When we first think of Belgium, beer and mussels are the first things to come to mind. In days of our youth, we toured the country from Brussels to Brugge, tasting the local cuisines and indulging in more than a few exquisite pints. Years later, DC’s Belgian Restaurant Week has brought us back with their Taste of Belgium festival. While the only beers being offered are the most known three in the United States, the mussels and frites prepared by local Belgan restaurants reminded us of days gone by and just how spectacular the culinary offerings of DC are.
Despite the rain, hundreds of people flocked to Navy Yard’s Yards Park, the first annual Taste of Belgium festival. The beers on display were Stella Artois, Hoegaarden, and Leffe, possibly the most well known Belgian beers in the US of A. While you would be hard pressed to find any bar in DC worth its salt that didn’t have at least two of these beers in stock, our festival guide gave us some additional insight as to the best pairing for each beer. Stella was best with seafood and spicier dishes, Hoegaarden shining most clear when brought to the table with a pot of mussels, and Leffe an excellent match for barbecue or dark, rich gravy dishes. While each beer drinker will rightly have their own opinion on which brand they prefer, Leffe has always been the one that reach for when given the option. However, it was hard to pass up a pint of Stella Artois when we’re offered a lesson and our own attempt at their marketed pouring ceremony.
The most interesting feature of the festival was the mussels throwdown, a competition of five chefs from five local restaurants around DC known for their Belgian cuisine and prowess: Chef Martin Castillo of Belga Café, Chef Paul Stearman of Brasserie Beck, Chef Claudio Pirollo of Et Voila, Chef Teddy Folkman of Granville Moore’s, and Chef Geert Piferoen of Locolat. Each had their recipes for the competition and incorporated one of the three Beglian beers available for the public to drink at the event. Our favorite of the five was easily the work of Chef Martin Castillo of Café Belga. While his Stella’s Truffle Mussels did feature truffle oil and chopped truffles, the real ingredients that we enjoyed with the mussels were the leeks and the finely chopped chorizo, the spice and savory flavors elevating the mussels in a broth that was far from the usual faire. We’ve been to Café Belga before and always enjoyed ourselves, but after tasting those mussels we made a promise to make another trip soon. Another essential food on display to pair with our mussels were the frites, served with a drizzle of malt garlic aioli and mayonnaise mix. We struggled to keep ourselves from ordering more than one.
As the festival winded down, the winner of the mussel throwdown was announced as (surprise, surprise) Belga Café. Presenting the award (a giant Stella Artois glass?) by Belgium’s Ambassador to the United States, Ambassador Jan Matthysen, as if ordaining the competition as a true expression of international relationship between Belgium and the United States. Although only the three most advertised Belgian beers were featured, Ambassador Matthysen had reason to be proud of the food on display and the efforts of each participating restaurant’s chef. The Taste of Belgium festival was more than enough reason to brave DC’s torrent weather and gave us plenty to look forward to for next year.
As an added treat, click here to download each restaurant’s featured mussels recipe and preparation instructions (minus Chef Paul Stearman of Brasserie Beck whose recipe changed at the last minute to a red curry based broth).