A BIRTHDAY IN BRUSSELS: APRIL/MAY 2005
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It had been a while since we'd had some quality time in Brussels - the last couple of years had seen many quick afternoon visits but no overnighters or weekends - so for my birthday excursion this year it got my vote for a full weekend.
Of course the best thing about going to Brussels is that we can get a train from London at 16.39, check in at your hotel, and be sitting down for dinner just after 21.30 local time in central Brussels.
In 't Spinnekopke was our venue for dinner on that first night: I went for salmon in a white beer sauce, and Theresa had a steak. Both were excellent. I had draught Cantillon Lambic and an Oerbier, the beer list being as good as ever. We really love this place, and it was a great start to the weekend. We both had gargantuan crepes with ice cream for dessert, which made sure we were completely stuffed.
First bar of the weekend was an old favourite, one that we hadn't been in for about 4 years. A l'Imaige de Nostre Dame has only about 30 beers, but as ever there are plenty of good ones, and I rounded the evening off with a Rochefort 8. This café is very simple but has a good atmosphere, especially tonight when there was some singing thing going on, which was pretty good.
Walking back to our hotel we were pleased to find it was only about a 35 minute stroll from the city centre. This time we had decided to stay in a new area of town for us, just off Avenue Louise. A superb area in which to stay, we were delighted with both the area and the hotel, the stunning Hotel Manos Premier, one of the many good hotels in Brussels that has amazing weekend deals.
Saturday: Cantillon Quintessence and Restobieres
Shortly after booking the trip, I found out about the Cantillon Quintessence. As we were going to visit the brewery anyway, this was a perfect opportunity to attend what sounded like an intriguing event. Billed as a 'walking lunch', with beers and food served around the brewery, I expected that we would maybe be in and out in an hour or so.
Wrong! We ended up being there nearly 4 hours; what a superb event - one of the best beer events that I have ever attended. Great atmosphere, stunning venue, with great use made of the entire brewery. The beer on offer was amazing. I had them all:
2 year old lambic
Brouscella Grand Cru 2002
Rose de Gambrinus
Beers were samplers, but very generous ones (especially the Iris, thanks Lorenzo!). With each, there was a different nibble: smoked mackerel; gueuze sorbet; white pudding; cheese with gueuze; salmon marinated in gueuze; sausage with 'cepes'; cake with nuts and pain a la grecque. I was initially not really into the food side of the day, but soon got going and ended up eating most of the offerings, all of which were very good quality.
All this was on offer for just 10 euros per person. I would gladly have paid 3 times that to get to this event, and would seriously consider making sure I'm in town for the next one, it really was fantastic. Jeroen was there, though he overstayed his allotted time and was called back to baby duties - shame, we had to finish his beer for him. And Lorenzo, as mentioned, was serving at the Iris stand - serving very generously too!
The event was also notable as for the first time, my lovely wife Theresa was seen drinking - and enjoying - lambics and gueuzes. Finally, finally, after all this time she enjoyed a gueuze - wonderful stuff, and a tribute to Cantillon.
Staggering out of the brewery just before 4pm, we decided some proper lunch may be a good idea, so headed for Het Warm Water, a Bob tick which was on the way back to the hotel. Sadly, the lasagne here is not recommended - it arrived after about 3 minutes, so was clearly microwaved - and was full of carrots, cauliflower and other things that wouldn't get near a real lasagne. The quality was poor and we sent most of it back where it came from. I had a draught Girardin lambic here, which was probably being a bit unfair to it after the genius of a dozen of Cantillon's finest.
Made it back to the hotel for a much needed lie down, before heading out for another beery extravaganza - dinner at the much heralded Restobieres.
We were meeting up with a few friends, and as luck would have it, they were having drinks at Het Warm Water when we got back to Vossenstraat (the two places are almost opposite each other). So we joined them and I had a lovely Westmalle Tripel, which needless to say was much better than the lasagne.
Bob had arranged a special meal made with Lefevbre beers for our dinner. First up was scallops in Blanche de Bruxelles; then foie gras in Barbar, then pork cutlets in Floreffe La Meilleure, and finally Westvleteren ice cream (I kid you not).
