Da Vittorio

A 20th anniversary, while you happen to be in north Italy for the holidays was as good an excuse as any to visit 3 Michelin-starred Da Vittorio, just outside Bergamo.

We arrived at dusk and settled in to our room. Here’s the view:

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The hotel was fairly tasteful and the service exceptional. We were very well taken care of. After a brief rest we went down to the dining room. The table lamps were fun.

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Less fun was the fact that the spotlight shining onto my table was above and behind my head, casting a shadow over whatever dish was put in front of me. I guess it’s not always easy to know where to place spots when the tables may often be moved around to accommodate different numbers of diners, but it’s a minor irritant for those of us (i.e. everyone, these days) who like to take pictures of their dinner.

We took a look at the menus and wavered between the fishy menu and the truffly menu. My wife chose the truffles, and it would have felt weird anyway to be up in the mountains three hours from the coast and order fish (although I’m sure it’s perfectly fine).

Just as we were choosing, the waiters came along and offered a sniff of their truffle box, as if to say “Go on, you want the truffle menu, don’t you?” I notice they didn’t bring along a box of fresh fish for us to smell. Also, my wife got to inhale the tuberous odour but I was roundly ignored.

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Decision made, we got started on the starters. Spelt soup with sea snails, and pumpkin cream with goat’s cheese and bacon.

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A cannolo filled with ricotta crumble and chestnuts, topped with truffle shavings.

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Cauliflower, scampi, egg yolk, mushroom and potato cream, with a croissant. We were encouraged to view this as a breakfast, and to dunk our croissant into the savoury “cappuccino”. Nice.

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Mushroom and celery consommé, topped with a foie gras disc which we had to push down into the liquid inside the cup. And some truffle.

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Service was mostly fine throughout the meal, with a couple of minor hiccoughs. One of the waiters seemed to take himself rather seriously and was fairly solemn throughout. But my wife kept commenting on the fact that his jacket was too tight (and not in a sexy way). The other, more junior staff member was a bit more relaxed and friendly. I’m not sure whose fault it was, but they served one of the wine selection with the wrong course. It felt weird as we drank it after the consommé, as the sweet, strong alcohol clashed with the delicate flavours of the food. They realised their mistake and apologised, replacing it with a glass of the correct wine. So basically we got a glass of the “wrong” wine for free.

The only other complaint we had was that they were still playing Christmas songs on the restaurant sound system, even though it was already January 3rd, which just felt wrong. On the other hand it was the first time I’d heard Cliff Richard and Shakin’ Stevens being played in Italy.

Linguine with hazelnut crumble and truffles.

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The food had been coming fairly thick and fast, which we usually prefer, but this time it was a bit rushed and although we didn’t say anything, I think one of the constantly loitering waiters noticed our expressions as another dish arrived (as if to say “Wow, so soon? Give me a chance to catch my breath”), and so gently suggested that we might like a short pause.

With the next course we had a spectacular Barolo, which was even better on the nose than the palate. In fact I had quite a lot to drink that evening, and I felt it the next morning. The sommelier was fine, although he basically just read the labels to us and didn’t offer any kind of explanation or tasting notes.

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Semolina gnocco with parmesan foam. And truffle.

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Perhaps my favourite dish of the night, due to the robust flavours and textures after a series of rather, soft, creamy dishes: veal fillet with potato and foie gras.

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As it was the holidays they offered us a few small slices of home-made pandoro and panettone with ice cream and chocolate. Then came the brioche with whipped cream and truffle.

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And that was it for the truffles. On reflection, we probably should have gone either à la carte or for the fish course. Truffle is fine if used sparingly and as an ingredient, but when just shaved on top of another dish the flavour doesn’t really come through and it feels like eating small discs of musty paper. It reminded me a bit of a similar meal we’d had in Piedmont some years before.

Dessert: “fig” of ricotta and chocolate crumble.

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The most fun presentation of the evening: a candy floss mountain featuring various little sweets. I picked at the candy floss for quite a while.

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MORE sweets.

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They did have a cheese trolley, but I wasn’t given the option, maybe because we chose the extensive truffle menu? It’s probably just as well, as I couldn’t have fit it in, but I’d like to have been asked.

And then we waddled up to bed and slept like babies. The next morning outside the breakfast room I noticed this amazingly well decorated marzipan version of the staff as they celebrate their restaurant’s 50th anniversary.

