Good food in Belgium

DonQui is off to Brussels for a few days in search of good food and beer. This shouldn’t be too hard as the Belgians take their food and beer very seriously indeed.

The problem is that there are so many options it can be difficult to decide where to go. Most of the top rated restaurants seem to serve up what has come to be known as Modern European — often small dishes topped off with some foam, a squirt or two of sauce, and a scattering of edible flowers or pea shoots. This is not what DonQui wants. He is looking for traditional Belgian fare washed down by a strong abby-brewed beer. 

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Brasserie de la Ville

After a bit of research DonQui stumbles on a little gem offering exactly what he is looking for. Although just off the Grand Place, the small Brasserie de la Ville (Rue de chapeliers 14) remains resolutely traditional in an area swarming with places mostly catering to tourists in a party mood.

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A calm, relaxed, atmosphere 

The atmosphere is relaxed and unpretentious with the quirky decorations adding character.

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A bit of a Tintin theme

There is a strong Tintin theme going on — even the menus are inserted into Tintin comics. 

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Les boulettes à la Liègeoise with pommes frites

After a delightful starter of scampis à l’ail (prawns in garlic sauce), DonQui goes for Les boulettes à la Liègeoise (meatballs in Liège syrup).  Liège syrup is made from highly concentrated apple and pear juice. DonQui has a bit of a penchant for sweet-savoury combinations. He thinks the combination of the slightly sweet, rich, brown sauce with the beutifully lean meatballs is utterly delicious.

Then there are the frites. The Belgians lay claim to having invented chips (French fries) and have perfected the way of making them. Soft on the inside, crispy on the outside and salted immediately on coming out of the fryer, Belgian pommes frites are, in DonQui’s opinion,  the best in the world. The frites at the Brasserie de la Ville are just about perfect.

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DonQui’s Westmalle Dubbel

Don’t look for an extensive wine list — this is a brasserie after all. In Belgium, beer is the drink of choice with several wonderful brews on-tap and many more in the bottle. DonQui enjoys a Dubbel, brewed in the Trappist abbey at Westmalle.  With 7% alcohol this rich brown ale is for sipping and savouring rather than for quenching a thirst. It goes perfectly with his meatballs — far better than any wine would do. 

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Duchess’ moules-frites

As DonQui is tucking into his wonderful meatballs, Duchess throughly enjoys a classic moules-frites (mussels and fries). She was less impressed with her onion soup starter which she thought was a bit lacklustre. 

Everything else is fabulous, including the helpful, enthusiastic and multi-lingual staff.

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More touristy restaurants in the area

DonQui is rather sad to see the obvious tourist traps full to overflowing while this more or less traditional brasserie is only half full. He hopes that the Brasserie de la Ville will be able to hold its own against the swarm of identikit restaurants serving up variations of more or less the same thing.

Best Restaurant in the World?

DonQui is rather excited to be going for dinner at the Black Swan in Oldstead, Yorkshire.

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The Black Swan at Oldstead

This restaurant, in the middle of nowhere on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors, was crowned the Best Restaurant in the World in TripAdvisor’s Travellers’ Choice Restaurants awards in October 2017. It has one Michelin star which Michelin defines as ‘worth a visit’. As a Christmas present from Duchess, DonQui was giving it the three star treatment — ‘worth a trip’.

The Black Swan is a family run business with Tommy Banks running the kitchen and his brother James overseeing the front of house. The Banks family have transformed a country pub into a world renowned dining experience, knocking Martin Berasategui in Lasarte, Spain from the top spot it had held since 2015. 

 

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The menu

The isolated country setting looks idyllic although the single track road leading to it is less so. A warm, welcoming fire greats DonQui and Duchess as they settle into a comfortable seat to peruse the menu and sip on aperitifs. Despite the Black Swan’s global reputation the atmosphere is cosy and relaxed. The staff are young, friendly and very knowledgeable. 

 

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Celery and walnut tart

DonQui opts for an excellent Alsatian Pinot Blanc as his aperitif while Duchess is more adventurous with her Jerusalem artichoke cocktail which she thoroughly enjoys. To accompany their drinks they nibble on a delightful celery and walnut tart. DonQui is not a great fan of celery but he tastes none of the bitterness he normally associates with the vegetable. Instead, the combination of walnut, cream and celery blend together beautifully. 

Ushered upstairs to their table, DonQui and Duchess settle down to the remaining 11 courses of the tasting menu. DonQui also opts for the suggested wine pairings.

