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.

A Big Fat Goose Egg

Geese.jpgLiving on a farm with a flock of geese gives DonQui the opportunity to try a goose egg for breakfast. Geese do not lay a lot of eggs and they usually only do so in Spring. Geese are stubborn, independent creatures and so far humans have not yet found a way to factory-farm them. This is why you are unlikely to find goose eggs in your local supermarket and why a Christmas goose is so much more expensive than a mass-produced turkey.

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Goose eggs are big — at least twice the size of a hen’s egg and they have a very hard shell. Any attempt to gently crack them on the edge of a bowl is unlikely to succeed. DonQui uses a heavy knife.

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There is a much higher yolk to white ratio in a goose egg and the white is more glutinous. DonQui has heard that they make good omelettes or scrambled eggs. He opts for the latter.

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DonQui prepares the egg as he would a couple of hen’s eggs, beating it up well and then adding a touch of water to thin the mixture slightly as he senses that the beaten goose egg is quite a bit heavier than hen’s egg.

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He cooks it as normal, in a small pot with butter and a little bit of salt.

The result looks very similar to normal scrambled eggs, if a little more yellow thanks to the high yolk to white ratio.

So how does it taste?

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The taste is similar but slightly different. The constituency is much denser so perhaps he should have added a bit more water to the beaten egg. He could have added milk instead but he thinks this would not have lightened it as much as water.

He enjoys it and is glad to have experienced goose egg for the first time. That said he prefers scrambled hen’s eggs. Perhaps next time he should try an omelette?

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.

A Fine Domain in France

Needing to spend some time deep in the countryside of northern France, DonQui looks around for a good place to stay.

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Not far from the medieval city of Laon, he stumbles upon the Domaine de Barive. It is a great find.

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Set in in its own grounds amongst farmland, miles from anywhere it is approached by a long lane lined with poplars. With spa, outdoor terraces and a highly rated restaurant it looks like just the sort of place DonQui can enjoy a few days of tranquil contemplation along with a good meal or two.

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His room is comfortable and spacious. The bathtub even comes with its own rubber ducks, for those who go for that sort of thing.

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Breakfast is a typical French offering, made special by the fine selection of fresh, locally baked breads and pastries along with homemade jams. There is even champagne available along with juices, coffee and other hot drinks.

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Best of all is the Restaurant des Epicuriens. DonQui arrives late after a horribly long wait for his rental car from the very inefficient Avis counter at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport.

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As in most French restaurants, the set menus offer very good value for money but at 9pm DonQui does not feel like a full 4-5 course meal so he orders a la carte, choosing the ‘turbot en trançon’ (turbot filets with spinach in a crispy phyllo pastry) with kumquats and mushrooms in a champagne cream sauce.  It is utterly delicious.

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To finish off he opts for a selection of cheeses from the very tempting cheese board. The choices are so overwhelming that DonQui leaves it up to the very pleasant waitress to help him with his selections.

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Very knowledgeable and helpful, she suggests a sampling of 5 different cheeses, all of which are perfectly ripe, providing a wide range of different flavours.

Off for some winter sun

IMG_9786.jpgThe first snow drops may be on their way…

Adnams-Jack-Brand-Mosaic-Pale-Ale-label.jpg… And Don Qui’s favourite Mosaic summer ale may be back on tap at his local.

Both of these are signs that Spring must be just around the corner. But it does not feel like it.

DonQui is heartily sick of the long cold, grey, damp, winter and so he has decided to head off to find some winter sun.

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His flight leaves from Gatwick Airport in the morning. Not being a great early morning animal he decides to stay overnight at the Bloc Hotel which is right inside Gatwick’s Terminal 2 by the departure gates from where his British Airways flight will be departing in the morning.

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A Weatherspoons’ pub is not the sort of establishment Don Qui would normally frequent. There are not any better options so not expecting much Don Qui goes inside in search of some refreshment. While far from gourmet, it is surprisingly OK and reasonable value for money.

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The Bloc Hotel is clean, functional, modern and has a few nice touches. Don Qui has stayed here before and finds the handy location by the departure gates more than make up for the somewhat utilitarian surroundings.

Good eating in London

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It is easy to eat well in London if one has lots of dosh.

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It is even easier to come away from an eating establishment feeling either ripped off or having had to make do with sub-standard food of dubious origins and even more dubious cooking techniques.

If you know where to go, this wonderful cosmopolitan city offers an incredible variety of fantastic foods influenced by every country around the globe.

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DonQui is a bit of a francophile and if push comes to shove, he has to admit that French food and style are almost always his first choices. There are plenty of good French restaurants in London, partly down to the hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen and women who have made London their home in recent times. This is not a new phenomenon. French exiles came to London in their hundreds of thousands at the time of the Huguenot exodus in the 17th century. Kettners in Soho (which sadly closed earlier this year after 149 years) was founded by Napoleon III’s chef in the 1800s while the French House, just around the corner, was the unofficial headquarters of de Gaulle and the French resistance during the Second World War.

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For a simple, high quality, meal in the west end of London, Prix Fixe is DonQui’s first choice. On Dean Street in the heart of Soho it offers French brasserie style food and ambiance at very reasonable prices. The pre-7pm menu has 2 courses for just over £10 while the later fixed menu has 3 courses for £25. DonQui has eaten here many times in the past and tonight he is delighted to find that the quality and ambiance remains as good as ever.