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Hertog Jan: The End

At the start of this year I read online that what I consider to be the best restaurant in Belgium, and even one of the best in the world, was closing down. The partners who run Hertog Jan announced that they would close their doors at the end of 2018. Their reasoning is one I’ve heard before in this industry, along the lines of “We’ve reached the top and achieved all we set out to achieve, so now it’s time to try something new”.

Having eaten there twice before, we snapped up the opportunity to go a third and final time. We arrived on foot, as our lodgings were only a 15-minute walk away. We settled in, please to see that we’d been given the table by the window, like last time. The restaurant filled up quickly; both it and the B’n’B are fully booked until the end of the year.

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We chose the special menu which was a kind of “greatest hits” package of the chef’s favourite dishes, plus wine, and we got a free recipe book thrown in.

Before the menu proper we received five amuse-bouches, and because Gert De Mangeleer is a millennial the first one was avocado, with tomato powder, salt and olive oil.

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Marinated cucumber strips curled around salmon with a jus of champagne and dill oil.

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Pork and pickles. There was a surprisingly large lump of meat under the pork scratching layer on top.

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Potato purée, vanilla, coffee and mimolette cheese. We’d had this one last time too.

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At this point we were invited into the kitchen (no special treatment: everyone had their turn) for a brief look at the prep work.

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While there we were handed our final amuse-bouche: passion fruit meringue containing goose liver and Coca-Cola.

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We were then invited to walk around the gardens with a glass of lemonade. As you can see it’s a serious herb and vegetable plot.

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The red tiled roof is the kitchen; the black low building is the restaurant.

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It was nice to get some fresh air, but it was quite fresh so we didn’t tarry and went back inside for the starters.

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Caviar and plankton on dill-dusted crisps.

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The sun came out just in time for the next dish: sea bass with herbs from the garden, tomatoes, radishes and oil infused with Balinese kaffir lime.

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Pumpkin dim sum with cream of langoustine and a dollop of passion fruit.

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Grilled white asparagus with potato purée and cod roe.

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Guinea fowl with herbs, sorrel and morel mushroom. Perhaps the most plate-lickable dish of the evening. The sauce was amazing.

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The main course: wagyu beef and spicy peppers hiding underneath mushroom discs. The orange blobs are Bernadine sauce (basically béarnaise but with added tomato).

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While my wife opted for the cheese plate I had raspberry mousse with vanilla and rose water.

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And finally, a surprisingly thick and chewy caramel sheet over passion fruit and chocolate.

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At the end of the meal one of the partners stopped by for a chat and discussed their future plans, which are still in flux, but which may include a more traditional Belgian-style bistro back in their initial location nearer Brugge. Whatever they do next, Hertog Jan will be missed, and I’m glad we got to go once, let alone three times.

Itadakemasu!

I’ve already blogged about food experiences in Japan, so I won’t repeat (m)any of those observations here. As before, this is a fairly random collection of foods and restaurants from our recent trip, with no overall theme or message.

One of the first places we ate in was chosen with the kids in mind, and the food was probably the least important part of the experience. Kawaii Monster Café is located in Harajuku, and is probably a perfect distillation of the kind of colourful, playful pop culture for which that Tokyo district is best known. It sits on the top floor of a shopping mall on the main street, and the queue to enter is usually quite long. I’d managed to book a table in advance and so we walked right in, and as soon as the doors opened the loudness (both in terms of music and colour) hit us right in the face.

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This should give a better idea:

In the centre of the room sits a cake-shaped podium. These ladies spend most of the time wandeing around, posing for photos with the diners, but once you’ve finished eating they climb aboard the cake and spend about 15 minutes dancing to loud J-pop songs. But even louder was the hostess who spent the almost the entire duration of their routine screeching into a microphone. I have no idea what she was saying but I don’t think I missed much of any importance.

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The food itself is colourful but bland. Basically fast food with added psychedelic colouring.

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Although I like the idea of a dessert that looks like it’s trying to eat you.

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Go for the novelty and the “vibe”, not the food.

Coffee is easy to find in Japan. Good coffee, not so easy. Even the Starbucks drinks taste a little different there, and when we were on the go I usually found it easier to just grab one from a machine. Kind of disgusting if you’re expecting it to taste like normal coffee, and usually very sweet, but I developed a bit of a habit nonetheless. Also, I know that in some places frappuccino is a thing, but Japan is the only place I’ve been where they systematically ask you when you order a coffee if you want it hot or cold.

