La Buvette

We’ve had our eye on La Buvette for a while, as several other food bloggers I know have been there and have been impressed. It’s owned by (and sits directly across the street from) Cafe des Spores, Brussels’ famous mushroom restaurant, which I also haven’t been to yet but I plan to rectify that as soon as possible.

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The ground floor interior is beautifully decorated in white tile and curvy, dark wood, but when we arrived there was a photo shoot taking place down there, and they only have a handful of tables on the ground floor, so we were sent to the room on the first floor. This space had a more homely feel to it, although it was a little on the chilly side and the chairs weren’t especially comfortable.

We’d booked for 7:30 and arrived about ten minutes early, but once we were seated we were told that the kitchen didn’t open until 8, which was slightly frustrating as we could have gone somewhere else for a drink first if they’d let us know that beforehand.

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There’s only a set menu, but you have the choice between eight or ten courses (skipping those in parentheses). We opted for the full ten.

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Bread and butter arrived. We weren’t told what it was, but the butter seemed to have been flavoured with mustard seeds and herbs. It was still a little hard, and there was no plate for the bread so we got a lot of crumbs on the table, but it was very tasty. I also had a glass of an intriguingly dark and liquoricy wine whose name I can’t remember.

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First starter: asparagus with a lemon mayonnaise and dried beef. The asparagus was al dente and the lemon cream was the dominant flavour; the beef was very subtle, almost to the point of not being there.

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One small complaint I had was that we were expected to keep the same knife and fork for all of the starters, which meant that after each course I had to lick my knife clean so that the next dish didn’t taste of lemon cream, ricotta, or whatever else had been on the preceding plate. If you’re only eating a few courses I guess this is less of a problem, but for a ten course tasting menu I’d like clean cutlery, please.

Next was ricotta covered in spinach and topped with a black sesame sauce and toasted seeds. The ricotta portion (and indeed the whole dish) was larger than I expected, but very nice.

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Foie gras with radish and daikon. Also nice.

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But the next course was a flop. A raviolo containing black pudding (an intriguing idea) in a dashi broth. For some reason this was served in a deep, high-sided bowl which made it hard to reach down inside and get the raviolo out. As it was quite large I cut it in half first, but this meant that the black pudding spilled out and mixed with the dashi broth, creating a thick, lumpy mixture which I had to drink by tipping the bowl up to my mouth. This one needs to be re-thought.

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The fish course: pollock with cream of potato and sweet peas. This was not as bland as I’d feared. The peas (and a touch of yoghurt and apple mixed in with the potato cream) gave it a surprisingly sharp tang. But the potato was so liquidy that I had to use a spoon, and I could even have drunk it with a straw.

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Next, smoked eel. Tasty, but slightly spoiled by too much cold cress sauce.

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A this point we’d been there for over two hours and service had slowed down considerably. We asked them if it were at all possible to speed up (making up a story about a babysitter deadline) and to their credit they did.

Fortunately the next course was one of the best of the evening. Beautifully seasoned duck dusted with cep: a confident balance of flavours including a sweet blood orange sauce and bitter endive.

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Dessert. Goat’s milk cream with strawberries and mango ice cream. Nice, but the mango dominated a bit too much.

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Chestnut ice cream, lime ice cream, kumquat. Also nice, but not much chestnut flavour.

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And finally a chocolate cake with salted hazelnut flakes on top. The chocolate was too bitter for my taste and the flakes not salty enough. My wife didn’t finish hers.

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On balance a pretty good meal let down by a couple of bad courses and some problems with service. I’d eat there again, but I won’t exactly rush back.

Okonomiyaki

The first time I tried okonomiyaki was in Tokyo. I’d never heard of it before and as far as I’m aware it’s not the kind of thing you tend to find on the menu of Japanese restaurants outside of Japan itself. Which is a shame, because these fried savoury pancakes are one of the tastiest things I ate over there.

The recipe varies as the name essentially means “grill what you like”, and many places, like the one we visited in Tokyo, let you order a variety of ingredients and then cook them yourself on a hot plate in the centre of the table.
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Imagine my delight when we went for lunch at a Japanese friend’s house last week and I found out that she was going to make okonomiyaki for us. She even had her own electric tabletop pan! Apparently there are specialised shops in the major Japanese airports selling devices like these adapted for US and European voltage so that expats can be sure to have a taste of home whenever they want.

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Takae had prepared a mixture of shredded cabbage, onion, eggs and flour which she poured on top of the bacon she’d already allowed to brown in the bottom of the pan. She added a layer of cheese, then more of the mixture.

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Flip it.

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Serve cut into small squares, drizzled with okonomi sauce (a thick, sweet sauce like a cross between Worcestershire sauce and British brown sauce) and/or mayonnaise, and sprinkle with katsuobushi flakes. These wafer-thin slices of dried fish add a decorative touch as well as a sharp, salty flavour. One of my happiest memories of staying with a family in Tokyo is the night they prepared okonomiyaki and I watched the flakes gently dance and wave, moved by the rising heat of the freshly prepared pancakes.

