Caffe al Dente – a wine lover’s den

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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.

 

Osteria Francescana – the pursuit of perfection

Italian chef Massimo Bottura is a genius who has brought Italian cuisine to a completely different level. If France is renowned for its obsession with classics and Spain is the culinary hub of innovation, Italy is steeped in tradition. It is a country which takes its critics seriously. I remember a football coach once saying that the country had 60 million football coaches. A chef, I am not sure if it was Bottura, once said that there are as many food critics.

These food critics will obsess about whether any fish dish should be served with cheese (this is a taboo for many in Italy) and I can understand why. Italians shudder to think of mixing cheese with fish for example though there are some very minor exceptions. You can normally spot an authentic Italian pizzeria anywhere in the world by looking for their Pizza Marinara. If it has mozzarella, the chances are it is not run by Italians.

Bottura, with his Osteria Francescana, however, plays in a different league. Having gone in search of inspiration in France and Spain among others, he shows an incredible respect for ingredients. Who else would have thought of coming up with a dish called the five ages of parmesan which just showcases one ingredient?

Or who could invent a reconstructed lasagna with a sumptuous ragu and a lasagna crisp?

The Modenese chef has reinvented classics. His dishes all tell a story and you sometimes wonder how he gets his inspiration. When you walk into his restaurant you realise that he is obsessed with modern art and it is obviously here that he gets most of his inspiration for his dishes.

While modern, Bottura is also respecting tradition. He is always in search of the past but tries to reinterpret dishes and give them a modern twist without trying to be clever or over doing it.

The meal at Osteria Francescana was one to remember. It was a pity that Bottura was not there but in Istanbul because I am sure the experience would have been even better.

The meal started off with a macaroon of tomato and mozzarella. The flavour of the tomato burst in your mouth. The lemon granita and limoncello foam cleansed the palate for the start of the sensations menu.

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The first dish was exceptional. It was eel served with a cream of polenta and apple gelee. The eel was perfectly cooked, worked incredibly well with the apple and the polenta was out of this world.

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What followed was a joy for the eye but also for the palate. It was a pate served with a jelly of Lambrusco, the regional wine, as well as a puree of different peppers, green, red and yellow. Visually the plate was stunning.

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Next came the Caesar Salad or rather Bottura’s interpretation of this classic salad. You need to be incredibly confident to serve such a dish in such a restaurant. But he used the lettuce as a condiment to 23 different ingredients all stuffed within the leaves from egg to parmesan crisps, to mint and anchovies, to bacon and mustard, lemon and only the chefs know what else. This was outstanding.

This was followed by what Bottura’s calls a day out in the Modenese countryside, a dish which was not only a joy to look at but also excellent (see it here). The snails were hiding under the leaves and it was topped with a beetroot sauce.

The lasagna stole the show for its originality, with the ragu cooked sous vide, but not for long as we were then served with what was probably the star of the afternoon, the five ages of Parmeggiano Reggiano dish which I have written about here.

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This was then followed by frog legs coated in hazelnuts and a pasta which gave the illusion of a pond. After this came a superb pasta dish, Bottura’s notorious “The dream of a Frenchman to cook pasta like an Italian.” Three ravioli stuffed with fois gras which burst with flavour making you wish there were more.

What followed was probably the best piece of meat which I have ever tasted. Pork cooked sous vide and then finished in a pan to crisp the top. It was served with a 45-year-old balsamic vinegar from Bottura’s private cellar together with asparagus and horse radish. What can I say. This was out of this world.

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Next came a risotto cooked with olive oil and covering pigs cheeks, followed by an original dessert of strawberry sorbet, a pea cream, pea meringue served with fresh milk from Modena’s countryside.

Coffee was served with a medley of chocolates and sweets which as expected could not be faulted.

Verdict: Book a flight to Bologna which is only 30 minutes away from Modena and head there now before it becomes much harder to book. It is no wonder this restaurant is ranked number 3 in the world. Expect the unexpected. From Bottura you cannot expect anything less. Osteria Francescana will make you rethink what’s so special with Italian cuisine.