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One drink they do well, obviously, is saké. At dinner one night we were served saké “sosogi-koboshi” style, which basically means that the glass is filled until it overflows into a little box underneath. The origins of this practice are shrouded in mystery and some people object to it for hygiene reasons. I didn’t object and greedily slurped it all up. Further explanations here.

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In the same restaurant the menu was an interesting read. There was some discussion about the difference between “guts” and “entrails”, and puzzlement over “entrails upwards”. My personal favourite is the contrast between danger and delicacy in the description “Shark cartilage dressed with plum pulp”.

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I also like number 10 below, which manages to be both very specific and frustratingly vague at the same time.

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I’ve written before about my appreciation for okonomiyaki, and in Hiroshima I got to try a local variation. Most of the recipe is the same, with savoury pancakes, shredded cabbage, some optional extras like bacon and cheese.

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But in Hiroshima they also add a layer of fried noodles in the middle, before topping it all with a brushful of that dark, sweet okonomi sauce.

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Sashimi is pretty.

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Especially when served in a mirrored bowl.

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Tempura too, although I’m more used to seeing shrimp and beans than these strangely formed mushrooms:

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Finally, we wandered one night just off the fringes of Shinjuku, into a neighbourhood of narrow lanes full of small bars and even smaller restaurants. We chose a ramen noodle bar.

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We were told to wait outside in the adjacent alleyway until some space freed up.

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Inside there was room for about ten diners. Note the tissue boxes above their heads.

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The options were limited and basically consisted of minor variations on a bowl of noodles topped with pork. Prices depended on the quality of pork used, and whether or not you wanted some extra toppings. The waiter punched your order into this machine and you paid by inserting cash. The priciest dish on the menu: the “Super Golden Unbelievable Niboshi Ramen”, is around €12.

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This picture behind the bar gave you some idea of what to expect. I’m sure it says lots of other things too but I can’t read kanji.

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Served with a large sheet of nori (pressed, dried seaweed). The broth was amazingly rich and tasty, the noodles slightly al dente (you could choose how soft or hard you wanted them when you placed your order). Very satisfying.

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Villa Lorraine

We’ve tried to go to Villa Lorraine three times (by the way, you may notice from their website that they also own Villa in the Sky). The first time we had to cancel because my wife was feeling unwell. The second time we had to cancel at the last minute because our car broke down on the way there. This time we both felt fit and well and so did our car, so we made it safe and sound.

Villa Lorraine has been around for a while, and somewhat like Comme Chez Soi its reputation stagnated a little in recent years, only to make a comeback following the appointment of a young new head chef. We arrived and were greeted by a rather elderly valet who insisted on parking our car for us even though we met him in the tiny car park behind the restaurant and he only had to move it a few metres for us into a parking space.

Once inside we chose the longest tasting menu, with wine, and sat back to enjoy the amuse-bouches. All were delicious. Squid ink cracker, foie gras

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Little fried dumplings of cauliflower and aioli.

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Sardine, avocat, vodka tonic.

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Gazpacho with cherries, a burrata sorbet and drops of oregano.

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Lobster, beetroot, crunchy little coffee-flavoured puffs.

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Frogs legs with pecorino and a cress cream.

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Sole with umeboshi (small Japanese pickled fruits) and apricot butter.

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Rabbit three ways, one of which was a slightly greasy, crunchy samosa.

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CHEESE! It’s been a while since I had a decent cheese selection from a trolley, and this one didn’t disappoint. The waiter explained what every single cheese was and then we chose five each. He laid them out on the plate in a specific order and told us to eat them clockwise. The sommelier said that we could have a glass of red wine with it, or if we were feeling daring we could go with his suggestion: saké. Of course I felt daring, and I was rewarded with a surprisingly flavourful and strong glass of saké.

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Sorbet with cardamom and orange.

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Strawberries with gold on them. And little floppy tubes full of cream.

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Nibbles to go with the coffee.

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Pretty good. Glad we finally made it. Although I think Villa in the Sky is probably a little better.

White Rabbit

When researching dining options for our trip to Moscow I came across a reference to a place which had been mentioned in Restaurant magazine’s annual “The World’s 50 Best” survey (it’s currently at number 23). Once I’d checked with our friend that it was the kind of place she’d like, she booked a table and off we went to White Rabbit. The name suggests an “Alice In Wonderland” theme, but I was relieved to find that, apart from the odd painting on the wall and a repeated rabbit motif on stationery this wasn’t the case.