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Crunchy on the outside, moist and chewy on the inside, delicious all the way through. Oh god, I can taste it now just looking at the photos.

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Thanks, Takae!

Shen Yun 2014

Last week we finally got round to seeing Shen Yun. They’ve been here a few times and we’ve always fancied going (and always thought our daughters would enjoy it too) so this year we bought four tickets. We bought the cheapest available, which were still pretty pricey, and this meant that we were sat on the balcony. However the view was pretty good, to the extent that I wonder why anyone would feel the need to pay twice as much to be any closer. It’s a pretty wide, large scale spectacle so you don’t need to be close enough to see the dancers’ skin pores anyway.

Here’s a glimpse of what the show is like:

It was all very pretty and colourful and energetic and amazingly kitsch, and comprised a mixture of classical dance and re-enactments of scenes from folklore and ancient literature performed through dance, mime, and using a large video screen to illustrate some scenes. So far, so pleasant. What came as something of a surprise was the political element which came to the fore as the performance went on. I knew beforehand that Shen Yun was an American organisation, not supported or even appreciated by the Chinese themselves, but it wasn’t until seeing the show that I realised that they were a group of Falun Gong (also known as Falun Dafa) practitioners, and they use this show not only in an attempt to revive ancient Chinese culture and legends but also to draw attention to Falun Dafa’s persecution at the hands of the Chinese state. In two separate scenes characters are shown meditating peacefully until they are accosted by sinister communist types dressed all in black, with bright red hammer and sickle logos on their backs. They are beaten up and one of them is killed. It struck a strange note after all the light-hearted capering about of the other routines, although I don’t necessarily mind a little bit of politics in my dance, and obviously they have a fair point to make.

This aspect of their work is described in much more detail in this section of their website, including descriptions of alleged attempts at sabotage of Shen Yun performances by the Chinese communist authorities.

 

Spring Bites

It’s been a couple of months since we did a big, fancy restaurant trip, so to fill the gap here are a few quick food and drink snippets from recent weeks.

A couple of weeks ago we hosted a wine-tasting evening at our place with about a dozen friends. Blog-friend and professional sommelier Barbara Summa and family came down from Amsterdam for the weekend and brought with her a large selection of wines, mostly from small producers, as well as an array of Italian nibbles (she’d even made her own focaccia). She talked us through the basics of tasting before we got stuck in, and I have a video on my phone of everyone practising making Hannibal Lecter-style slurping noises, but I’m too polite to share that here.

There was a fascinating variety of wine and everyone found something they liked, with many people buying a few bottles to take home with them. There was also some fantastic flavoured olive oil (chilli, basil, garlic, orange) to dunk the focaccia in. I was too busy drinking (I mean, tasting) to take many photos, so you’ll have to settle for a before…
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…and after.

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The following week we tried a night out at Brussels in Loft. It’s basically a pop-up restaurant which occupies someone’s loft space for a week, but this year (it started last year) the twist is that instead of local chefs they’ve invited over chefs from various European cities (with the support and sponsorship of cultural institutes). We chose Lisbon as the chef sounded interesting and we don’t have much experience of Portuguese cuisine. According to the site our chef  ‘Paulo Reffoios is the owner of the Chaminés do Palácio restaurant, recognized by Time Out as one of the “Best Restaurants in Lisbon”.’

The spacious loft was filled with arty knick-knacks and vintage furniture, much of which was supplied especially for the event and was in fact for sale (there were price lists discretely posted on the walls).

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Also posted on the wall was a menu:

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The evening’s entertainment was provided by an Argentinian-American-Spanish string trio called Trash à Cordes, who provided some very interesting and unusual classical-jazz-tango fusion sounds.

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The first dish was probably my favourite of the evening (and the worst photo, of course). Tuna tartare with onion, ginger, olive oil, soya and pistachio. Beautiful.

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The main course was pork and pineapple. The meat was surprisingly cool, but it was soft and melting and tasty.

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And for dessert we had an unusually crumbly almond cake, with moisture provided by the ‘sweet eggs’ (not entirely sure what they mean by that. Is it just egg with added sugar?)

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The food and music were excellent, and we spent a while chatting to the event organiser Manuel about this project and his other one, Open Kitchen, which runs all year long and offers private diners in people’s houses. Along with bookalokal these kinds of bespoke dining/party experiences definitely seem to be the cool thing to do at the moment, and they attract a hip young crowd (I know, so what was I doing there, right?). I’ll be interested to see how long they manage to keep it going once the novelty value fades.

Finally, we could resist the good weather no longer and had our first barbecue of the year (a barbecue in March has to be some kind of record). Ramses and Ashley came along with salads and Ashley had made a pistachio brittle. I’d never had any kind of brittle, so this was a new experience for me and I can definitely see myself getting the brittle habit. Especially with that sprinkling of coarse salt across the top. Yum.