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Langoustine with salted strawberry

The langoustine with salted strawberry is exquisite — quite possibly the best single dish on the menu. As the other courses come DonQui increasingly feels that some are over-fussy with too much attention paid to artistic presentation and the chef’s technical skill which hides the taste of the fine local ingredients. 

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Scallops cured in rhubarb juice

Duchess is put off by the visceral rawness of some of the dishes from the venison tartare to the raw scallops in rhubarb juice. Why is it that so many chefs seem to think that raw food is the epitome of modern cooking? DonQui cannot order scrambled eggs in a posh restaurant anymore for fear of receiving a puddle of yellow liquid instead of something nice, light and fluffy.

The main lamb dish actually turns out to be three — sweetbreads, loin and rib. They are excellent. The loin is perfectly tender and pink, just as DonQui likes it and the rib is succulent and slightly salty. DonQui is too busy enjoying it to take a photo.

The matching wines are a mixed batch. The Sussex sparkling wine was touted as being as good as any champagne but DonQui does not agree. The Greek and South African whites are fine but not extraordinary.

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Baden Spätburgunder

On the other hand, the Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) from Baden, Southwest Germany, is exquisite. It is as good or better than many Burgundies he has sampled. With a slight peppery hint it goes superbly with the lamb. DonQui asks for a second glass. German wines are underrated in the Anglo-Saxon world, mainly because the good stuff is rarely exported. The best of them come from Baden.

The Black Swan certainly deserves its Michelin star but DonQui would not rate it as the best restaurant in the world. DonQui enjoys the meal and the atmosphere it but he can think of many others he has enjoyed more. These include the Great House in Lavenham, Suffolk;  Restaurant des Epicuriens near Laon, France and Jean-Luc Rabanel in Arles, France.

DonQui’s verdict is that the Black Swan is definitely worth a visit if you are planning to go to north Yorkshire but probably not worth a trip in its own right. Be advised that due to its popularity you will need to make reservations months in advance.

Harry Potter and Boots of Beer

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Lavenham, Suffolk, bills itself as England’s best preserved medieval town. As a bit of a history buff it is a place DonQui has wanted to visit for some time. Even though it is not far from his home paddock on the Suffolk coast, he has not managed it until now.

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In the heart of Suffolk, not too far from Bury St. Edmunds, Lavenham is not easy to find. There are no main roads and no rail lines. To get there DonQui has to wind his way along narrow country lanes with only just enough room for two cars coming in opposite directions to squeeze past each other. Perhaps this is why the place is so well preserved.

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If you like old timber-framed houses this is the place for you. Many of the wonky buildings have been standing since the 14th century. Walking around the compact streets DonQui feels as if he has stepped back in time — parked cars notwithstanding.

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Fans of Harry Potter may well recognise the De Vere house as Harry’s birthplace from the film The Deathly Hallows.

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Several other films have also used the backdrop of Lavenham’s medieval streets as a backdrop.

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Many of the houses have pink plaster. The colour is still known today as ’Suffolk pink’. Originally this colour was obtained by mixing pigs’ blood with the plaster. DonQui assumes that the modern versions are more likely made by chemical combinations to match the natural original.

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Most of the buildings can only be admired from the outside but the Guildhall can be visited. It has been restored inside along with some excellent exhibits of its origins in the Flanders wool trade.

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Later it became a house of correction where the ‘idle and disorderly’ (poor and homeless) were incarcerated in the misguided idea that hard work and cruel conditions would make them more productive members of society.

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These reproductions of original notices give DonQui an idea of the fate of those unfortunates. One woman was incarcerated for having brought two children with smallpox into the town.

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There is also a bit of relatively modern history to the place. RAF Lavenham was an active airfield during the second world war and was home to the USAAF’ s 487th Bombardment Group which flew 185 missions between May 1944 and April 1945 with the loss of 233 lives. The Airmen’s Bar in the Swan Hotel is dedicated to their memory.

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Original graffiti from British and American pilots adorns the walls along with modern additions from returning veterans and their offspring.

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DonQui particularly likes the ‘boot record’ from 1940 which lists the times it took various British servicemen to drink a ‘boot’ of beer. Ironically this is a German tradition in which a couple of litres of beer are drunk in one go from a glass in the shape of a boot. DonQui did this in his younger days when he was living in Germany. The trick is to keep the toe of the boot pointing down otherwise an air-bubble will cause the drinker to be drenched, much to the amusement of the on-lookers.

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DonQui takes his hat off to W.H. Culling of the RAF who drank the boot in an incredible 59 seconds on 5 July 1940 only to do it again eight days later in 40 seconds!