The verdict on Restobieres? Excellent place, I really loved it, and the food was good too. The standout dish was the foie gras, which really was superb. The scallops were very very good too, as was the sauce that they were in. And the beery ice cream was fab too. The main course was not my favourite part of the meal, but it was fine - the beery sauce was very good indeed.
The place itself is wonderful, though. We had a set menu thing for the group, but you can also choose from a full menu of other dishes on an a la carte basis. We were also served the relevant beer with each course - all of which went very well with each dish - but again, you can choose whatever beer you want from a superb list. Well, not sure if there's a list exactly, but there are two large fridges in the back and you can go and ask for what you want. There are more beers downstairs, and then Alain brings various specials, like the Kriek Wets, which was over 20 years old. I also had an ambree from the tiny Brasserie St Helene, a microbrewery deep in Luxembourg province.
Alain himself is a great guy: he does all the cooking, he keeps coming to the table to check everything is ok, and then when all the cooking was done, he took me on a tour upstairs to view all of his collections of stuff. And there is 'stuff' everywhere: old tins, bottles, posters, bits and bobs - all arranged beautifully to create the most superb setting. He really has done the place up expertly. Way up in the attic he has a collection of old table games - you'll see some of them in my pics when I sort them out. And he's a lovely lovely host. Great place.
Sunday was boiling hot. We walked back over to La Place de Jeu de Balles (Vossenplein) for the famous market. These Belgian flea markets always amuse me: so many people, all walking round, all apparently not buying very much; all the elaborately and carefully set out things, lifetimes' worth of belongings, all very interesting, not much that you'd necessarily want to buy. It appears that the event, the social occasion, seems as important as actually achieving much in the way of sales.
From Vossenplein we meandered up to Sablon where we found some shade and had a couple of expensive coffees, then it was up to the centre for lunch at Leon - reliable as ever - and a refreshing Cantillon Gueuze at Toone Theatre. Taking the circuitous route back to the hotel, we went to the superb Cathedral, the park near the Bier Circus, Petit Sablon and the Royal Palace.
After a rest and a much needed escape from the scorching sun later we ventured to Delirium Café: nice selection for this mini session - firstly Alvinne Extra Blonde; then Black Mortal and finally La Brabanconne Ambree Speciale. All three were superb. We sat upstairs in Delirium, which had all its windows entirely open, and it was a nice spot - I prefer this part of the bar to the downstairs section.
Dinner was at Aux Armes de Bruxelles: we'd been there several times before and always enjoyed it. It is 'starred' as a 'special' place in our Time Out Guide - but this time we really didn't think it was anything special. It was ok, but really only average (oh dear, time to duck). It seemed to be lacking any spark or flair.
After dinner we hung out on a very balmy Grand Place, and watched it get dark. Great atmosphere. Quick detour to check out Café Monk in St Catherine's, but it was loud and busy and we didn't stay. The list of 35 beers had 3 from De Ranke, but that was insufficient to get us to linger. Instead, we headed for Poechenellekelder, a perennial favourite, and it was still comfortably warm enough to sit outside. I had a Gouden Carolus Classic, excellent as ever. Great to see that the beer list is now up to about 90 beers in all - maybe the Delirium influence is rubbing off on other central locations? Some silly prices like the 20 euros for a 2003 Cuvee van de Keizer - but most prices are reasonable and the list is good. Mannekin Pis provides eternal, baffling entertainment.
Later we tried to get into Porte Noire, but sadly its now closed on a Sunday, so it was straight back to the hotel.
My birthday, so I was in charge of entertainment for the day. Amazingly, I decided on an Art Nouveau walk. The cunning bit of the plan was the fact that this walk just happened to take in two Tim Webb bars in the outer part of the city…….
The walk was in the Avenue Louise area, which really is a lovely area to stay in. And just behind Avenue Louise there are lots of very interesting buildings by the likes of Horta and Hankar. We had this excellent new book which details walks all over Brussels and we closely followed one of the suggested routes - well worth doing.
First refreshment stop was at Le Chatelain, on Place Chatelain - really friendly local bar on the square, about 40 beers with the usual smattering of tasty picks. I had a very tasty, very fresh Orval (bottled in January - quite a contrast with all the Orval I have at home, which is all about 3 years old).
