Saturday, 25 June 2011

Belgian waffle

Waffle for illustrative purposes only. No actual waffle appears in this article.

This week Becca and I have been travelling across Belgium and a little bit of the Southern Netherlands, doing a research trip for a project of hers.  We’re staying in B&Bs all the way, so no facilities, so no cooking I’m afraid.  For this week I’m mainly just the driver.  Which doesn’t mean of course that food isn’t still high on the agenda.

Which, I have to admit, in Belgium, makes the agenda pretty pricey.  Our journey – at least the Belgian leg of it – started in Ostend.  When Becca was first planning this trip, a few weeks back, she posted a question on Facebook, asking her friends if they could recommend any places worth visiting in Belgium generally, and specifically anywhere to eat well, and cheaply, in Ostend.  Our friend Darren, previously mentioned on these pages, pitched in with a reply that read something (no, I believe exactly) like: “HA HA HA HA”.  We thought at the time that he was probably just recycling the hackneyed notion that Belgium is boring and therefore that the very idea of there being anywhere in it worth visiting was inherently absurd, and didn’t dignify him with a response.  In retrospect, and given that Darren is very well travelled, particularly within Northern Europe, it seems likely that it was the notion of there being anywhere cheap to eat in Ostend that he was ridiculing.  Eat well: yes.  Eat cheaply: fat chance.

One of the things you get used to, living in London, is that the cost of living is generally pretty high.  One of the compensations (and there are many) is that when you travel, eating out tends to be much more affordable.  Ostend, however, just makes you wonder how come you don’t eat out all the time in London, what with it being such a big, fat bargain… Seriously. 

You’re in Belgium, you’re by the seaside, you think you really probably should just have moules (or mosselen) frites.  And indeed, yes, you really should.  But you will have to pay over twenty Euros for the privilege.  Still, you might as well, because any other main course is going to be that price, or more.  Unless you want to subsist entirely on spaghetti bolognese and omelettes – which is what Becca and I had for lunch, respectively, on our first day, and which, of course in her case would come down to a choice of spag bol or spag bol.  Every meal.  It also has to be said that, even without taking price into consideration, the low countries are not the best place to be for a dairy allergic food lover.  They do love their butter, their milk and cream, and their eggs.  Often whipped up together with chocolate.  Or indeed in the  form of waffles

Anyway, that first night, in Ostend, in the most highly recommended mossel bar in town, I chose the  mosselen look (garlic mussels).  Becca couldn’t, because – yes – they put cream in the sauce (or at least that’s what are waiter said, and he was so solicitously helpful otherwise I wouldn’t wish to cast aspersions on his accuracy here, but I have to admit I could detect little trace of it in mine), so she had a fillet of dorada, with a tapenade crust instead.  The mussels were good, undoubtedly, very good indeed.  But they were still just mussels.  And, frankly, for twenty four Euros (or around twenty one fifty in old English pounds at the current rate of exchange) they have to be pretty fecking amazing mussels, or not mussels at all.  I couldn't really say they were better than the mussels I did myself on our trip to Dorset a few months back, and at that price they really had to be several times as good, and –without wishing to blow my own trumpet here – within the mussels spectrum, I just don’t think that’s possible.  Not that my mussels were as good as they were on account of any skill of mine, but because any mussels dish depends almost entirely on the quality of mussels that go into it, and there’s simply a limit to how much better than those Dorset beauties a mussel can be (that limit being not much).

So were these moules frites worth it?  I gues I’d have to say yes, and no.  No, not in the greater scheme of things twenty odd quid will buy you the world over.  But yes, in the specific context of other available items on an Ostend menu.  Becca’s dorada, by the way turned out to be a big, thick, chunky, flaky fillet, quite unlike the fine textured sliver of sea bream we’d expected, so maybe a problem with the translation (our own, Im sure, not the restaurant’s) there.  It was good though, but again, it’s worth had to be measured against the other menu options rather than in the greater scheme of things.

The Ostend experience set the tone for Belgium, although, to be fair prices did ease (slightly) as we travelled on to Bruges (counter intuitively), and Antwerp (perhaps more predictably).  We did though, come across one exception in the course of our trip.  One quite exceptional exception.

We arrived in Antwerp at a little after one pm, parked up and dumped our bags at our B&B in a tatty, but reputedly bohemian inner suburb, by which time it was getting on for one thirty, which in our experience, was starting to get tight for finding a place for lunch (the Belgians tend towards strictness in lunch being available between 12 and 2).  Our (charming, garrulously helpful) host at the B&B recommended a place just next door but one, which he said was a newly opened and pretty fancy place, but offered a set lunch menu for just €15 which was very good value.

We almost didn’t take him up on his recommendation, largely on account of not being able to see in to the dining room from the street - always a problem when trying to assess a potential lunch venue – but after a quick scout around the immediate surroundings we ended up back there and thought we’d give it a go, if for no other reason than that we had no more than €15 Euros to lose.  And, as it turned out, a great deal to gain.  Not least a strong contender for the best value meal I’ve ever had in a restaurant. 

Firstly we were greeted warmly and casually and, in response to our rather tentative initial enquiry, were assured that Becca’s allergies wouldn’t be a problem as they tried to keep the cooking light and simple, and get away from the traditional Belgian reliance on butter and cream all over the shop (they didn’t use that phrase).  The set menu consisted of a starter of (cream free) courgette soup, and then a choice of lobster salad or lamb and mint tagliatelle – dairy, but not egg free as our host  realised as he was saying it.  Never mind, Becca was quite happy with a lobster salad, and I took the pasta.  We each ordered a beer.