Lavenham has plenty of excellent watering holes. These include:

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The Great House. This is where DonQui stayed and he reviewed it fully in his previous post. As boutique hotel with only 5 rooms it must be reserved well in advance. If you cannot get a room there, DonQui recommends treating yourself to at least one meal in the wonderful French restaurant.

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The Swan. Home of the atmospheric Airmen’s Bar, the Swan also has rooms and two eating possibilities.

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The restaurant is excellent, offering modern British cuisine of nearly the same quality as The Great House although it does not have quite the same ambiance. Duchess proclaims her goat’s cheese pannacotta with beetroot granita as one of the most interesting dishes she has ever tasted.

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The Swan’s Brasserie is more casual but with a bunch of tables and plastic chairs set up in a hallway, DonQui is not tempted.

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Attached to the Swan is an excellent Spa with a full range of treatments and a hot tub.

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Number 10 gets good reviews on TripAdvisor. The old timbered building and interesting menu posted outside tempts DonQui. When he goes inside to potentially make a reservation his ears are assaulted with the sounds of manufactured pop music of the worst kind. When he asks if this sort of stuff is played through dinner he is informed that it is. With a gentle snort he turns on his hooves and looks elsewhere.

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The Lavenham Greyhound is a Greene King pub. DonQui goes in for an afternoon drink and enjoys it. He cannot vouch for the food but the menu has fairly typical good pub food options. The bowls of soup he sees being brought to another table look good.

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The Guildhall  has a very good café offering tea, coffee and baked goods. Their scones are baked on the premises and DonQui tucks into one along with clotted cream and a blackcurrant jam while Duchess takes hers with raspberry jam. The scones are truly excellent. It is well worth a stop.

Burgers and Beer

There was a time, not that long ago, when finding good beer in the USA was just about impossible. Now, thanks to the craft beer revolution, DonQui is able to find a decent brew in the US almost as easily as he can in Europe.

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At the marvellously ramshackle Le Tub, in Hollywood, Florida, DonQui makes the acquaintance of a rather pleasant Yuengling Lager. Claiming to be from the oldest brewery in America it has a slight amber colour and more taste than your average lager. Apparently Mr Yuengling is a Trump supporter so although he enjoys the brew, DonQui will not make a habit of drinking it very often.

 

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With its eclectic furnishings…

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…and great view over the Intra-Coastal Waterway,  Le Tub seems the perfect place for a burger and beer.

Apparently Le Tub’s burgers were at some point voted by readers of GQ Magazine as the best in America, so DonQui decides to sample one. With 13 ounces of meat, the burger is not for the faint of heart but it is truly delicious.

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Although a bit out of the way to the south of Fort Lauderdale, DonQui is very glad to have been guided to Le Tub.

It is a perfect place to while away an afternoon in the Florida sun.

Cheese, Wine and Beer

No matter how good a meal has been, for DonQui, a good cheese course is often his favourite part of a long leisurely dinner.

Cheese and wine simply go together. It is for this reason he always takes cheese before desert, prolonging the savoury tastes and finishing off the wine at the same time.

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DonQui’s previously mentioned the superb cheese board at Domain de Barive’s Restaurant des Epicuriens. Before leaving he wants to try it again and he asks the sommelier to choose a glass of wine for him to accompany his cheese.

The sommelier peers over the cheeses DonQui has selected, thinks for one moment, pauses for a second, then makes a most interesting suggestion.

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Given the wide variety of cheese flavours DonQui has selected, the sommelier says that no one wine would go perfectly with all. What DonQui needs is three different accompanying drinks. DonQui silently tots up his alcohol tolerance, bearing in mind he had a glass with a previous course and a beer before the meal.

The sommelier reassures DonQui, telling him that for the price of one glass he could have three small ones. This seems like something worth trying.

DonQui had anticipated the sommelier would appear with red wines with his cheeses, or perhaps two reds and one white. He could not have been more wrong.

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To go with his local cheeses (on the left of the photo), he is brought a honey-coloured ‘biere du garde’ — a special ‘keeping’ brew from northern France which is reminiscent of some Belgian Trappist beers. There is champagne for the soft goats’ cheese (centre of photo) and a white wine from the Pyrenees to go with the Italian provolone and creamy Pyrenean white cheese (right of photo).

It all feels very indulgent but then DonQui likes to indulge himself. Left to his own devices he probably would have gone for a familiar hearty red wine for his cheese. He is glad that he did not. Not only were the sommelier’s choices absolutely perfect but they opened DonQui’s eyes to other new possibilities.

