Just add beer

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Nowhere does beer cuisine quite like Brussels’ Nuetnigenough, where Aaron Goldfarb finds that good things come to those who wait

Brussels can sometimes feel like a city designed with food choices simply meant to cater to what uninformed tourists assume must be best-of-the-best Belgian cuisine. Hey, a waffle cart! Oh, look, a chocolate shop! And there’s a moules-frites stand! All good, sure, and abundantly available, no doubt, but if one truly wants to taste the pinnacle of Belgian cuisine you have to dig a little deeper. Enter: cuisine à la bière.

Cooking with beer seems to have actually begun as a French tradition, with the earliest recipes popping up in 18th-century cookbooks like François Massialot’s Nouveau Cuisinier Royal et Bourgeois (1734) and Vincent la Chapelle’s The Modern Cook (1742). However, according to Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garrett Oliver in his invaluable The Oxford Companion to Beer, cuisine à la bière was strongly revived and then officially codified in the 1950s by a highly influential Brussels chef named Raoul Morleghem – though that name seems to have been all but lost to history. A quick Google search of him pulls up a paltry 660 results, almost none of them in English.

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Unfortunately, cooking with beer – and not just a splash of it – has again fallen somewhat out of favour in Belgium’s capital. Luckily, a few Brussels joints are still upholding this great Belgian tradition and even excelling at it. There’s the popular Restobières, Alain Fayt’s intentionally off-kilter restaurant in the Marolles district of the city, where kitschy chocolate boxes, cake trays and antique beer memorabilia line the walls while stews cooked in brews cover diners’ plates. In the suburbs of Denderleeuw, east of Brussels, stands a wooden house converted into a popular restaurant, De Heeren van Liedekercke, which features a complex menu highlighting Flemish and Walloon cooking prepared with local beers. But the true marvel of cuisine à la bière is still in the heart of Brussels, just three blocks from the Grand Place. There, as you walk past throngs of out-of-towners lined up in front of chocolate shops and friteries, on the busy Rue du Lombard sits Nuetnigenough.

Translated literally from the local dialect as ‘never enough’ – and loosely as The Greedy Glutton – Nuetnigenough will easily turn even the most restrained diner into the aforementioned. Especially considering this high-ceiling, Art Nouveau-decorated, 22-seat brasserie doesn’t accept reservations. You’ll surely need a meal fit for a glutton by the time you’re allowed to eat as it’s unsurprisingly tough to land a table without first killing some time at the six-seat bar. Incidentally, Nuetnigenough’s bottle list is outstanding, featuring real gems from breweries like Fantôme, Drie Fonteinen and, of course, Cantillon.

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Once seated, one finds a dinner menu as small and exacting as the restaurant itself, with a mere seven starters and 14 entrees. Luckily, these entrees are not only robust – remember, you’re famished as you’ve been waiting patiently for this table – but they are the utmost examples of the greatness of Belgian beer cuisine, whether that’s traditional, modernised or somewhat reinvented.

Of course, any cuisine à la bière restaurant worth its salt needs a carbonnade, and Nuetnigenough’s is a momentous one: succulent beef stewed in Rochefort 8, the trappist strong ale adding a remarkable depth of dark fruit flavours to the slow-cooked meat. On the somewhat lighter side, the rabbit saddle is served in a sauce made with Lindemans Gueuze Cuvée René, adding a pleasant acidity to the rabbit’s mild taste.

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For a modernised take on a Belgian classic, Nuetnigenough takes its oiseaux sans tête (steak and mince rolls) and dresses it with a sauce made of the hoppy Brouwerij De Dochter van de Korenaar Belle-Fleur, the Belgian IPA contributing an incredible bittersweet taste to the hearty dish. Another pleasing update to a classic is the veal meatballs prepared à la gantoise using Ghent brewery Gruut’s white beer offering. For a slightly more adventurous option, an ordinary chicken fillet is added to a tart cherry sauce made using the Cuvée René kriek.

All these delicious options would be called ‘comfort food’ in America, ‘home-style’ cooking in other places, or perhaps ‘rustic’ in the countryside. On paper – and, yes, this no-frills spot’s menus are just a flimsy placemat you’ll have ruined by night’s end – these dishes don’t seem complex. And that’s sort of the point.

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When cooking at home, there’s surely no more boring recipe instruction than ‘add stock’. (Except, perhaps, ‘add water’.) Luckily, the Belgians, and especially Nuetnigenough, have found a nice way around this: by replacing the key liquids in their food with beer. Good, complex beer that elevates their seemingly basic dishes. All of Nuetnigenough’s entrees are simple but decadent, hearty but well-priced (nothing is more than €18 a plate), with each dish essentially composed of a very simple formula: meat plus beer equals amazing.

This magazine is called Belgian Beer and Food, and no place in Belgium integrates that singular message better than Nuetnigenough.

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