Food & Travel / Words & Photos
That’s the question French food critic Francois Simon posed to a little panel: Nick Lander, Carlo Petrini, Ken Hom, Anissa Helou, Yumiko Inukai and…yours truly. For a recent article in Le Figaro’s magazine, Figaroscope.
Here’s my response in Version Originale…
World capital? That’s loaded question.
Twenty years – even 10 – ago, the question was bandied about for fun but we already knew the answer, but now, just using the places I know well, it’s a legitimate debate. Barcelona combines an unquenchable curiosity and solid base to keep themselves on cuisine’s front edge. Sicily combines incredible raw ingredients with solid value and New York could win on sheer numbers yet it is Paris’ equal in quality and exponentially more diverse. India is a time machine whose cuisine never ages.
Plus, in Paris, coffee is awful and the beer second rate. It’s also pricey. That said, you forget all problems instantly when the former butcher who can hold four bottles of wine in one hand and owns Le Severo puts a côte de boeuf aged 40 days under your nose. You forget it when Pierre Gagnaire boils down a great vat of red wine to make a tiny component of a sauce. You forget it when Laetitia at Le Bistro Paul Bert greets you with a smile, seats you at your favorite table and gifts you with a glass of wine and when it comes to choosing a bottle of wine doesn’t foist something you can’t afford on you. You forget it when three bottles, two glasses of Calvados and one conversation into a meal, you realize with a start that it’s 5 a.m. and you’ve been at the table for nine hours.
Undeniable world champ? Not anymore. However, the French exception still reigns. Let’s call Paris first among equals.
Last blog in Belgium Beer and Fries week! (Or was it ‘Brussels Beer & Fries’?) No better way to end than a final round or two in Brugges…
Thanks to our great B&B’s beer selections, a belly full of Brussels’ best (where I confirmed I’m more of a gueuze and lambic guy than a Trappist type) and a short time frame, we only sipped suds on the town on one night.
We’d been tipped off that Lokkedize was the spot people from town go to hide from the tourists and found that though there isn’t an enormous selection, beer is the drink of choice. On this night, there’s a great Straffe Hendrik from the town’s Brouwerij de Halve Maan. The food, though it didn’t look like anything to write home about looked like a good, inexpensive option.
Heading back to the B&B, we walked in front of De Republiek, a bar with just the right amount of people, just the right amount of light, just the right amount of noise and a great beer list. Somebody by themselves could come into this big space without feeling self conscious and a group of friends could enjoy a conversation without shouting.
We looked at each other and went in without a word.
The beer list was good enough to have Boon’s Oud Gueuze - a beer that’s been barrel aged for a few years then put in a bottle and stored for a few more. I had one (33 oz.) then another (25 oz.). What can I say? It was my last night in Belgium.
Before we left, I took a sniff and a sip (both deep). I could come up with a set of descriptors, but it was better than that. It smelled good. It made me smack my lips and smile. Maybe it was the alcohol talking, but I said, “This is pretty perfect.”
Lokkedize - MAP
Korte Vulderstraat 33
+32 (0)50 33 44 50
The front of the menu says both “Hard to find and worth the discovery” and “We appreciate cash.”
I love this kind of place: old, out of the way and authentic. La Bonne Humeur is a spiritual cousin to the American diner, right down the splotch of Formica worn white by the thousands of Dutch ovens and plates set in front of every seat.
What’s cooking? Millions of mussels, a google of frites, too many Jupiler drafts to remember!
Here in the house of moules et frites, the offerings do not disappoint. The mussels are magnificent. What appears to be important is not which sauce (marinière? Green peppercorn?) but that you pause to spoon some of the buttery, fennel-y goodness up from the bottom and pour it over the top.
The fries, part of my five consecutive meal fry extravaganza, cause the group buffoon to shout “McDonalds!” when he first tastes them - which made me want to hit the dirt in case knives came flying from the kitchen … even if there’s a grain of truth to it. ‘McDonald’s in heaven’ is much more appropriate.
The clever can save money by ordering smaller numbers of bigger portions. Three larger portions - they are ordered by the kilo or kilo and half - are plenty for the five of us, buffoon included.
Count on about 30 euros and, as it’s in a funny neighborhood and not too close to a Metro stop, take a cab.