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Zipline

We just spent a week in the Dolomites. I tried skiing but couldn’t get on with it. Even when I managed not to fall over I couldn’t see what was so exciting about it, so I stopped. But then, while browsing a brochure of the other activities available in the area, we came across a brief mention of Adrenaline Adventures, which boasts the longest zipline in Europe. I’ve never ziplined before, and am not especially keen on heights (although I don’t have full-blown vertigo), but in the absence of any other thrilling physical activities we thought we’d give it a try.

Actually I’m ok with heights as long as I’m in motion. But if I’m stood still on something high up, then I’m the one who starts wobbling and can’t look down. Anyway, I was a little nervous beforehand but once we got up onto the first platform I attained a state of zen-like calm. Two things helped. Firstly, the course is split into ten separate lines of various length, so while the full run takes almost an hour to complete there are opportunities to stop and, in theory, get off, fairly regularly. Secondly, you don’t have to step off into nothingness, or jump, or make any effort really. You just sit your weight down into the harness, lift up your feet, and let gravity do the rest. Look, like this:

 

 

 

It helped that we were doing this in a very pretty part of the world, and the view was spectacular. I’d considered filming one of the descents but in the end wanted to use my hands to hold on to the t-bar (which stops you from spinning around) and didn’t like the idea of dropping my phone into the snow 100 metres below.

There are a ton of videos on their site to give you a better idea of what it’s like to ride it. For example, this point of view sequence:

One thing’s for sure: wherever I go on holiday from now on I’ll keep my eyes peeled for ziplines.

Bookalokal: Zakouskis

On the evening of Valentine’s Day, like many people, we went out for a meal. Fortunately this was not an overpriced restaurant cashing in on lovebirds, but a bookalokal verification. Our host, Natalia, was born in Azerbaijan, and grew up in a multicultural neighbourhood where Azerbaijani, Georgian and Russian cuisines mixed freely. Add to that five years living in Israel and you can imagine what a fascinating melange her cooking offered. Her meal was described as “zakouskis”, which is the Russian term for a selection of hot and cold hors d’oeuvres or starters.

But first things first: drinks. Natalia’s husband Eugene is something of a Belgian beer connoisseur and offered me a Paix Dieu, which is an abbey beer only brewed during a full moon.

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The table was already laid and waiting for us.

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There was caviar d’aubergine, hummus, potato with beetroot and red cabbage, a red bean, nut and coriander salad, walnut and beetroot, and a spicy sauce called adjika from Georgia. Feast your eyes.

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They joked that most zakouskis from the Caucasus are basically different mixtures of a few key ingredients: garlic, coriander, beetroot and walnut. They talked happily and enthusiastically about their own cuisine and their travels and their life in Brussels as we helped ourselves to multiple servings of everything.

For the main course Natalia had prepared a dovga. This is essentially a hot soup based on yoghurt with mint, a selection of herbs, and rice.

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You then add meatballs.

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The dill, coriander and mint come through strongly, and the meatballs make it a filling main dish. Natalia explained that the zakouskis are the focus of her meal but that for the main course she also offers pilaf or stuffed cabbage.

Finally, and perhaps as a small concession to the date, there was a heart-shaped and very moreish dried fruit and nut cake.

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This was a great evening: our hosts were warmly welcoming and keen to share their culture and experiences, and the food was a revelation. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten specialities from that part of the world before, so it was a real discovery for me. And we’re keen to discover more; we’ll be back!

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The Bridge

When you’re in Copenhagen, and you’re a fan of the Swedish-Danish TV drama The Bridge, and you have friends living in Malmö whom it would be rude not to visit, it’s not a difficult decision to take the train across the Öresund bridge for the afternoon.

My original plan was to make a video of us crossing the bridge while the song from the TV series’ opening titles played on the same phone, but if you start to record a video it automatically cuts off the sound from the music player. So my wife filmed on her phone while I played the music on mine. We kept the volume down and my phone close to my wife’s so as to minimise disturbance to our fellow passengers, although they’re probably used to this sort of thing by now. Admittedly our version is less stylishly shot than the original, but it has the right shade of pale grey to evoke the atmosphere of hip Scandinavian existential angst.

Obviously you don’t get to see as much from the train as you would if you were driving, but we were carless on this trip. The journey took half an hour, and out friend Anna met us on the other side. We had a brief wander around the town centre which was fine, although understandably quiet on a Sunday morning, and then we headed for the beach. Recent high winds and high tides had left piles of stinking seaweed along the shore. In the background there you can see one of Malmö’s most famous constructions: the Turning Torso.

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The Bridge seen from the shore.

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We went for lunch at a little place at the end of the pier with Anna and Tommi. The girls used the on-site sauna and even took a bracing dip into the sea water. We boys stayed inside to sample the local microbrew.

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We drove across to their apartment which is handily located just along the road from the Torso.

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Now I feel drunk.

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Down by the waterfront are more designer flats.

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And finally the view from Anna and Tommi’s flat. It was beautiful weather by now as you can see. A very relaxing and enjoyable Sunday afternoon.

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