Knees to Chin: Asian, fresh and healthy

20140805-001908-1148186.jpgThe area around Place Chatelain in Brussels is one of my favourite places to just walk around, just sit down for a drink or eat. It has a superb ‘village feel’ with many boutique stores which are a breath of fresh air in cities that are starting to look the same with the common branded high-street stores.

It is one of the first areas of Brussels I discovered when I moved to this city nine years ago. And it is constantly evolving though it hasn’t lost any of its charm. Old places which have stood the test of time are complemented by new establishments which open from time to time and which hope to also become regular fixtures of the area.

Recently we stopped for a quick bite at Knees to Chin, a newish place on Rue Livorne, in between Avenue Louise and Place Chatelain.

The concept is very simple but effective. If you are looking for a quick and healthy lunch this is the perfect place. They make rice paper rolls which you find in Asia. Using fresh ingredients these rice paper rolls are extremely good particularly on these warm summer days.

At Knees to Chin they make six different rice paper rolls with a great choice of fish, meat and vegetarian rolls. You can also opt for the lunch menu with a choice of either two or three rice paper rolls and a bowl of rice finished with a great peanut sauce and sesame seeds or a salad.

The place is very small but has a very welcoming interior design, I liked the display behind the counter with white and green ceramic tiles and the use of upside down colourful jars as hanging lights.

The rice paper rolls I tried were the prawns with mango and fresh mint topped with an avocado sauce, the chicken with pears and rocket served with a peanut sauce and the duck with green apple and caramelised onions served with a sesame sauce were all fresh and very tasty. The bowl of sticky rice was excellent.

The great thing about Brussels is that more and more great spots with interesting concepts are opening. These places thrive because of good service, excellent food and word of mouth. If you are in the area you should give it a try.

Verdict: the concept is good and unique for Brussels. The produce is fresh. For a quick and healthy lunch don’t hesitate to go if you are in the area.

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You can find Knees to Chin in rue de Livourne 125, Brussels.  This small restaurant is closed on Sundays. Check out their website for opening hours since these will change after 31st August.

 

Cafe de la Presse: A new coffee culture brewing in Belgium

20140805-001909-1149461.jpgThe smell of coffee coming from a cafe in the morning is enough to wake your senses. The sound of the grinders, the gurgle of the steam warming the milk for a cappuccino, the espresso drizzling into the small coffee cup. You are next in line, you hear the barista banging the used coffee into the drawer and you know your coffee is next.

Malta might not have the same coffee culture as Italy but there are many places where you can get a perfect espresso. For some, the coffee ritual is as important as the tea ceremony in Asia.

So you can imagine the shock when on arriving in Brussels nine years ago there was barely a place where you could savour a decent coffee. A few Italian shops here and there made a decent espresso and cappuccino but in most places it used to be incredibly difficult to order a coffee without regretting it.

Things have now changed, very much for the better and this has nothing to do with the venture into Belgium of Starbucks.

Order an espresso now and you are very likely to get a small coffee. Nine years ago this was not a given. In many places, an espresso would be the equivalent of an ‘American’ coffee by Italian standards.

Maybe it is the advent of Nespresso which has made huge inroads everywhere, or else because coffee culture is everywhere, but now, having a decent coffee in Belgium is no longer like searching for Siddharta.

Cafe de la Presse on the far end of Avenue Louise close to the Bois de la Cambre epitomises this revival of the coffee culture. This is the perfect place to stop for a coffee. It is always full with people, has a quirky but attractive interior design and you can have a decent espresso or cappuccino. I particularly like the industrial feel to the place.

You can sit on one of the sofas in the front end of the cafe, or else head to one of the tables at the back. If the weather is nice, you can also sit on the terrace.

It is still not there when it comes to the perfect espresso but it’s close enough and the smell of the coffee in the morning or afternoon is very welcoming. For those who do not know Cafe de la Presse, they might have come across the new Cafe du Sablon which has the same concept.

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The Falafel and hummus bagel is excellent

You can choose from a selection of homemade cakes with your tea or coffee. They also have excellent bagels or salads as well as a selection of fresh juices. You can also find the cupcakes from Lilicup here.

The Cafe de la Presse buzzes with activity. It’s a great place for people watching, to sit down with a great book or magazine or even to take your laptop and work from there.

At Cafe de la Presse and Cafe du Sablon, you can also find a relatively new Belgian beer Volga with a stunning label designed by renowned illustrator John Contino. Volga beer is not only very good but also has a very interesting marketing story. To get it noticed, the creators of the beer helped those who stocked it to have sun on their terrace even when this was geographically impossible. I leave you to find out how. It’s part of the fun.

