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.

20140805-001907-1147740.jpg20140805-001908-1148634.jpg

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.

20140805-001830-1110341.jpg
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

IMG_2815

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.

 

 

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.

Winehouse Osteria – a taste of Italy in the heart of Brussels

20140712-225353-82433023.jpg
The cosy Winehouse Osteria close to Place St Gery in central Brussels

It is with a certain amount of trepidation that I recommend and then test a place with friends particularly if it is relatively new and has very little reviews. But like the best secrets in life, word of mouth is normally a sure bet even if there is always that expectation that something might go wrong.

I came across Winehouse Osteria thanks to recommendations from some friends after I wrote about Caffe al Dente in Uccle. This place just off the Place St Gery area is quite a find. Part wine shop, part coffee shop, part Osteria, the restaurant is extremely small and cosy but worth a visit.

If you are nostalgic about Italy or craving for an Italian experience, then this will not disappoint you. Forget for a while that you are in central Brussels and this osteria/enoteca could easily be in a small beautiful village somewhere in Italy.

The wine list is interesting and reasonably priced. You will find many bottles below 20 Euros which is not common in Brussels with a great selection of wines in the 20 Euros to 35 Euros range (a common price for entry level wines in most restaurants in Brussels). If you decide to just take home some wines, then the price is also listed on the wine list and considerably cheaper. Italy is well covered. Just to give you an example, I even found a wine from Liguria which is not a common sight on wine lists outside this region.

They had a number of wines from the wine list missing when we went, but their recommendations as a replacement were spot-on.

Winehouse Osteria also has a great selection of wines by the glass. The prosecco to start with was creamy and excellent. They also serve Aperol Spritz for those nostalgic about the ‘aperitivo’ in Italy.

The beauty about this place is that you can visit at any time between 7.45am and late in the evening. You can just go for a coffee in the morning, lunch or dinner in the evening or even a glass of wine at any time.

20140712-225354-82434004.jpg
The aubergine parmigiana and the zucchini parmigiana. Both perfectly done.

This is not your normal Italian restaurant. You will not find pizza or pasta dishes (except for their lasagna). But the food menu is interesting. Apart from cheese and salumi platters there is a small range of interesting dishes. When we went we tried a carpaccio of beef (excellent), a cheese and salumi platter (very good) and grilled peppers. The parmigiana of aubergine was exceptional as was the one made with zucchini. I had the involtini of chicken with guanciale and scamorza seres with a grilled scamorza and tomato sauce and peas. The polenta dish with a cheese, confit onion and lemon was also an excellent combination of flavours.

It was obvious when we were there that the people running Winehouse Osteria are passionate about what they are doing even if they seem to be working miracles form their tiny kitchen which serves this small osteria.

If there was point to criticise it was their desserts. The tiramisu was good but not exceptional and the ice-cream seemed like it was a supermarket ice-cream.

Price for central Brussels is also very reasonable. We paid around 35 Euros per person for an aperitivo, starter, main course and dessert. This is a place to visit if you like wine and want something different in central Brussels.

Verdict: Amid many tourist traps in central Brussels this is worthy of a visit, even for those like us who rarely venture to this side of town to dine. The target audience is clearly locals given most tourists may be tempted to try something more traditionally Belgian in the centre. Nevertheless, if you are craving for comfort food, want to share a glass of wine with friends over a nice cheese or salumi platter or fancy some comfort food, I am sure you will not be disappointed.

Winehouse Osteria: Rue de la Grand Ile, 42, Brussels. Open everyday from 7.45am to 11pm.

 

 

Le Fruit Defendu

Booking a restaurant for a night out in Brussels can be quite a challenge especially for the really sought-out places. First you need to make sure that the restaurant is open on the day you want to go. Believe it or not this is a non-trivial issue. On one Saturday evening a few months ago, out of a list of seven restaurants we wanted to visit, six were closed, the seventh was fully booked. Therefore planning ahead is of utmost importance.

The same thing happened last Monday evening. Our first preference was closed, our second preference was fully booked, the third option was also closed so we opted for the tried and tested Le Fruit Defendu on Rue Tenbosch in Ixelles.