It’s located at the top of a skyscraper just outside the centre of Moscow. You enter the ground floor through a shopping mall and take the elevator up to the 16th floor where a spectacular view awaits. We were asked if we’d like a table next to the window to which we replied “DUH”, and after a quick stroll around to take photos of the skyline we took our seats.

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We’d arrived slightly early but this was just as well as it allowed us more sunset-ogling time before darkness fell.

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The tasting menu. One of our party was unsure about some of the items on this list but we talked her into it, and the restaurant kindly removed any crustacean element from certain dishes at her request.

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The fag page at the end of the menu. Seems strange to order cigarettes when they won’t let you actually smoke them inside the restaurant (and you’d have to go down 16 floors in order to step outside).

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We started with a cocktail. Chili Margarita (Tequila, thai chili pepper, avocado, agave syrup):

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Drunk Bumblebee (Vodka, propolis, Limoncello, basil, pineapple, lemon, fructose):

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White Rabbit (Red currants, apple whipped with sake, apple liqueur, carrot):

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First amuse-bouche: pear, mead, caviar.

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Duck liver, chestnut honey and truffle.

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Wafer thin bread and a cream of Gouda with flakes of dried salmon.

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Carrot and rapberry water.

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Ryazhenka (which is basically a kind of yoghurt known as “baked milk”). Foie gras underneath, and topped with a block of pastila, which is a kind of Russian fruity marshmallow, made using the dried apple flesh left over after they’ve been pressed for juice.

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And then along came the nice lady with the blowtorch.

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Birch bread with herring milt and hare forschmack (a kind of salted, minced meat). I like the idea of bread and butter served as an actual course rather than sitting on the side throughout the meal.

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On to the “proper” courses, although many of them were the same size as the amuse-bouches. Shchi (cabbage broth) with smoked herring. Pre-broth:

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Post-broth:

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Onion, white chocolate, sea urchin. Weird. Yummy.

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One of the highlights: crab, carrot, pike caviar, and salted egg yolk which was strangely chewy but very nice indeed.

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Kundyum (a kind of baked dumpling) containing moose lips and nettle.

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Cod, sour malt and spelt (I’m never sure how to spell that). Quite sour but not unpleasantly so.

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The final main course, and the only one I couldn’t really rave about: beef ribs cooked in kvass (a fermented beverage made from rye bread) with onion and mushroom. The emulsion was very sticky and sweet, and the “salad” a bit slimy and tepid.

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Tea and a medlar sorbet.

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Borodinsky bread flavoured ice cream with sour cream and sea water. So sour, sweet and salty all at once; I was the only one at our table who liked this.

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The inevitable nose course. Three porcelain proboscides, each impregnated with a different scent based on a dish from the tasting menu. We were asked which we preferred.

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Based on our answer we were then gifted a small bottle of the relevant scent.

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Service was very good, and our waitress explained the history and sources of each recipe. Many of the dishes involved rediscovering traditional Russian foods which had been forgotten in the rush to embrace exotic foreign foods in recent years such as sushi and Italian food. Chef Vladimir Mukhin was recently profiled on the Netflix series Chef’s Table and you see him making trips out to the countryside to visit farmers and old ladies cooking traditional dishes in their homes. He also notes, interestingly, that this type of food regained popularity in recent years not only through his efforts, but also out of necessity as certain foods couldn’t be imported any more due to the sanctions imposed following the annexation of Crimea.

As yet there is no Michelin guide to Russia, but White Rabbit deserves at least 2 stars.

Han Ting in The Hague

We only went to The Hague to eat dinner, but almost as soon as we arrived we wished we’d booked a longer stay. Our hotel was located right on the main shopping street, a wide, pedestrianised area full of interesting architecture and wacky sculpture. This is our hotel:
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This is the department store just opposite. Note the large bird head at right. The next building along had a line of them all around the first floor.

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This gauzy wrapping reminded me a little of the famous Dancing House I saw in Prague.

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Bikes, because Netherlands.

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The aforementioned sculptures on the main street. This is one of the more normal-looking ones (it’s the one on the right).

