As you might suspect, there's a lot more to Brussels than pickpockets and street fights. Just off the imposing Grand Place is a network of alleys (Ilôt Sacré/Restaurant Lane) lined with gaudy restaurants aggressively recruiting customers carnival barker-style. One relentless, slick-haired dude followed us for a good 50 feet, all the while rattling off menus and their prices. Even in November there is outdoor seating (warmed by overhead heaters). Mussels and oysters are in season and many establishments mount giant seafood displays over huge containers of crushed ice near their entrances. The alleys are narrow and, with the outdoor tables, the food displays, the barkers, the hundreds of wooden a-frame menu signs, and the pedestrians, it's a crush. Though there is some charm, and it's a lively, fun atmosphere, the word is the prices are high and the food ordinary. Keep walking.
On the edge of this district, however, is Restaurant Scheltema, where we scored a table at 8:30pm without a reservation (no barker). Noisy, busy, friendly, with an all-male wait staff, Scheltema serves large portions of good quality food, most of it from the sea. The light Stella Artois beer goes down easily and we were welcomed with a just-out-the-oven, crusty loaf of homemade bread and a generous slab of butter. Liz's fine sole meuniere (27 euro) was the entire fish, sans tail and head. My main dish of plump scampi (tails attached) wrapped in thin strips of sole filets, each of which was nuzzled into a pile of whipped potatoes seasoned with nutmeg, finished second. Potatoes and nutmeg don't work for me and when I asked for pommes frites they were provided instantly and without charge. A giant, shared green salad (16 euros) featured heaps of tiny off-pink crevettes (the menu called them "grey" shrimp).
This all went well with the small glasses of Stella (3.3 euros) and a half-liter of an unknown dry, white wine (10 euros). Dessert? Belgium? Waffles? Yeah. We finished with a light, crunchy one enhanced with vanilla ice cream, chantilly (whipped cream), powered sugar, and a boat of hot melted chocolate. Total: 96 euros. It's fun to watch a really busy, really competent waiter work a room with missing a trick and keeping every customer happy. Our guy did it with good humor, as well.
Restaurant Scheltema des Dominicains, 7 - B-1000 Bruxelles - Tel.: 02 512 20 84 - Fax: 02 512 44 82
Bingo! It's 4pm and almost dark on our third and last night in town. As we wander the byways of the Sablon district—lots of galleries, clever little restaurants, and boutique shops—we keep an eye out for a place for dinner later on. A tiny storefront is Toscana 21. We enter and a bearded man waves us away, no food. "Ah, that's different" he says, when he learns we only want to make a 9pm reservation. The deal is set and we return at the agreed upon time. Two tables are offered, at the smaller one near the serving bar we can watch the activity. The main players seem to be the bearded man we met earlier (the father), his tall son Lorenzo, Lorenzo's wife or girlfriend, a sister who works the kitchen, and mother Janine (Jeanine?), who is the chief cook. Italians all.