La Bonne Humeur - MAP
Chaussée de Louvain 244
+32 02 230 71 69
My word, what a mess.
The “If You Go” recommendation from my Globe lambic story that said “Skip the food, have a drink and move on” was more accurate than I thought.
A La Mort Subite - French for “sudden death” - is a Brussels landmark bar and restaurant, replete with scores of beer and a beautiful hall for quaffing.
Disasters on this scale are tricky to explain, so let’s stick to the facts.
I joined a group of fifty for dinner - we had the upstairs hall to ourselves, a bit too exclusively. Though one guy ran the occasional tray or two of beer up the stairs, here was one waitress assigned to us. One.
She was heroic in her efforts, but at the end of the day, she was all alone. For most of us, it took two hours for our food - salads and omelets - to arrive.
As a restaurateur who has likely known for weeks that a group of 50 is coming for dinner, how do you screw up that badly? If feeding 50 people à la carte (as we did) is beyond your capacity, why not say so and propose another option? Why not make sure you have the staff to keep the beer flowing and the food moving? Why not have the chef chop up a few tomatoes ahead of time?
At the one hour 45 minute mark, I looked over at a friend who had an expression on his face that said, ‘shoot me.’
“You’d better write about this,” he sighed.
A la Mort Subite
rue Montagne-aux-Herbes Potagères 7
+32 (0)2 513 13 18
Last year, one of my favorite, accidental and off-the-map finds was Chez Moeder Lambic up above the wonderful Parvis Saint-Gilles.
This year, I herded the cats again, this time to the Moeder Lambic’s new downtown outpost - Moeder Lambic Fontainas - with 46 beers on tap.
It was empty.
“Sometimes you don’t have to go to the perfect place,” says the group buffoon. I wanted to punch him in the nose, only partially because he was right. Nothing deflates my balloon like bringing a gang of foodies to a place that looks like it might be a dud.
Despite the relatively flashy look - at least compared to their, er, Moeder ship - selection and service are impeccable. There are scads of Cantillon beers on tap (MMMM!!!!) and even the younger members on the staff know their product cold. Even the buffoon can’t flap our waitress. Compared to what’s available in the center of the city, this is a great addition.
Moeder Lambic Fontainas - MAP
Place Fontainas, 8-10
Somebody sunk serious money into this place and I suspect they’re much richer for it. If you want an authentic Brussels experience, this might not be the place, but if you want a good time with a stellar beer selection, Bob’s your uncle at Delirium Café.
Scanning the Guinness World Record beer selection - 2,000 kinds of beer! - we start with a faro from Lindeman’s - sweet, tangy and kind of Smith-Brothers-cough-drop-y. Not for the faint of heart, but big fun. The ‘café’ gets its name from Delirium Tremens - the Belgian beer whose name, roughly, means ‘the shakes you get from alcohol withdrawal.’ It would be hard for that to happen here.
For our second round, the group gives me free reign and, feeling nostalgic for the beer of former interviewee Armand Debelder, I order a vintage oude gueuze and an oude kriek from 3 Fonteinen: - both kept in a temperature-controlled walk-in cooler behind Delirium’s basement bar.
I’m with El Bulli sommeliers Ferran Centelles and David Seijas and on first sip of the gueuze, they pucker and screw up their faces before saying. “Wow…wow.” The kriek is a curiosity, but the gueuze is true discovery for all of us.
Motivating a group of sommeliers and getting them to try something new can be like herding cats, but I love sharing that moment.
P.S. - Pick your visiting times carefully - this place is a zoo on a busy night.
Back in Brussels, I quickly note that this is the trip where my eyes are still wide open, but the pieces of the city begin to connect.
Back at La Brocante, a beer bar I visited last year, I notice that this year, the deer head on the wall has a cigarette in its mouth and put a finger on one of my favorite things about this town: the inherent funkiness.
Even the popular Jupiler is an acquired taste that makes equivalents like Kronenbourg, Budweiser and Estrella Damm taste like ultra-pasteurized wimps.
I let the waiter steer me toward a beer called Floreffe, a Trappist triple with apple compote, smoke and some wonderful, nose-in-a-brewery smells.
