This is not a food blog, but as food has, in some way, influenced every dancer, musician, actor, and for that matter everyone else on the planet, I though I could squeeze it in. Food had a profound effect on rotund Gioachino Rossini, and I'm guessing that Mariinsky ballerina Ulyana Lopatkina is less of a foodie, but even so let's give this a whirl.
The reason? Well, besides being in Ghent for a Jessye Norman concert, part of the extensive Flanders Festival, the excuse was to drink up some Belgian culture, along with some Belgian beer. And what better way to accompany Belgian beer but with Belgian food. It's good. They know how to eat well, and so do I… as in too much. But hey, diets are for home, so back in Italy I'll avoid the aperitivi for a bit.
3 days, 6 restaurants, 20,000 calories. Each restaurant was good, a couple very good, so here's a rundown.
Schuurkenstraat 4 – tel: +32 9 2235555
This restaurant is inside a converted warehouse which was used for storing iron. Iron pillars, a glass roof and large airy spaces give it a hothouse feel, though with Belgian weather it probably hardly ever is actually hot. The space is valued the most during the day when shafts of sunlight illuminate the eating areas, at least that's what they say. I went during the early evening , (about two hours earlier than I eat in Milan, which gave me a jet-laggy feeling without changing time zones), and the low evening light lit the space interestingly all the same. The staff are charming and efficient, the tables small, though whether the French influenced the Flemish in this economically sensible but ergonomically uncomfortable trend, or vice versa, I have no idea.
Brasserie Pakhuis has a Bib Gourmand in the Michelin Guide 2012, meaning that the restaurant has a good price-quality ratio.
The steak was excellent, according to my fellow diners, and my squid, served on a salad bed which included tiny aniseed flowers, was tender, tasty and light. A selection of in-house sorbets was very tasty. Presentation was beautiful too, though there was little time to linger and appreciate it as it was Jessye time, so off to the opera house.
Graslei 10 – tel: +32 9 2800100
When writing about a restaurant the first thing to mention probably isn't the loo, but with the Belga Queens (there's one in Brussels too) this is the first thing that everyone talks about. The cubicles have transparent doors. That's right, just imagine Great Aunt Sarah dealing with her stockings and skirts with fellow customers looking on. Well, of course, they don't. There's a bit of magic… but I won't spoil the surprise. Enough to say, if you have to go, you can. Privately.
Ghent's Belga Queen is housed inside a grain warehouse on the famous and much photographed port. It is the oldest building in the area. The view over the canal from the first floor window tables, is the equivalent of having a front row seat at the opera house. Instead of peering down at the orchestra, we watched boats convey tourists up and down the waterway, though, as the windows were closed, we were saved the running commentary.
A very reasonably priced midday fixed menu was delicious. With €19 we got through a restyled miniature caprese served on a slate plate, followed by slices of oven-cooked salmon with mini designer-vegetables. The whole concept of this restaurant, from the stunning interior to what's on your plate, is of design. The Belga Queen's Portugese founder, Antoine Pinto, is also an interior architectural designer, though, from what we tasted, the beauty here is definitely more than skin deep.
Schouwburgstraat 5 – tel: +32 9 2650550
The Café Theatre is a more traditional space than the previous two Ghent restaurants. It is in the opera house complex, and indeed Jessye Norman munched here after her recital.
Although Ghent proudly calls itself the Veggie Capital of Europe, Belgium is famous for its meat, so it was time for me to try a steak, which was excellent. The little vegetable package tied up with bacon was cute, and the hand-cut chips served in a vertical tube of paper were tasty if not very crisp. A good house red accompanied our meal; the wine list is extensive, but pricey.
We all ate variations of the same dish with different sauces; I tried all three and they were yummy. No afters as a very nice Flanders Tourism chap called Maarten arrived to accompany us to an evening of tango dancing “with acrobatics and projections”. All I'll say is that the music was good…
Rue des renards 9 – tel: +32 2 5115583
This is the restaurant that gets my 5-star rating. A small unpretentious place, with lots of traditional dishes and very reasonable prices for what we ate. Their website gives an idea of the spirit of the place. Alain Fayt, the owner, has written a book containing many of his recipes, so no secret ingredients here. It is in in the Marolles district which I love: medieval street layouts, little shop-fronts painted all colours, with specialist sellers of antiques, vintage clothes, comics and books. There's a great atmosphere, and its the perfect situation for a restaurant like Restobières.
So what better place to try the local dishes. First up, kip-kap, which is a type of meat loaf made from pig cheeks suspended in gelatin. The reality is better than the description, though I preferred their home-made pâté with Rochefort.
The Bloempanch, rather like the black sausage from Scotland, black because of the pig's blood, really is very good. A big slice, the size of a saucer, melts in the mouth, and is delicious. My less-adventurous companion ordered the farm chicken leg Waterzooï, which was a cream, egg and vegetable soup with pieces of chicken and a large chicken thigh sticking out of the bowl like a ladle. He pronounced it exquisite and is threatening to copy the recipe when back in Italy.
To accompany the meal I chose, or rather Fayt chose, a beer from their enormous selection. It was called Noir de Dottignies and it was, of course, black, and very, very good.
There wasn't much room after that, so we ordered a home-made caramel ice-cream with two spoons. Wonderful, and sufficient.
Brasserie du Jaloa
Place Sainte-Catherine 5-7 – tel: +32 2 5121831
That evening we were in another famous Brussels' establishment . The Brasserie du Jaloa is the sister restaurant to the Jaloa Gastronomique where Michelin starred chef Gaétan Colin runs the kitchen. We amused to find an Italian waitress who'd grown up under the sun of the south. Apparently she loves the rain and, as she wisely put it, hot days are fine when you're on holiday, but not when you have to work.
As fish is one of their strong points we each ordered the €68 Plateau Maison for two – the least expensive of the fish combo plates which go up to €110 – with oysters and clams, whelks, prawns and Spanish mussels. All was extremely fresh (thank god) and quite enough. We had the usual fun battling with our pins and pliers until we'd finished them all off, and just had just space enough to sluice down a couple of vodkas.
Grand Cafe Lamot
Van Beethovenstraat 8/10 – tel: +32 15 209530
Dreary day in Mechelen, a rather charming small city, just outside Brussels, so good to find the warmth of the Grand Cafe Lamot which is part of a cultural centre on the site of a disused brewery. The restaurant is very modestly decked out, but its striking feature is two massive glass walls which even gave the impression of it being quite a bright day.
We both started with the home-made shrimp croquettes, nice but nothing special, though apparently are typical of the region. As I was wanting to eat light, I followed these with fried baby soles with French fries, essentially Fish ‘n' Chips, and they tasted exactly as expected. However my companion was much cleverer and chose the sirloin with a pepper-cream sauce and pronounced it the best he'd had in Belgium.
The highlight of my meal was the beer: medium-bodied with a hazy golden colour. It's called Gouden Carolus Tripel and comes from Mechelen itself, and is wonderful.
We took our time owing to the rain outside, and with no concert to rush off to, and finished our lunch with a glass of Jenever (or Genièvre for the French speakers, and Genever for the Dutch) which is a juniper-flavoured and strongly alcoholic traditional liquor. From our table we could see the boat trippers shivering, and swans who were so macho and proud that they glided majestically through the rain as though it was the most beautiful day of the year. Perhaps it was.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.