November 2007 – Brussels (Food, Glorious Food!)
OK, so here’s the perennial food-lover’s dilemma in the UK. It’s lunchtime (or dinnertime) and you haven’t packed something to eat or bought something to cook. You want to go out. Your choices tend to be incredibly polarised. You don’t want to spend much? Well, there’s the greasy spoon, the office microwave and a ready meal of questionable nutritional value, your nearest rat-burger joint or a pizza chain that serves rubberised dough covered in tomato puree and ingredients that no self-respecting Italian would put together on the same shelf of the fridge, let alone on one meal and has the nerve to call it a pizza. What there isn’t in the main is the small, friendly neighbourhood restaurant or bistro that can serve you fresh ingredients, well cooked and prepared by someone who understands food – and more to the point actually likes it and wants you to like it to – at prices that won’t make your eyes water and your bank manager swear. The sort of place you find in most European towns and cities, in fact. If that’s the sort of cooking you want, you’ll not find it in the UK without paying a painfully high financial price for it. So what set me off on this rant? Well, it’s the fact that in the six weeks I’ve been in Brussels we’ve been out on several departmental lunches and each one of them has been delicious, served by professional waiting staff, on clean crockery, with real knives and forks, and not one of them has cost more than 16.50 EUR (11.55 GBP or 24.28 US dollars) including wine. I have eaten pasta with a tomato and scampi sauce at the local Italian (twice), a Thai buffet with a selection of starters and four possible main course dishes, one of them seafood-based, a Morrocan buffet that included copious amounts of both hot and cold dishes (for 11 EUR), and today an Indian main course of sag prawns that was tasty, quite obviously fresh, and rather more than one person really needs for lunch (along with two glasses of red wine) here (although you’d be well advised not to click on this if you have a headache – it’s quite the most revolting website I think I’ve seen in a long time). You’d be lucky to get a pub meal for that price in Britain.
I have also, in the evenings, been out three times to good restaurants, in two instances a small establishment run – so far as I can tell – by a husband and wife team, and serving simple but good Portuguese food – carne de porco à alentejana or arroz de tamboril with a starter of salt cod, and all at a reasonable price in a warmly welcoming environment. Le Saint Anne didn’t have a web site back then, but judging by the number of locals staggering in, it doesn’t need to advertise. Closer in to the town centre there was another Portuguese establishment, this one a little more upmarket. The Herois do Mar, though only a couple of euro more expensive for caldo verde, bacalhau à bras and a trio of desserts (pasties de nata, rolade à l’orange and tarte portugais) washed down with a very pleasant half bottle of vinho verde. On each occasion I didn’t spend more than 30 euros. Given how well it’s possible to eat in Belgium, it wasn’t a surprise that La Tortue du Sablon – apart from having an entertainingly atrociously written website – did a fabulous dish of fat, tender mussels, in garlic and wine, with beautifully crisp, golden frites, and all of the mussels bar one was fit to eat – that’s a far better record than I’ve been known to encounter in the UK – and they finished it off with a soft, sticky tarte au sucre that set me up for an afternoon’s sightseeing; As they’re right in the main tourist area (or the “hearth” of Brussels, as they put it) the cost wasn’t too much of a surprise, at 55 Euros.
And as for cooking at the top end, while the British are now very good indeed at that sort of thing, the prices can really hurt. So as a treat last night, because this is my last week n Brussels (and for old times’ sake too) I went for dinner at the restaurant Les Trois Couleurs. Now I used to live over the road from this restaurant, and while I didn’t go often – it was pretty expensive even by local standards – I went often enough to know how much I like the place. So much so that Lynne and I took my Mum and Dad there for their 50th wedding anniversary (which was the last time I ate here, so my feelings were somewhat mixed when I fetched up there last night). I needn’t have worried. The place is still as classy as ever and the cooking is just as good as it ever was. The staff are friendly and attentive, and the food is superb. I drank a kir to start with, accompanied by a series of amuse bouches – salmon pate in a tiny coffee cup, two pieces of smoked eel, two mussels in a lobster sauce, and a puree of yellow and red peppers. The bread rolls were small, crispy round the crust and soft on the inside, served with butter that had been shaped to look like a rose. The first course was a duo of duck foie gras (the one fresh liver fried with fruit, the other a dense, creamy pate), a sweet, sticky confit of onions, a series of little gelee stars, tiny melon balls, fresh redcurrants and a slice of light, fruited brioche, gently toasted. This was served, as it should be, with a glass of sweet, white wine, in this case a very dense Muscat de Beaumes de Venise. After a suitable pause there came a soup – cream of pumpkin with king prawns, the soup smooth and far lighter than you might expect, the prawns as tender as you could want and clearly having never seen the inside of a freezer.
The main course was wild boar, three noisettes with “saveurs automnales” (autumnal flavours), a portion of cabbage and carrot with bacon, two quenelles of potato and cauliflower puree, a small mound of sautéed wild mushrooms, and accompanying mushroom sauce, and red wine sauce, both of which were replenished later in the meal. It was all very wonderful, and I drank two glasses of red wine with it, enjoying every mouthful. The dessert was a tour de force of numerous items, including a chocolate crème brulee, a red fruit ice cream, a chocolate mousse with a chocolate sculptural shape in it, strawberries, grapes, more redcurrants, blueberries, and a dusting of icing sugar. To finish there was coffee, with petit fours including a tiny tiny crème brulee, two coffee-filled chocolates, palmiers biscuits, chocolate chip cookies, tiny little crunchy nuts in chocolate, shortbread biscuits with cherries on them, and a piece of Turkish delight. And the price of all this luxurious food? 56 Euros all inclusive. It would probably have come out double in Britain…
And tonight, after I’d been in the gym, I finally gave in and bought a portion of frites. They came from the local kebab shop, and they were cooked while I waited, twice fried, coming out crisp, golden on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside, and served with a portion of sauce Andalouse… They were wonderful. If I’d bought chips from a kebab shop in the UK they’d have been limp, greasy and most likely cold as well.