Search This Blog

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

heaven in small bites

People may complain (and they frequently do) that Brussels is not the most exciting city in Europe, but nobody could complain that it doesn’t have good restaurants.
Not only do even the small neighbourhood brasseries have excellent standards (I still regularly recreate a warm chocolate and cinnamon soup from one), but there is no lack of innovation and creativity in serving styles.
Although the ‘tapas-style’ or grazing menu has made its insistent way across the continent, it is not necessarily an easy one to get right. The temptation is to have too long a list of little things, so that the attention to detail that is key to making each individual dish different and satisfying is lost. In restaurants that avoid this pitfall, there is the danger that the ingredients and artistry required push the price up to the point that you end up paying huge amounts for tiny nibbles.
Le Fourneau managed to steer its way carefully between this Scylla and Charybdis, with just 15 principal dishes, four ‘indispensable’ and six ‘superflus’, although it’s hard to know by what scale of values haricot coco and potato with truffles is indispensable while a salad of baby spinach leaves is superfluous.
Everything comes either by weight (100g seems the base measure for things like fish or steak) or single units of itself, such as the lobster raviole.
Predisposed to like it simply because it was prepared to serve us ten minutes before the kitchen was due to close (three other restaurants had already turned us away - Belgian chefs like to go off duty at 9.30pm, and who shall blame them?), my companion and I were very taken with the high stools ranged along a bar surrounding a central table and viewing the kitchen. I would not care to sit at that central table myself, but it provided much entertainment after the chef had finally cooked his last bonne bouche.
A restaurant so expensively and minimally decorated in London would also be intimidatingly trendy. In Brussels the staff were of the highest competence but extremely friendly and helpful.
An amuse gueule of mousse de foie gras with quail was much lighter and less meaty than the description sounds, more like a savoury dessert in the mouth. My companion and I, having fought like sulky siblings over who got to order the best dishes, had a lobster raviole apiece, swimming delightfully in its cream sauce. This is the kind of dish that eaten in conventional quantities might give rise to nightmares, but in a portion that can be comfortably consumed in four forkfuls leaves one regretful that it is so small but ready to move on to turbot in butter sauce (heavenly) and carpaccio of tuna with mango (excellent but not as sybaritic as the other dishes). The only element that failed to strike a similarly high note was the papillote of langoustine with Thai basil, which came across as a half-hearted spring roll, minus the usual crispness of the vegetables.
This I supplemented with a perfect salad in petto, miniature little gem leaves with tiny bacon bits and croutons, leaving me ready to contemplate the dessert menu with much more than my usual enthusiasm.
The menu well repaid my interest, offering up a ‘panaché’ or smorgasbrod of delights. Melon soup, chocolate mousse, almond milk ice-cream and raspberry sorbet chased each other around my palate, spoonful by spoonful daring me to choose which combination I liked best.
The rich velvety darkness of the chocolate mousse was offset by the bitter cold of the almond ice-cream , while the clean sweetness of the melon balanced the tartness of the raspberry sorbet. Just another taste of chocolate to see how that goes with the raspberry, perhaps; although maybe the watery flavour melon would complement the thickness of the mousse. Another spoonful of bitter almonds to remind me of the scent of English 1920s murder mysteries… How can the raspberry sorbet taste so intensely of raspberries? And how can it all be gone already?
I was filled with envy of my companion who lives in Brussels and can go there every week if he so wishes, to discover what is so indispensable about ‘gateau de legumes, envie de soleil’ (does this mean that the vegetable cake sits on your plate, pining for the sun, or perhaps the sun is jealous of their summerry flavour?). When he actually told me about his next visit, when he inveigled his way far enough into the good books of the chef that the entire evening was spent accepting little offerings the chef had thought might tempt his palate, I turned green and started to lay plans to move to Brussels.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Serving suggestions, please

I work alongside a trade magazine for the drinks business. This means that there are often bizarre and wonderful beverages floating around the office, and occasionally I get offered a taste (although never of the vintage champagne, I've noticed!)

This afternoon, I was the only willing guinea-pig prepared to taste the chilli-flavoured beer. I had joined the general outcry of disgust when first told about it, but true to my principles was prepared to sip with an open mind.

The discoloured green chilli floating in it was not visually enticing, but it did augur well for the drink. This augury was not misleading, as it smelled and then tasted delightfully of fresh chillis, one of my favourite flavours. The next taste was just of a clean Mexican lager, and then finally a strong but not overpowering heat from the chilli.

My only problem with chilli beer is this: what would one drink it with? It's much too hot to drink with spicy food, but it would overpower most other meals. If I were ten years younger, I'd keep it in the fridge for drunken nights when I got home with a kebab, but I don't feel like going down that route any more.

Chocolate has a pleasing suitability, what with the Mexican connection, but I'm not sure what kind. Milk chocolate for the comfort and junk foodiness? Dark chocolate for cultural sensitivity?

Suggestions please!