Cafe de la Presse is also very popular for brunch on Sunday morning. I have not tried it so cannot vouch for it but it is meant to be good.

Cafe de la Presse is open every day from Monday to Friday from 7.30am to 8pm. On the weekends it opens at 8.30am.

Famous Brussels butcher is opening chophouse

I like to go the extra mile to buy good ingredients but given it is August, I need to be sure that shops I buy from are open. Most local shops in Brussels are closed for holidays given they are family run. So I got really excited yesterday when i entered the website of Jack O’Shea yesterday to discover that he would be opening a chophouse in central Brussels in September.

Now, Brussels has its fair share of culinary destinations, but I have no doubt that this is going to be an additional ‘must visit’.

There is no question about the quality of the meat at Jack O’Shea. The meat which you get from this butcher whether it is a Wagyu beef t-bone steak, an Angus beef ribeye, an aged t-bone steak or just sausages from his large range (which includes mustard and spinach, Italian, beef and guiness, chorizo), are all exceptional.

Wagyu beef t-bone steak

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With such quality of ingredients and a hot grill, all you need is to make sure you do not overcook the meat. In terms of culinary pleasures, there is nothing like a beautifully age-dried t-bone steak cooked rare and to perfection. All you need is the correct amount of seasoning (sea salt) and the patience to allow the meat to rest. So I look forward to what Jack O’Shea’s chophouse will add to the Brussels food scene.

For those who have not heard about Jack O’Shea, he is probably one of Europe’s leading butchers, though maybe not as famous as the much talked about as Dario Cecchini from Panzano in Chianti. The latter left his mark by organising a funeral of the ‘bistecca fiorentina’ when it was banned during the mad cow crisis a few years ago.

Jack O’Shea opened his first store in Brussels in 1998 and in 2006 he opened a second store in London. While it is great to have such a butcher in my home city, you can now purchase his excellent range of meats online in Europe. He is famous for his dry aged beef which is incredibly tasty and succulent. He also became famous  for the grass fed and grain finished Angus beef which is perfectly marbled and a joy to cook.

He has been featured by some of the UK’s leading food writers and also featured in Heston Blumenthal’s “In Search of Perfection” series. He is one of those butchers who believes that every part of the animal should be used and you can find many different cuts which you might not find elsewhere.

In the video above, taken from the Jack O’Shea website, the butcher explains how to choose the perfect beef. In the video below, he makes what looks like a delicious Steak Tartare.

Jack O’Shea is in the European quarter of Brussels on Rue Le Titien. He is open from Monday to Saturday.

 

 

A visit to Chateau de Beloeil

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The magnificent Chateau de Beloiel

I recently had to spend a midweek day off with the children. I offered them a choice between either going to a park or a castle. I thought they would opt for a park but they immediately got excited about the prospect of visiting a castle.

Since there was agreement, we finally decided on the castle to go to since Belgium has its fair share of castles. I had always seen signs of Chateau de Beloeil on our trips to Lille or Pairi Daiza and have always been intrigued especially since it is also famous for its flower show and the yearly classical music concert. The castle opens at 1pm.

Chateau de Beloeil is considered to be the Belgian Versailles and on our visit we discovered that there is a reason for this. The park is very large and forms with the castle a very interesting place to visit away from the crowds.

We were there on a weekday and among the first to arrive so  pretty much had the castle and park to ourselves. The castle has beautiful antique furniture, some unique pieces as well as beautiful tapestries from a once glorious past. It used to be the residence of the Princes de Ligne.

The French garden in the castle grounds offers a harmonious blend of water and nature, shadow and light. It is still maintained to its original design from 1664.

The Beloeil castle is surrounded by its moats and gardens and has been in Beloeil, Hainaut for the past eight centuries. It was a medieval fortress which was eventually transformed into a country home.

The children enjoyed their visit to the castle and were particularly impressed by the library with its over 20,000 books. They also enjoyed the walk in the park as well as the fish in a rather large pond. The castle is also famous for the annual classical music festival which is organised in September. We hope to visit the castle again in September for this event.

If you are heading to the Castle of Beloeil there is a culinary tip that I would like to share with you. On the way to Beloeil or to Brugelette to visit Pairi Daiza, you will come across a very small rural village called Gibecq.

It is well known for its free range chickens. They are called the Poulet de Gibecq and you can stop and buy them as well as other great products from a little farm shop in the village of Gibecq.

The farm shop is unfortunately only open on Wednesday and Friday afternoon (so you need to plan your trip accordingly) or else on Sunday mornings. The good thing is that they are also available in some butcher shops around Belgium so you would do well to ask for them.

