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.

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The signature dish – a Nougat of Fois Gras
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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.

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The John Dory – not too fond of creamy sauces with fish but this worked very well
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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.

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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.

 

Lac du Genval

IMG_3927I am always surprised at how few people know about or have been to Lac du Genval, just 20 minutes away from Brussels. In a way this is better since this scenic lake is not too crowded. The lake is part of the Rixensart and Overijse villages in Wallon Brabant and Flemish Brabant and is surrounded by beautiful turn-of-the century homes.

There is also a hotel by the lake, the Chateau du Lac. For those looking for a day trip out of Brussels, then you could also visit the Chateau de la Hulpe which is not too far away.

This small lake also has a number of restaurants and cafes and is therefore a perfect place to chill out either on a summer evening or during the weekend.

The walk around the lake takes around 30 minutes and you will pass by a small yacht club, beautiful houses, fishermen enjoying the silence away from the hustle and bustle of central Brussels. You can just stroll and enjoy the scenery but many people also come here to jog or bike in this scenic environment.

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERABut the reason I like Lac du Genval so much apart from all of the above is an Italian restaurant aptly named La Laguna. If someone puts me on the spot and asks me to name a favourite restaurant then this will surely be one of the first ones I would mention.

Let’s start with the basics. There is no sophistication in the cuisine. However, both the food and service have always been consistently good whenever we have gone (countless times). The obvious selling point of this restaurant is clearly its outdoor terrace just by the lake as well as its indoor window which has a splendid vista of the lake. For someone so used to water and the sea, this is probably as good as it gets 20 minutes from Brussels.

Here you will dine a stone’s throw away from the lake. The menu is varied with some specialities from Sardegna. Pasta and pizza are extremely good. I particularly like their Spaghetti alla Bottarga.

You also need to look out for their specials. I can only recommend the homemade ravioli with artichokes (only served when the latter are in season) and a bottarga sauce (mullet roe). This is a match made in heaven and something I have found only at this restaurant. Their tiramisu is also very well made.

La Laguna is also a child-friendly restaurant and the staff always make the children feel welcome interacting with them throughout the service.

The same owners also have La Fontanell which is also highly recommended but which, unfortunately we have never been to because we cannot resist the allure of La Laguna. La Fontanell has a very good play area for children at the back of the restaurant so this is really a good place to take children.

There are other restaurants around the lake but here we stick to the tried and tested. Great Italian food, excellent service and a beautiful view. What else could you ask for?

 

Belgium day trips 2: Gaasbeek and the Waterhof farm shop

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The Waterhof farm

Amid the gently rolling hills of the Pajottenland just outside Brussels lies the beautiful village of Gaasbeek. This is one of our favourite spots just outside the Belgian capital and for a number of reasons.

The first reason is a splendid medieval castle, the Gaasbeek castle which has evolved from a strategic stronghold into a spacious country house. One of its most famous owners was the Count of Egmond.

While on the other side of Brussels you will find the Chateau de la Hulpe, Gaasbeek, to the West of Brussels makes for a great alternative. The castle lies within an extensive park which was already laid out in the 17th century. It has impressive avenues and narrow winding paths as well as beautiful beech trees. From the park you can see the beautiful countryside with numerous cows grazing in the fields. It is indeed impressive to think that this is just a few kilometres outside the city.

You can visit the castle and the museum garden. Moreover, the lands also house the Graaf van Egmond brasserie. Just opposite the castle you can find a brasserie with a great outdoor playground for children which includes a bouncy castle. This is a great place for children to play.

IMG_9163But the hidden secret of Gaasbeek and probably the best reason to return from time to time is a farm shop just outside the village. The farm is called Waterhof and it is one of those places which are so charming that you wish to discover more of them in the surrounding countryside.

Firstly the farm makes its own milk thanks to its more than 60 cows. Given that the artisanal method of producing their products is time consuming, the Waterhof farm have invested in a robot which milks the cows automatically and you can also see this in action when the farm or shop is open. The farm, which is more than 500 years old (with the oldest standing building  dating from 1813) makes superb ice-creams using their own produce. You can also buy butter, cheese, yogurt (excellent), puddings, chocolate mousse and butter milk (lait battu). You can also buy pastries, juices as well as a wide range of potatoes and seasonal fruits and vegetables.

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One of their speciality ice-creams served at the farm, the tiramisu

The highlight is a courtyard where you can try the superb range of ice-creams served. When its cold, there is also space inside. This is really a superb place to take children. Not only do you treat them to excellent ice-cream but they can visit the barns where the cows go to rest after grazing the fields in the hills around the farm. There is also a small barn with calves open for visitors.