A bit more arty stuff was followed by lunch at the handily located L'Ultime Atome - huge art nouveau-ish café (continuing the theme, you see) with very good food - I had a superb spaghetti carbonara - and a good beer list of 84 beers, from which I chose a Rodenbach Grand Cru.
Conveniently, from here it was just a few minutes' walk to BeerMania - Nasser's place. I couldn't think of any art nouveau connection, but we went anyway. My first visit here since he opened the bar at the back of the new shop, and I have to say he has done an extremely impressive job. The shop section at the front is smart and spacious; the bar to the rear is cosy and very comfortable. Nasser has done the whole place up to a very high standard. We asked for two Boskeuns, and, true to his promise, two suitably chilled Boskeuns were soon being served up for us. We only had time for one drink, but we could easily have stayed for the duration. This place really is one of the best places in Brussels to have a beer
It was only a 10 minute or so walk back to the hotel from here, so we headed back to get ready for dinner - preceded by another visit to Delirium for a large Moinette Blonde.
Dinner was at Belga Queen. Well, this was the spectacular culinary experience of the weekend - what a place!
Set in an old bank, this is a really great place to have a meal, AND, the food is of a very high quality too. However, while its not exactly cheap, it won't break the bank either - three courses plus a couple of drinks each was just over 100 euros plus a tip. And they have a decent beer list too - I had draught Boon lambic, and very tasty it was too.
The food: first up - I had Ardennes ham; T had an amazing duck liver thing which I wish I had chosen. For main courses we shared a big steak for two effort, which was sublime; and for dessert T had chocolate ice cream and I had speculoos ice cream.
The surroundings are amazing: the arched ceiling is all huge stained glass panels full of intricate detail; there are coats of arms from each Belgian province just beneath; the place is grand, spacious, airy and lovely. Oh, and then there are the unisex, see through toilets. Great place for a special birthday meal.
Post dinner drinks were at the Bier Circus. Dominic was serving on his own; service was efficient and friendly throughout. I had another good line up of beers, draught Bink Bloesem was followed by the new Cantillon Gueuze brewed to mark the forthcoming move of the Bier Circus up the street - 'Laatste Cuvee van 89'. It tasted young, and fruitier than the regular Cantillon gueuze - but highly drinkable. Last beer of the day was Achel Extra. A great end to a superb birthday.
Our final day dawned bright and early just before check out time at 12 noon. A quick detour to Midi to drop the bags off, then it was up to the city centre for the afternoon. First stop today was A la Mort Subite, another old favourite that we hadn't been in for several years. Of course its completely unchanged and still a classic place. I had high hopes of obtaining one of the real, unfiltered Mort Subite Oude Gueuzes, but despite finding an English speaking waitress, and clearly asking for the OUDE gueuze not once but twice, I was given the distinctly un-oude gueuze instead. Well, it wasn't what I wanted, but I bravely tried it anyway. It wasn't very good.
It was now lunchtime, and time to revisit another old haunt - Paon Royal, over by St Catherine's church. We were extremely impressed, both with the smart modern décor, the food - excellent Dover soles - and the 54 strong beer list, from which we chose a 75cl bottle of Saison Dupont.
From Paon Royal it's only a short walk to Le Zageman. According to Lambicland its now closed on Mondays as well as Saturday and Sunday, and as it closes early on a Friday, this was our first chance to visit on this trip. Fortunately it was open, though we were the only customers. I don't think the beer list - of around 40 beers - has changed at all since my last visit here, and I was pleased to have a Rose de Gambrinus. Still a superb bar, this one.
A quick wander to Rogier to get the tram back to Midi and we still had time for one last bar: our first visit to Au Laboureur. Made it just in time to be inside before a torrential downpour. Once inside this huge barn of a place I ordered my final beer of the trip, a Westmalle Tripel, which hit the spot. This really is a great place for a first or last beer of a trip for anyone getting the Eurostar, a very down to earth Brussels boozer.
Wandered back over to Midi in plenty of time for the 1700 train, and we were back at Waterloo in a jiffy.