The chickens are free range and allowed to grow naturally. They are fed with grains which come from farms in the area of Hainaut. Their feed is even milled in the area. They have a splendid taste unlike more commercial chickens you find in supermarkets. I therefore highly recommend them. The farm shop also has other culinary delights such as exceptional bio yogurt as well as products from the area.

If you are ever in the area, this is really worth a stop.

Chateau de Beloil

Chateau de Beloeil

O Liban – a great Lebanese restaurant in Bascule

There was a sense of disappointment in our family when Giovanni on Chaussee de Vleurgat closed a few years ago. When we arrived in Brussels nearly nine years ago, it was not only close to home but it also served one of the best Italian espressos or cappuccinos you could find in Brussels. Moreover, the cannoli (which we are so accustomed too in Malta) were to die for.

Now either my palate has become accustomed to ‘worse’ coffee or else the Belgian coffee scene has clearly made remarkable improvements. I tend to believe that it is more the latter than the former.

Italian food is clearly comfort food but Lebanese food can be exceptional particularly when using fresh ingredients. I can today say that his replacement has proved himself on many occasions over the past years.

O Liban is a great place to stop for a quick lunch or dinner. It is also perfect to grab a take-away or to try one of their delicious typical Lebanese ‘sandwiches’ or pittas. They are all excellent using fresh ingredients, excellent sauces like the garlic sauce or hummus. They are so good that you might develop a craving for them. Whenever I am in the area of Bascule at lunch time, I nearly always end up going to grab a sandwich from there. My favourites are the lamb kefta, chicken and the falafel.

Hummus (better known as a chickpea dip) can easily be made at home or bought from a supermarket or speciality shop. Nevertheless, the test for a Lebanese restaurant is to make hummus taste special. O Liban passes this test with flying colours.

This is also an excellent place if you are vegetarian. Among the lunch or dinner options, you can put together a plate of your choice with some of the dishes that are ready prepared and which you can either eat at the restaurant or else take home. The meat option includes a choice of meat as well as six vegetable dishes or salads while the vegetarian option (also excellent for non vegetarians) gives you an option for eight different choices. You can of course include the excellent hummus as well as the Moutabal which is an incredibly tasty aubergine dip.

O Liban is great for a quick lunch or dinner. It is always busy which is a guarantee for fresh ingredients and salads. Service is extremely good though at times when it gets extremely busy might be a bit slow at the start.

If you are craving Mediterranean food and looking for something quick, comforting and good, O Liban on Chaussee de Vleurgat is a great choice.

If you have never tried Lebanese wine, this is also your chance to try it. We have always tried the ground floor snack and ‘traiteur’ though there is a restaurant on the first floor which also serves interesting set menus.

Verdict: If you develop a craving for their ‘sandwiches’ using the typical Lebanese flat bread do not blame me. They are that good. Among their vegetable choices, you need to try the hummus, moutabal and the ‘moussaka’. This Lebanese version is a stew of aubergine, chickpeas and tomatoes and is incredibly tasty. Go there for a quick takeaway or else for a casual lunch or dinner. You will not be disappointed.

O Liban is open everyday (closed in the evenings on Sunday and Monday). He can be found at Chaussée de Vleurgat 324, close to La Bascule.

Pairi Daiza – one of the best attractions in Belgium

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There is no doubt to my mind that Pairi Daiza is one of the best attractions in Belgium. I would dare to say that it is probably also one of the best animal parks you can visit in Europe such is the beauty of this dream garden of 55 hectares.

Pairi Daiza can be found in Brugelette within the ruins of the Cistercian Abbey of Cambron and is protected from the outside world by a wall that stretches three kilometres. It means enclosed garden in ancient Persian. It is the oldest known name for paradise. This is really a paradise for children and adults alike.

The garden is an architectural and cultural treasure. You will be surprised by the attention to detail that has gone into the development of the park. The architecture of the garden has been created by workers from China, Indonesia, Thailand and Africa adding to the authenticity to the place.

The park is constantly being upgraded so no visit is the same. This year, to receive the pandas, the already massive Chinese garden (the largest in Europe) has been enlarged.

I must confess that I have lost count as to how often we have been to this park. This is the third consecutive year we get a season ticket (if you go twice in a season you are better off getting a season ticket) and we and the children never get bored of visiting this botanical garden and animal park.

This year, there is the obvious added attraction of two Pandas which have been given to the park by the Chinese government for 15 years.

At Pairi Daiza you will find first and foremost nature, with beautiful ancient trees, huge birds of all kinds flying around the park, beautiful ruins of the Cisterian Abbey, flower beds and beautiful  plants coming from across the world.

