My friend Elsa suggested meeting at Leon de Bruxelles. As a lover of mussels and frites – in which Leon de Bruxelles specialises – this seemed like a great idea. Leon de Bruxelles started life as Chez Leon when it opened in Brussels in 1893. The first ‘Leon de Bruxelles’ restaurant opened a century later, in 1989, in Paris and was followed by many more French branches. The London branch opened last year. It’s situated on Cambridge Circus where Charing Cross Road, Shaftesbury Avenue and Tottenham Court Road meet. They say they’re in the ‘heart of theatre land’ but really it’s on the edge and a somewhat ‘between’ location: neither Soho nor Covent Garden so not really a restaurant you’d stumble across if seeking to eat in either of those popular eating haunts. Is that why they were quite empty last night – a Thursday night when you expect restaurants to be full? Or had people read Jay Rayner’s rather damning review in the Observer on 22 September? It’s not the first time our king of restaurant critics has made me worry about where I’ve planned to eat, as I looked Leon de Bruxelles up yesterday afternoon after Elsa had booked a table. He was rather scathing about Balthazar just a couple of days before I went there. As it turned out, I had a good meal but I’ve heard mixed reports since and really, mixed reports isn’t good. A good restaurant is reliable. At a good restaurant you may look enviously at your companion’s meal and wish you’d chosen the boeuf bourguignon instead of coq au vin but your coq au vin is still good.
I used to eat mussels and frites a lot. I spent a lot of time actually in Brussels about 15 years ago where I took to drinking wonderful beers of a ‘grand cru’ variety with those tasty little sea morsels. In London, my brother introduced me to Belgo Centraal in Covent Garden soon after it opened in 1996; he said he thought I’d like it. As the lift clunked down to the basement it was a bit like being taken into either a prison or futuristic film, but as I was with Adam I wasn’t scared. Then below, we found ‘monks’ serving large bowls of wonderful mussels. It became a favourite for some time. Coming upon Leon de Bruxelles shining rather gaudily on Cambridge Circus and entering it, it was more like arriving at an American diner. There wasn’t much hint of Brussels about it.
It was also very empty. Maybe it was the 7.30 timing, I said to Elsa. Just after people have rushed off to the theatre, a little before evening diners rush in. There was no rush in. Service, however, was swift and friendly. I’d intended to drink Belgian beer but agreed to share a half litre carafe of Merlot without thinking (I rarely drink beer, though do like it with mussels). The wine, priced at £12, was good though. It came with a bread basket – good enough bread, if not exciting bread.
The menu card was mussel shaped and coloured. This made me feel even more like I’d ventured into a diner aimed at kids rather than the more sophisticated bars and restaurants I remembered from Brussels. I chose Leon de Bruxelles Mussels – with white wine, creme fraiche, celery and shallots. Elsa chose Moules Mariniere. The steaming pots were put before us, with bowls for our shells (two – and once the first was full it was quickly removed to leave the empty second to use, so good service) and the lids lifted and taken away.
The chips – you can only call them chips, they’re not really ‘fries’ – were in a small pot. They were crispy and needed salt.
We were offered mayonnaise or ketchup but when in anything Belgian, always mayonnaise. I remember as a kid driving through Belgium with my family and stopping by the roadside and buying paper cornets filled with freshly cooked fries with a big dollop of mayonnaise on top and I don’t think fries have ever tasted so good.
The mussels? Well they were pretty good. The odd little shrivelled one – that’s inevitable – but on the whole, nicely plump and good. The sauce was delicious, though I would have preferred the celery to have been cooked a little more – the chopped pieces were virtually raw, which isn’t particularly pleasant in a warm sauce. I enjoyed my plate of mussels; I would have preferred thinner fries as opposed to chips.
My blog writing seems to have set up a pattern for having a dessert much more often than I used to. We decided to share a waffle. Oh the Belgians made the best waffles! This one was good: nicely crisp on the outside, soft and warm inside, with rich dark chocolate sauce and some vanilla ice cream.
So, overall what did I think of Leon de Bruxelles? I must confess I didn’t have a ‘Belgo’ moment; I didn’t think, I must come back here again soon. An American-type diner isn’t my preferred decor and I longed for a bit of dark wooden Brussels’ cellar. But the mussels were good – not excellent, but good. The service was very good: food came as fast as one would hope and the waiter was friendly and helpful. I won’t be rushing back but if I’m in the area and hankering after a plate of mussels, then I’d definitely head there again.