beer of Brussels.