The courgette soup was vividly green and so deep and punchy in flavour that it seemed literally beefy to the extent that we couldn’t decide what stock it might be made with, I eventually plumped for a peppery chicken stock, but if you’d told me it had been beef then I would have confidently withstood any attempt to knock me down with a feather.  It was rather more surprising when our waiter checked with the kitchen and informed us it was a purely vegetable stock.  Which just goes to show.  Along with dairy, you don’t necessarily need meat to generate flavour.

If the soup was good, and it was, seriously, then the mains were simply spectacular.  Becca’s lobster salad in particular – just look at the picture – which was just not a lobster salad but a whole seafood extravaganza.  A full half lobster in the shell, a bunch of big fat prawns, mussels and chunky fillets of at least two different fish (one of which was easily recognisable as red mullet).  And generous quantitities of chargrilled courgette and aubergine for good measure.  It’s a measure of how good my pasta dish was – with it’s kofte style chunks of richly spiced mince, and big mint leaves stirred through like you might expect wilted spinach to be (and in fact like wilted chard was) - that I wasn’t resentful in the slightest.  There was courgette in there, too, the ubiquity of which suggested the chef was dealing with a glut.  Which in turn, far from being a problem, suggested that someone's own garden was involved in the provenance of their veg - and how much more local, seasonal - and probably several other current restaurant buzzwords - can you get than that?  It tasted fresh from the garden too.

And if that wasn’t enough, then look what arrived when we ordered coffee:

And, not only that, but, entirely unprompted, though after a slight delay, as soon as they remembered Becca’s allergies, they brought her a plate of big chunks of juicy, grenadine red water melon to go with her coffee instead.

All of this, including our beers, came in at €20 a head, or around €3.50 a head less than a standard Ostend pot of moules.  By any standards, this is astonishing value.  I only hope they can continue to offer it – when we were there, admittedly on a Tuesday lunchtime, we appeared to be covers 6 and 7 of that service, and by the time our mains arrived we had the restaurant to ourselves.  If any readers of this blog find themselves in Antwerp – or even in the area – in time for lunch, then I’d urge you to get yourselves to Kamu, at 28 Draakstrasse in the Zurenborg district of the city, and hope they’re still doing the €15 menu.  But if you’re looking for a fine dinner, at a more representative price, then I couldn’t recommend the cooking highly enough, whatever it might end up costing.

I better stop now, as I hadn’t intended to write much at all, just a bit of introductory blurb to accompany pics from the trip.  Never mind.  That can wait till next time.

Lobster salad at Kamu, Antwerp.  Bargain of the week/year...


  1. Don't take Ostend as representative. The Belgian coast is notoriously expensive; Knokke and Blankenberg even more so than Ostend. However, I suspect it is partly because it attracts the wealthy and also because the Belgians are more than happy to pay for quality; if it's cheap (especially fish) they will be suspicious. I remember eating the best Dover sole I ever tasted in a slightly shabby/kitch seafront restaurant - cost me a fortune, but just fabulous. A quick trip to Delhaize, the local equivalent of Waitrose, would reassure you of the commitment to quality in Belgium; skimping on food quality is seen as the preserve of the Dutch, who the Flemish view with considerable scorn.

    Having lived in Belgium for 8 years, I find few places better for simple food; it is possible to eat very well in Antwerp without paying a fortune, ditto Brussels, where competition is fierce. No skimping on portions either. At the top end, the Belgian attitude to service (appalling) means it doesn't really work, however good the cooking. A notable exception would be Hof van Cleve, but the prices would make your eyes water.

  2. Thanks 197thistle, and point taken, but Ostend, as I said in the piece, is really quite representative, in the sense that it shows both how seriously food is taken in Belgium, and how well you can eat there; and also just how much, as you say, the Belgians are happy to pay for that quality. Prices do drop as you go inland (again, as I say in the piece - the main subject of the post, after all, being a review of a meal eaten in Antwerp that was almost ridiculously good both in quality and value), but not, generally, by all THAT much. I'd say it's still pricey, even by London standards, but that's partly just down to the current strength of the Euro against the pound. It is, also, however - and I hope this comes across in the piece - a fantastically good place to eat,regardless of the cost, with, as you say, no skimping on quality or portions.

    I also have to say that, with one or two individual exceptions, the service we got in restaurants was far from appalling, being friendly, charming, helpful and accommodating. Exceptionally so, on the whole. Which we found to be typical of the Belgians we encountered generally.

    Overall I'd say that the Belgians, and their food, are generally underrated, or at least overlooked. But in their undemonstrative, self effacing way, that's probably how they prefer it.

  3. Oh, and we did stop in Knokke on our journey back to Ostend on Sunday, and it had all the hallmarks of somewhere even more notoriously expensive. It seems to be where wealthy Belgians go to cast off the shackles of undemonstrative self effacement. An hour there was quite enough, and we certainly didn't stay to eat. Neighbouring Heist looked like it might not be without charm though.

    By the way, 197thistle, where precisely was the shabby/kitch seafront restaurant you had the Dover sole at (and what's the Flemish for Dover sole)? I might well check that out next time I'm over...

  4. Cor blimey; wish I could remember. It was when I first moved to Belgium; even I am not anal enough to have kept the credit card statements from that long ago.

    Maybe the service is a Brussels thing; even after 8 years it still drives me mental. On the plus side, there are rarely, if ever, second sittings, so you can linger.

    If you ever feel flush, do try Hof van Cleve - it is something else