Caffe al Dente – a wine lover’s den

5
Caffe al Dente has an impressive selection of Italian wines – Photo taken from Caffe al Dente’s website

Ask any Italian, and there are many in Belgium, what their favourite Italian restaurant would be and you are likely to get a very different answer from each and every one of them.

Italians take their food very seriously but probably few as seriously as Federico of Caffe al Dente. A Roman who has settled in Brussels, he is obsessed with a simple rule “Il Pesce non si serve con il formaggio”, i.e. it is a sin to serve cheese with fish.

Now there are some who argue that the client is always right. At Caffe al Dente this is not necessarily the case. If you go there, you will notice that they take this rule extremely seriously. You will find an asterisk on the blackboard with the day’s menu telling you that the pasta dish with fish or shellfish will not be served with cheese on top, and there will be other small blackboards hanging around in the restaurant telling you that you should not put cheese on your spaghetti alle vongole (with clams).

Of course, there is no question that this would be akin to a mortal sin. But while the French or the British are known to use cheese with certain fish dishes, the rule is not as rigid as it sounds. There are some regions which are starting to experiment with fish based dishes and cheese. If you look at Sicilian cuisine, you are bound to find the occasional dish such as the polpette sarde (sardine balls) having pecorino inside. I have also come across a 2 Michelin star chef Gennaro Esposito of Torre del Saracino  who stuffs calamari with smoked cheese.

But back to Caffe al Dente. This is a really great place. Firstly it has an Italian wine list which is incredible in its depth. There are wines from pretty much all regions of Italy and most of the best wine houses are covered. The prices, compared to other Brussels restaurants are also very reasonable given that the wine list shows the price for buying the wines from the enoteca next door as well as those charged in the restaurant.

The menu is extremely simple so you might go there once and be disappointed because of the choice on offer. But the mantra is rather simple. They use what is available and what is in season. So you are unlikely to eat the same thing if you go on separate occasions. They have a choice of two or three antipasti, two or three pasta dishes and two or three main courses. The same goes for desserts.

I have eaten there on a few occasions and the food and service have always been good albeit sometimes slightly slow. But then, that allows you time to savour the atmosphere, drink wine in good company and to chat with Federico who is a very interesting character.

The time we asked him about the cheese philosophy he told us that a client had once walked out after insisting that he wanted cheese with his Spaghetti Marinara. He told us how, at one point his client asked him whether he was going to bring cheese or else he might as well give him the bill. He refused to take cheese to the table and sent the bill instead. The customer walked away angrily but Federico told us that he returned a few days later with an apology and a gift for him.

I am here to offer an authentic service he had told us. Most of the people who come here come for an authentic Italian experience. How can I serve cheese with fish if that is not how it is done in Italy? You must respect the place you are in but you must also understand our philosophy. You cannot really fault him with that.

Verdict: This is one of my favourite Italian restaurants in Brussels. The food is excellent, the atmosphere nice, the wine list for Italian wines is probably one of the best I have seen outside Italy. It is like going to an Italian enoteca. The good thing is that it is in Brussels. Booking recommended because it can fill up very easily.

Caffe al dente

Rue du Doyenné 85, 87, 1180 Bruxelles

Brussels – C’chicounou a little Syrian-Lebanese gem

photoC’chicounou just off Place Flagey is a gem of a place serving top quality Syrian-Lebanese food. Chef Georges Baghdi Sar is only 24 years old but definitely has a great future ahead of himself. Given he has been on a traineeship at the Brussels institution: Comme Chez Soi, you expect great things.

And you will not be disappointed. The food served is of exceptional quality, the prices are incredibly reasonable, it is no wonder the place was packed the two times we visited in recent months. All dishes are given a special touch with a scattering of pomegranate seeds which adds freshness and colour.

The interior decor is a bit quirky and might have to be avoided on a hot summer’s day given it is completely wooden though it does give the restaurant a warm feeling.

This is not your normal tapas place. The selection on the menu is great and there are also two menus which allow you to taste various dishes.

There are traditional Middle Eastern staples like Hoummos, a chickpea dip with sesame seeds, garlic, cumin and lemon, the Moutabale, a caviar of aubergine with sesame seeds, garlic cumin and lemon as well as the Tabouleh (a parsley salad) and Fatouche a salad of grilled bread, tomatoes, radish, parsley and olive oil.

Hot starters include excellent Falafel, different home made beef sausages, a superb broad bean salad with a sesame cream, lemon juice, tomatoes, fresh mint, cumin and olive oil.

The main dishes are mainly grilled meats which are simply grilled but seasoned to perfection and incredibly tasty.

This is a perfect place to go with friends but there is also a very generous menu at 35 euros for two people which includes a choice of three cold starters, two hot starters, a choice from the grill as well as a salad. It is also an ideal place for vegetarians, the choice of meat free dishes and salads is very large.

The only criticism for a wine lover is the wine-list which needs some work. The wines are from the same wine house in Languedoc, Les Vignobles Montagnac. The quality price ratio is excellent but one would expect a better choice though this is probably what keeps the prices reasonable.

Open daily except Saturday lunch time and Sundays, I would recommend you book well in advance given how busy it was on the two evenings we went.

Address: 29 rue de la Levure, Ixelles

Verdict: Book now and go as soon as you can. I guarantee you will return back time and time again. You might also be tempted to drop by and get a takeaway. Follow this chef, I am sure we will hear more about him in the near future. He has a passion for food and prepares everything himself including all the beef preparations and mortadella.