Great Food and Wine

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For his second meal at Domain de Barive’s Restaurant des Épicuriens DonQui has the time to experience the full set menu. It is utterly superb – each dish an absolute delight.

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After as relaxing Leffe beer on the terrace, which comes with a selection of tasty nibbles, DonQui makes his way to the restaurant where he orders the Menu Château.

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The meal is preceded with a ‘petite touch de salé…’ or ‘amuse-bouche’.

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Along with this there are a selection of breads and two different locally produced butters.

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DonQui chooses the Melon with Maroilles (a local semi-soft white cheese) as his starter.

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Then comes the Scorpion fish with polenta and a tomato-basil sauce.

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Followed by the most exquisite duck breast.

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Feeling that the expansive cheese board would be a bit too much, DonQui opts for the Faisselle (a soft fresh cheese). There are two options for this — savoury, with herbs and shallots, or sweet with fruit coulis. DonQui goes for the sweet option.

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Finally comes an incredible apricot desert.

Each course is a  absolute delight. The amounts are just enough to savour the tastes but not so much as to feel too full afterwards. Apart from the bread there are few carbohydrates. This allows DonQui to fully enjoy every course and not feel bloated afterwards.

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Des Épicuriens offers a wide selection of wines by the glass. DonQui leaves the choices up to the young sommelier who suggests a different wine to suit each of the courses DonQui has ordered. His choices are excellent and DonQui is very glad that he went along with the sommelier’s suggestions. Despite a reasonable acquaintance with French wines, many of those on offer are quite unknown to DonQui. This allows him to sample wines that otherwise he may never have tried. The pairings with each course are perfect.

Personally DonQui is better than some which can show off a Michelin star or two. Too often he finds the food at many starred places a bit too fussy as the chef shows off his clever tricks. Here one gets an excellent modern take on great classic French food, alongside very knowledgeable and friendly service, in an atmospheric setting.

A Hot Day in Naples

It is 36º in Naples. Far too hot for DonQui to consider doing much of anything at all.

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Fortunately his hotel — the rather nice Excelsior on the pedestrianised seafront promenade Via Partenope — is nicely air-conditioned. It also has great views over the bay of Naples, with Mt Vesuvius and Capri in the distance, and the Castel dell’Ovo and harbour in the foreground.

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DonQui is quite happy, therefore, to spend the heat of the day simply lazing around the hotel.

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Lunch at the hotel terrace restaurant is pretty good too, if a little on the pricy side.

The Castel dell’Ovo is worth a visit. Not only is it free but the the thick sandstone walls keep the passageways very cool — even in the blistering Naples heat. Although dating back to Roman times, the restored fortification has a distinct 15th century appearance.

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The views from the top are quite magnificent.

Once the worst of the midday heat is passed, DonQui trots out onto the Via Partenope to take a look around his immediate neighbourhood.

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Some of the locals have taken to the water but this is not something DonQui is tempted to do, knowing of the bay’s pretty awful reputation for water quality.

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Naples is not an elegant city. It is chaotic, hectic and ill-disciplined. Although not as dirty and litter-strewn as DonQui remembers it from years ago, the city is still pretty dilapidated in parts.

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Yet it has its own charm – a bit like a naughty child who gets away with mischief due to a cute smile.

Although the city may not be elegant, the Neapolitans, like most Italians, most certainly are.

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Just around the corner from apartments with crumbling facades…

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… are many chic shops and boutiques catering to the well dressed denizens of the city.

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As the sun starts to go down the streets come to life, first for a bit of early evening shopping, then an aperitivo at a favourite bar, followed by a stroll along the promenade and then maybe a little dinner.

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DonQui feels lucky to have found the Officina Bistro, just around the corner from his hotel on Via Santa Lucia for his aperitivo.

 

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Here he sips on an Aperol spritz, nibbles on the various little snacks that are offered and watches the pantomime of Neapolitan street life acted out in front of him.

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By getting here a little early (around 19:00) he and Duchess are able to secure a prime table outside. By 8pm there is a waiting list for tables with many people seated on one of the several benches awaiting their turn.

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The Via Partenope fills with people as the sun sets. Many just taking a stroll, others deciding on which of the many eateries to try out for dinner. There is even a ‘silent party’ with revellers listening and dancing to the music pumped out by 3 DJs over wireless headphones.

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DonQui only spends a day in Naples and as readers can tell he does not really do very much at all. That is probably the best way to spend a hot day in Naples.