On this day, with the flea market outside, there’s a band - Le Jeu de Balles - crammed into the space between the front door and a beer cooler. The guy next to me appears not to have left the premises since I was here a year ago. Another dude walks in wearing ski googles, followed by an older woman in heels and fur.
It’s good to be back.
Café La Brocante - MAP
+32 (0) 2 512 13 43
Click here to read my 2009 Belgian beer story, “Stalking A Wild Brew”
BARCELONA - It happens to every host. Your and your guest are well fed*, you don’t need more caffeine, you’ve been walking for a couple hours and going home now would torpedo the afternoon.
There we were, sore of foot and in front of La Cerveteca - the beer place. Not the toss ‘em back and drunk by five style, though. In Barcelona, like in Paris, coffee and beer are always good, but seldom better. La Cerveteca is one of the few wonders that falls into the ‘better’ category - the kind where you walk in and stare in wonder, saying ‘Holy cow - what’s this doing here?’
Case in point, I spy Nøgne Ø beers from Norway - something I recognize from Anders Kissmeyer’s wonderful Norrebro Bryghus brewery in Copenhagen - along with American IPAs, treats from Belgium and Germany and even Anchor Steam from San Francisco!
(Seeing the latter, I instantly pine for my San Francisco days, roaming Potrero Hill when the smell of the hops streaming out of the brewery takes over the neighborhood, with a scent that, inexplicably, will always remind me of Spaghetti-O’s.)
Guillaume and I order an IPA and a Liberty Ale, grab a few papers, find a back table and take a load off for an hour.
La Cerveteca MAP
+34 93 315 04 07
*Pinotxo, of course. A Joe Ray three-star
My apologies for nicking the title of a book dedicated to the late beer and whisky expert, Michael Jackson, but I think he’d approve.
I’ve got a pair of stories out published in the last few weeks in The Boston Globe’s Travel section worth the hunt and the chase. First on tap is a look at Lambic beers in Belgium. It gives a sense of how this “wild beer” is made, the people making some of the best along with where to go, eat, drink and stay.
Here’s a taste:
Belgium is boring.
That was the preconception. Then I remembered: great fries, friendly people, beautiful architecture,
and beer that makes aficionados drool.
What was I thinking?
I grab a cone of fries and head to a brewery where I begin to understand why beer, particularly
lambics — ‘‘wild beers’’ that are products of ‘‘spontaneous fermentation’’ and aged for three
years in oak barrels — runs in Belgians’ veins…
Next, I headed to Scotland for a whisky road trip…
The roads between the Speyside region and Kennacraig are a driving enthusiast’s dream, flecked with micro-towns, straightaways, S-curves, views of the Loch Ness, and signs that read ‘‘Stone Skipping Championships This Saturday!’’ and ‘‘Apples £1/BOX.’’
The cafe on the ferry from Kennacraig to the island of Islay (pronounced EYE-la) is a sign of good things to come, with representatives of almost every distillery on the island behind the bar — a short and sweet selection that would blow most American bar choices away…
As, always, I’d love to hear what you think.
Call me a traitor, but here I go.
Though it might look like pink champagne, the apéro of the summer is a beer, and not one for the faint of heart.
Cantillon’s “Kriek 100% Lambic” is an eye-popper that will stand your taste buds happily on end.
It’s also a dive into the deep end of Belgian beer vocabulary. In short, lambics are natural fermentation beers that are aged for at least three years in oak barrels. A kriek, is a lambic (or a gueuze) made with sour cherries known as griottes.
While some companies have turned kriek into a sweet and sticky mess, those worth their salt are bracingly sour.
Cantillon’s kriek has just a hint of creamy suds on top and gets its cooked cherry color from the griottes. Poke your nose into the top of a glass and you’ll get a blast the grapefruit smell that is the hallmark of many good lambics, along with a hint of green apples. If your salivary glands haven’t kicked in by now, blow your nose.
Take a sip and you’ll get a kick of that fantastic sour and acidic grapefruit flavor.
If you can find any way to get your stomach and taste buds more ready for a meal, the comment box is one click away…
P.S. In Paris, I found my bottle at Pommier inside the Marché Beauvau - the covered market at Marché d’Aligre in the 11th arrondissement.
Cantillon has a handy place to start your quest with a partial list of wholesalers and places to buy your bottle here.