Verdict: This place is so good I hesitated before writing about it lest this becomes too commercial.  If you are going on a hot day, make sure to take a cooler bag to transport the ice-cream and other produce. You will not be able to resist the temptation of buying a few litres for home. Drop me a line if you try it and if you know of other similar places in Belgium.

 

Serious or not? The proof of the pudding is in the eating

Alain Passard is one of the most influential chefs in France. Thanks to my friend Eric who pointed me to this video, here you can see what it means to use top quality ingredients.

Passard is a chef who is obsessed with working with quality products, he has even created his own kitchen gardens for his restaurant.

Here in this video, you cannot but wonder whether he is serious or not about serving such a dish. Just a touch of olive oil at the end, some salt and that is it. No vinegar, no dressing, just prepped vegetables, salad leaves and herbs mixed together to bring about an explosion of freshness.

Does the dish work? Who knows. You may need to take a trip to Paris to try it at his 3-Michelin Star restaurant L’Arpege.

For sure, you need to be incredibly confident of the quality of the ingredients to let them shine like this. But it is also a lesson in simplicity and creativity.

Beat your fear – how I overcame my phobia of cheese

IMG_6135Phobias are irrational and unexplainable. Cheese until a few years ago was my achilles heel. Few people could understand how someone who could be so obsessed with food and wine had a ‘fear of cheese’. This was not an allergy but rather real fear.

I recall a day when I was still at school and a friend had placed a piece of cheese in my school bag as a joke. I never used that bag again. I remember protesting with my father to refrain from using the same knife he had used to cut a piece of cheese to cut bread or spread butter. I even would tell him to wash his hands before handling anything else.

Such was my fear. Now, with the benefit of hindsight a fear of cheese is not only irrational, it is also ridiculous. This was not an allergy. That would be perfectly understandable. Can you imagine never eating a pizza with mozzarella. Hard to believe but true.

So you can just start to imagine what a big deal it was to actually try cheese for the first time. I overcame this phobia thanks to my wife who  talked me into trying what in Malta we call fresh goat’s cheeselet, similar in taste to ricotta which was the only ‘cheese’ I liked.

It took a few weeks to convince myself that I would try this cheese which has a similar texture and taste to ricotta but which was out of bounds because of this fixation.

I still remember the day in Gozo, the second island in Malta, when served with this mild goats’ cheese. The anticipation was tremendous. But as soon as I tasted it for the first time, my reaction was a rather incredulous one. I remember smiling and then wondering ‘what was all the fuss about?’.

The next hurdle to overcome was Mozzarella di Bufala and again the reaction was pretty similar.  As soon as I tried it, I again remember that the reaction was a similar one. Then it was an overdose of pizza with mozzarella to compensate for what I had missed in the past.

The conversion to Parmigiano Reggiano was more painful. I recall going to Fulvio Pierangelini’s Gambero Rosso, at the time considered as the best Italian chef who had an exceptional restaurant in a small Tuscan town near Bolgheri called San Vincenzo. I promised myself that I would try whatever was served to me in this restaurant.

The tasting menu looked safe given it was mainly fish-based but I opted to add suckling pig as an additional dish on top of the tasting menu. All was fine until the kitchen sent an amuse bouche which was a small ‘cannolo’ stuffed with mince of suckling pig. It was sprinkled with Parmigiano Reggiano. I started sweating, my face turned red and I panicked. The table next to us realised something was wrong because they were looking at us constantly. There was clearly no turning back. Leaving the dish there would have led to lots of questions and probably a visit from the chef to our table to ask whether there was a problem.

And then, I plucked up the courage and tried it for the first time. Those were probably the longest moments of my life. But again my reaction was one of wonder. What was all the fuss about? Not only was the taste mild, it actually boosted the flavour of the dish.

So for the time being, only blue cheese is off limits though I must say that this is again more psychological than rational. Actually, I have tried Roquefort once and again found it rather mild except for the smell which takes some getting used to.

Proof, if any was needed, that I overcame the phobia, came a few weeks ago at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana. There served with his signature dish, the five ages of Parmesan, I actually thought that it was one of the best dishes I have ever tastes. Such are the wonders of life.

The moral of the story is to fight your fears and try to beat the irrational.

Here are my tips

1. Talk yourself into fighting your fear.

2. Believe that you can beat your fear.

3. Read about what you are afraid of. In my case it was reading about food and wine including articles about different cheeses, pairing with wines etc. If you are  afraid of flying, read travel books, think about places you would like to visit or about planes. You get the gist.

4. Start gradually and increase the dose step by step.

5. Speak about your conquest. Be enthusiastic and tell anyone who wants to listen.

6. Ideally find someone with whom you can share your steps.

7. Good luck – you can beat your fear.