There is an aquarium within the park which is well worth a visit as well as a huge playground just below it.

The train ride, always a winner with the children is not running this year and will only be ready for next season because the park has been enlarged. It is maybe a pity since this is one of the best ways to view the beauty of this park.

If you have never been to this park (and you live in Belgium) then you might hesitate before getting a season ticket. But it is worthwhile given that the park has now grown to the extent that it has become difficult to view it in one day.

The park is divided into different sections including the Cite des Immortels which includes the pandas and leopards, the Terre des Origines with lions, tigers, elephants, camels, rhinos, hippos, giraffes and zebras among others. There is also the Royaume de Ganesha with a temple and other animals, the terre du froid and two lakes with an incredible variety of birds. There is the Porte des Profondeurs, the area with the aquarium, seals, otters and penguins among others as well as the Porte du Ciel.

Pairi Daiza also has a number of places where to eat. The most impressive is the new Brasserie which serves typical brasserie food and also has a brewery inside where they brew their own beer of Domaine Cambron. Both beers made here are worth trying.

No blogpost can do justice to this marvellous place. I therefore leave you to enjoy some photos of the park.

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The park is open everyday from the start of the Easter holidays through to the end of the All Saints holiday. This year the park will therefore close on 2 November.

Details on the daily passes or annual subscriptions can be found on Pairi Daiza’s website.

 

Recipe 1 – A taste of the sea

20140720-172158-62518499.jpgThe weather has been extremely hot in Belgium over the past three days. On Friday evening, the temperature hovered around 30C and therefore I felt a great urge to eat some seafood as a reminder of summer holidays.

To me, shellfish and fish are always a reminder of summer and holidays. If there is one dish which I crave for but which alas is so difficult to find away from the Mediterranean is a pasta with sea urchins which is pure heaven when sea urchins is available. It is normally the first thing I try to eat whenever I go back home to Malta. It is also something I look out for when I am in the South of Italy or Sicily.

I headed to the fish shop close to our home to see what inspired me. Many times this is how I get inspiration for cooking. Nothing beats the joy of having no plan for lunch or supper and improvising on the basis of what you find on the market.

I found the famous Moules de Bouchot (small mussels from France which are incredibly tasty) and therefore mussels it would be for dinner, together with a mix of shellfish including calamari and scallops.

Few things reminds me of the sea and the taste of the sea more than fresh mussels. And while Belgium, France and the Netherlands are renowned for their mussels, they are cooked slightly differently in the Mediterranean. The main difference is that extra virgin olive oil is used instead of butter and no celery is used.

Belgium is known for many things. Its beer, chocolates, french fries and also mussels. There are many restaurants specialising in mussels and the methods of cooking them vary considerably. I prefer mine the Mediterranean way. In this case the simpler the recipe the better the result.

Many tell me that they find cooking shellfish or fish intimidating. I tend to disagree. I started cooking in my 20s and it was with fish and shellfish that I actually started. Once you get past the basics (which basically means finding a fishmonger you trust and asking how to cook things which you would not normally consider), you can be sure to go ahead for more complicated fare.

So the first recipe I share on this blog is a simple one. The only complicated thing is to clean the mussels which trust me is part of the fun.

Ingredients

(Serves two as a starter or else four as part of an antipasto)

  • 1 Kilo of Mussels,
  • 3 cloves of garlic finely chopped.
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • White wine
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Method

1. Clean the mussels. On many occasions, the mussels can be bought already cleaned compared to the past where you would need to remove not only the beard but sometimes also dirt which stuck to the shells. To remove the ‘beard’ is easy. Pull towards you with a knife and force the beard out. Once you clean the mussels, place them in a bowl of clean water. Go through each one and discard any which are open or which float in the water. You can keep them in the fridge until you cook them (the day you buy them).

2. Crush the garlic and chop roughly, then sweat in the extra virgin olive oil (around three tablespoons). Then add a splash of wine (a cup of wine should be enough) and bring to boil.

3. Once the mixture is boiling add the mussels and parsley and put a lid on the saucepan. Give the pan a shake from time to time but try not to open the lid too often. The mussels should be ready within minutes when you see that they are all open.

4. Mussels are salty so you do not need to add any salt but they are extremely good with freshly ground black pepper. Serve immediately ideally with fresh bread to dip into the ‘soup’ at the bottom of the pan.

Wine suggestion: It is the common norm to drink white wine with shellfish or fish. In this case, nothing goes better than a white wine. I had this with a Vermentino from Sardegna which worked extremely well. You could also try it with a Sicilian fruity white such as a blend of Insolia and Chardonnay or a French Muscadet.