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We only had a couple of hours spare before dinner, which would have been a bit tight to try and squeeze in one of the admittedly tempting arts and culture highlights such as the Escher museum (by the way it was only on this trip that I realised that Escher was Dutch, and so his name should be pronounced closer to ‘Esker’ than ‘Esher’, as I had always done). So we just spent the early evening wandering the back streets, mentally noting other promising lunch options for future visits.

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Han Ting is a Chinese-French fusion restaurant which this year received its first Michelin star.

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The decor leans heavily on the Chinese aspect, although the food was actually more Frenchified than I expected.

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We went for the “Tea menu”. I chose wine pairings and my wife went for tea pairings, for the sake of novelty (and sobriety).

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We were given chopsticks, but ended up using western cutlery for most dishes, as a lot of them involved creams and foams and other types of slippery liquid.

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Amuse-bouches, from the top: celery foam, “duck stomach”, tofu roll, cold mackerel soup.

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Veal with cauliflower cream and shaved macadamia nut.

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Bread. Steamed, with pieces of shallot (the dark brown spot in the middle).

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Our drinks. Can you tell which is the wine and which is the tea? The sommelier introduced each tea with some spiel about how each one interacted with the hot or cold “energy” of the dish, according to Chinese dietary theory. Whatever. They were nice, if all a bit samey.

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This one was definitely the highlight of the evening. The purple swirl is eel marinated in beetroot, and there’s salmon underneath the white layer, which is rice paper. The orange lumps are pumpkin. Bursting with flavour.

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We were then given a small bowl of sticky rice and crème fraîche as a palate cleanser. It works in terms of refreshing your mouth after the bold flavours of the previous dish, but for me was a little too filling, compared to a sorbet.

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Sea bream, razor clam. Beautiful and with a welcome spicy kick.

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Sole marinated in ketchup (the red piece at the top).  And another sole fillet with goji berries and celery. Slightly overpowered by the mango sauce.

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On the side was a small dish of bone marrow and panko. Not a big fan of bone marrow, and the abiding impression was of a mouthful of crunchy panko and not much else.

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Back on track with the main meat course: beautifully cooked beef with shiitake mushrooms and Jack Daniels.

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Dessert. A bit of everything: fruit, ice cream, panna cotta, macaroon, popcorn.

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All very nice and pretty reasonably priced at €65 for the full menu (without drinks).

The following morning we just had time for a walk along the sea front before heading home. Note the handy signs, a different one every twenty metres or so, for lost children to help them find their parents again.

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More wacky sculpture.

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And some persistent bathers. What do they think this is, summer?

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Fortunately The Hague is only a little over two hours by car from Brussels, so it’ll be easy to come back again some day soon.

Les Crayères

A hard morning looking at trees and stained glass certainly builds up an appetite, so for lunch on our last day in Champagne we’d foreseen a trip to a little place on the outskirts of Reims called Les Crayères. In fact we’d only found it after we’d booked our hotel in Épernay; otherwise we’d have been tempted to lodge there too.

We arrived for lunch at 1pm and settled in at the bar with a glass of fizz and some nibbles while we perused the menu options.

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We chose the ‘Découverte’. There was another, more expensive option, but it only seemed to be more expensive because of the use of ingredients like lobster and caviar, which don’t particularly excite me.

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Our first amuse-bouche once we were seated in the dining room was a mousse of strawberry, tomato and lemon balm.

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The proper dishes all arrived covered with silver domes (“cloches”). I’m still surprised whenever I see one of these things being used. They seem so old-fashioned.

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Foi gras poached in rosé champagne.

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One of the best cod dishes I’ve ever eaten (even in spite of the lack of batter and chips).

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Courgette flower stuffed with quail meat and foie gras.

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An interesting twist on the cheese course, using a local cheese called Chaource. Basically a cheese mouse with lumps of harder cheese inside.

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I wasn’t drinking because I had the three-hour drive home straight after the meal, but the table next to ours was taking up the slack. The table of four consisted of a man probably in his seventies and four young men in their twenties, speaking a language I didn’t recognise. I wasn’t sure of the relationship between them (professor and students? Boss and employees?), but he certainly liked his wine and had long discussions with the sommelier before each bottle was brought out.

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A creamy pre-dessert.

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And then the Piña Colada soufflé. We’d already seen this being served at another table so I knew to get ready to film the process:

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As desserts go it was pretty big, but light as a feather. All that was left was a few petits fours, although our waiter actually forgot about them until we gently reminded him after we’d finished our coffee.

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