We were not disappointed. This was our second visit to this cosy restaurant in the area between Lepoutre and Chatelain. The food remained consistent and so has the service. Chef Pascal Frénot retained the same formula of six starters and six main courses which practically change on a daily basis depending on what is available at the market and what tickles the chef’s fancy.

This is clearly a French classic but there are also some inventive elements to his creations.

The menu is balanced between fish and meat. On the two occasions we were there, there were three fish starters and three fish main courses and three meat starters with three meat main courses.

There are many things I like about this restaurant. First, Pascal works in an open kitchen and therefore you can observe what is happening in the kitchen. You need to be extremely confident to operate a restaurant kitchen with such transparency. Second, the service is also excellent. The menu is written on a blackboard and hence changes regularly but it was perfectly explained when you are about to place your order. The wine list is interesting with a good selection of wines at different prices though it could have been more detailed and have a bit more depth in terms of choice.

IMG_4604
The signature dish – a Nougat of Fois Gras
IMG_4608
Tartare of herring

We tried the foie gras which we were told is Pascal’s signature dish and it turned out to be excellent. Our friends choose a tartare of herring and the last portion of lobster ravioli served with a lobster bisque. I ordered a pasta dish with octupus, prawns and calamari topped with espelette pepper which was probably the best ever pasta dish I have eaten at a non-Italian restaurant.

IMG_4611
The John Dory – not too fond of creamy sauces with fish but this worked very well
IMG_4612
The herb crusted cod

For the main course two of us choose a John Dory served with a beurre blanc with crevettes. We also opted for a sea bass served with a herb sauce and cherry tomatoes and cod crusted with herbs.

IMG_4619
The excellent and nicely presented blueberry tart

the choice was interesting. We chose for four different desserts, all not only looked great but were also extremely good. We had a creme brulee with peaches, a tiramisu with strawberries, a blueberry tart and an iced coffee cream.

Verdict: The atmosphere is cosy and warm, the food is excellent, the service great. This place is well worth a visit. In this area I would put it on a par with En Face de Parachute and La Canne en Ville both of which we find excellent. Expect to pay around Eur 60 to Eur 70 per person. It is dimly lit, which makes for a great atmosphere but alas the photos are slightly blurred so apologies.

Le fruit défendu: Tenbosstraat 108Ixelles, Brussels. Closed on Saturday and Sunday.

 

Chateau de la Hulpe – a place for all seasons

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALiving in a city means that sometimes you feel the urge to get out and experience nature. It must have something to do with the fact that after 30 years living in Malta, even after nearly nine years in the Belgian capital, we still feel the urge to explore what Belgium and its neighbouring countries have to offer.

But when we run out of ideas or are too lazy to think, there is a place we turn to time and time again. Whether its winter, spring, summer or autumn, Chateau de la Hulpe and its surrounding land is a fantastic place to relax and enjoy peace and quiet.

The Domaine Solvay de la Hulpe extends across 227 hectares of greenery, woodland and ponds. It is a perfect place to go for a walk, to cycle, to take children for a picnic or to lose yourself in the serenity of this Natura 2000 side which is also considered as an important heritage site in Wallonia.

IMG_4841The Chateau is imposing but the lands are also impressive with every kind of vegetation and natural environment that can be found in this region.

You are likely to be impressed any season you go. One tip, if you want to avoid the crowds then go either during the week or else in the morning. Most people end up going there in the afternoons even though it still remains extremely pleasant.

Apart from the walks and nature, the grounds also house over five hundred works of famous Belgian artist Jean-Michel Folon. Just follow the signs to Folon Foundation and you will find the splendid collection in the farm of the castle of La Hulpe. There are more than forty years of his creations.

This is really an inspiring museum which I highly recommend visiting. Note it is closed on Mondays like most museums in Belgium.

Just outside the museum is a bistro with the most amazing views of uninterrupted countryside. However, don’t expect to eat well here. The choice on the menu is very limited. But if you head there after lunch and are lucky to have gone on a nice day, then you can sit on the terrace and have a superb view while enjoying a Belgian beer or coffee.

If you want to eat somewhere close then follow this link to my blog post on Lac to Genval.