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Being a notorious gourmand, DonQui opts to shell out the £3 supplement for the foie gras terrine starter and he feels that it is worth every extra penny.

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Another supplement (£6 this time) lands him with a main course of entrecôte steak frites. Ordered medium rare the steak is beautifully seared on the outside while remaining pink and juicy in the middle. The frites are proper French fries — thin and wonderfully crisp while still soft on the inside. DonQui’s only complaint (and this is his finicky taste buds rather than a mistake in the kitchen) is the mustard dressing on the lovely green salad. Unfortunately DonQui has a near allergic reaction to mustard.

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Washed down with an excellent glass of Côtes du Rhône and finished off with an adffogato (an Italian classic rather than a French one) DonQui once again enjoys a wonderful meal in a relaxing atmosphere while watching the streets of Soho come to life as night falls.

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When it comes time to pay the bill, DonQui feels that he has had great value for money. He will come again.

On a Swedish Island

In the dog days of summer DonQui finds himself in Stockholm. He likes the Swedish capital. It is nicely compact with a great mix of old and modern.

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Having been to Stockholm a few times before, DonQui decides to spend some time on one of the islands in the huge, picturesque Stockholm archipelago. After a bit of searching on the internet he settles on Grinda. It is far enough away from Stockholm to have a sense of remoteness and offers a mix of camping, cabins, hotel and restaurant.

As regular readers will know, DonQui is a bit of an urban donkey. The outdoors is all well and fine as long as there is a good pub or eatery at the end of the trail. He feels relatively reassured by the fact that the Grinda Wärdshus restaurant has a good reputation. Duchess is even more reassured by the offering of proper rooms as well as camping options.

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Navigating the ferry system took some organisation. DonQui was informed by the kindly man at the Strömkajen quay in central Stockholm that all he needed to do was turn up and pay on board. No reservations required or even accepted. All went swimmingly well apart from the fact that the weather decided to turn positively autumnal. The boat left precisely on time and had plenty of space. The two hour journey from Stockholm to Grinda is comfortable and gives great views of the archipelago as it winds its way from island to island.

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DonQui had booked a cabin on Grinda and was assured that bedding and towels could be hired on arrival. Unfortunately on arrival there is no-one and nothing to greet him other than the trees and a cool gentle rain. Trotting up the forest trail he comes upon a hut which is locked up tight at 5pm even thought the sign says open until 6. A small box holds the keys to his cabin along with a rather hopeless hand-drawn map.

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By the time DonQui finds the cabin, a rustic little place nestled amongst the pine and birch trees, Duchess is muttering about finding more suitable accommodation. Apparently unable to get his hands on any bedding, DonQui is inclined to agree.

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A further trek through the forest brings DonQui to a clearing overlooked by the promised Wardhaus refuge. He notes that those with more cash than he are arriving by helicopter rather than boat.

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Although it is still technically summer, a warm fire takes the chill off the evening. After a particularly fine dinner and the offer of a comfortable room in one of the outbuildings DonQui begins to feel quite at home.

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The island is truly beautiful with excellent trails through the boreal forest with its atmospheric ice-age moss and lichen covered rocks. It is nearly impossible to wander through it without stories of trolls, elves and fairies immediately coming to mind.

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The landscape reminds DonQui of central Canada where he grew up, although the water is salt rather than fresh.

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At the end of August/early September there is a decided end-of-season feel to the island. With very few humans to be seen this increases the sense of tranquility. However, the places to buy supplies are shut up with ‘closed for the season’ signs. DonQui had not been warned of this in advance and he felt his vision of a campfire dinner in front of his cabin rapidly diminishing.

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Never mind. At lunch-time he heads for the little dock where a café by the water beckons. The chalk-board sign is promising and he looks forward to a beer and light snack as the sun has replaced the rain of the previous day.

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Unfortunately a chain and lock proclaim the place firmly closed for the season.

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DonQui is not deterred by the lack of amenities. He could have had these had he remained in Stockholm. The tranquility offered by the late August off-season more than compensates.

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Long walks through the woods, discovering beautiful isolated places is why DonQui came to Grinda in the first place.

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The clear blue-black water of the Baltic Sea looks rather cold. DonQui quickly banishes any ideas of having a swim, deciding instead that the water is best admired from a respectful distance.

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DonQui looks rather worried as he is transported from the water’s edge to a place of safety where he will not risk getting his hooves wet in the frigid sea.

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Although the clouds pushing in from the west temporarily banish the blue skies, for most of his stay on the island the sun manages to break through to warm the cool northern air.

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When the sun goes down the temperature drops rapidly but the views from the shelter of the restaurant are quite spectacular.

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The food on offer in the restaurant is excellent. The cheeses from sheep and cattle that graze in the meadow below are particularly welcome. The wine selection is pretty good too although (this being Sweden) the prices make DonQui’s eyes water.

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His drink of choice over the next few days is the rather excellent Swedish Sleepy Bulldog beer. True to its name a half pint seems to put him in the mood for a brief nap.

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Three days later, DonQui boards the boat back to Stockholm having had a truly enjoyable time. In retrospect he is glad that he stayed on Grinda when it was technically off-season even if it was late August. The lack of amenities were more than made up by the feeling that he had the island almost to himself.