Mussels from Brussels living strong into third century

Tue Nov 29, 2011 10:42am EST
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By Johanna Somers

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Even if you had no clue what Chez Leon, a Brussels culinary institution for more than a century, serves up, it wouldn't be too hard to work it out once you step through the door.

The restaurant's tile booths are decorated with hundreds of mussel shells, caricatures of mussels coat the corridors and on one wall stands a vast mural depicting brave, sturdy mussels attacking cowardly hamburgers with heavy weaponry.

Then the heart-warming aroma of steaming shellfish hits you and it's pretty obvious -- Chez Leon serves mussels, cooked not just one way but 15 different ways, with Belgian frites on the side, and has been selling the succulent little molluscs almost uninterruptedly for 110 years, closing for only 16 days during World War I and two months in World War II.

In that time, it has become a virtual pilgrimage site for anyone who has ever enjoyed tucking in to a bowl of bivalves.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, French rock and roll legend Johnny Hallyday and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- who pitched up unannounced in March 2009 with a phalanx of bodyguards and ate upstairs alongside two stunned backpackers -- have all come from afar to slurp Chez Leon's specialty.

"That is why we are famous," says Alexandre Vanlancker, son of the third generation owner of the restaurant, which has, almost inevitably, spawned a franchise and copycats. "Everybody can eat here, rich to poor."

Locals readily agree, and pack themselves into the rambling diner, cobbled together over the years from nine adjacent houses, with the same eagerness as the stream of tourists.

"I can find happiness for 20 euros ($26.70)," says Michel Silvester, a 67-year-old Belgian, when asked to consider what has kept him coming for more than a decade to enjoy a classic: 800 grams (28 ounces) of mussels steamed in water, butter, onions and celery.   Continued...

<p>Cook Lavdim Kelmendi shakes a pot of mussels at the Volle Gas restaurant in Brussels November 24, 2011. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir</p>