Sunday, 30 July 2017

A TOUCH OF CLASS: BRASSERIES GEORGES, UCCLE



It has been a long time since I reviewed a single restaurant.  Mainly because I have not found one worth reviewing in Brussels.    How can this be, I hear you cry, in a country that is reputed to have more Michelin stars per square kilometer than Paris?   The simple answer is, I really should get out more. 

As everywhere, Brussels is falling prey to the whims of the young hipsters.  And where food is concerned, spotty yoof knows nothing.  "Gourmet" burger bars are springing up all over the place.  Cooked mince beef sandwiches, pfffftttt.    This is not fine dining and unworthy of my attention.  I am a laydee of a certain age and standing, and I demand a proper restaurant with the proper cutlery and a handsome young waiter.





I have been on the lookout for new dining companions.  Chiquita Banana recently accompanied me to local favourite the dear old Heydenberg, where our presence brought the the average age of the clientele down to about 80.  Aunty Marianne is a reliable dinner or lunch partner and introduced me to trendy cocktail the Apérol Spritz, or "Irn Bru on the rocks" as I call it.  

My latest victim was long-time Brussels denizen Woodbine Kitty, who mixes the dazzling smile and dress sense of Bet Lynch from Corrie with the cutglass accent and health consciousness of Patsy from Ab Fab.   She'd recently had a Big Birthday (I am sworn to secrecy on numbers, but suffice it to say her membership to 18-40 night at the bingo club has been revoked for quite a while now). 

In July many restaurants in Brussels close for the holidays.  I was really at a loss to know where to take her.  At the eleventh hour I remembered a restaurant I have driven past on many occasions and tucked away in my mental filing cabinet.  Brasseries Georges (why is it plural?) is a Brussels institution, situated on the edge of the Bois de la Cambre on the posh Uccle side.   There is even valet parking, that's how posh it is.  In view of the furry dice and the leopardskin steering wheel cover in Kitty's car, I suggested she park it herself in the street.




Brasseries Georges is also an "écailler", meaning it has a fresh seafood counter and a man in wellies whose sole job is to select and prepare the shellfish.   Unfortunately I have an aversion to molluscs verging on allergy, which has resulted in some spectacular projectile vomiting, once from the top of the grand staircase in Geneva station, so we stuck to the regular menu - which is considerable, and includes fish and meat. The wine list alone reads like War and Peace.   The terrasse was full, despite it being holiday season when many Bruxellois are away, and we were lucky to get a table without a reservation.

 

The young waiter was very charming and professional, in a long white apron.  I was immediately impressed. The bread was real crunchy French baguette, and the butter was in a little dish with a paper lid on, which I think always sets the right tone. 

We both had the champignons farcis au pistou to start.  Pistou is a southern French version of pesto, without the pine nuts, but with double garlic.  They arrived piping hot, and you had to be careful how you cut into them, or a squirt of hot garlicky pesto could take your eye out.  We were already dodging projectiles from the adjoining table, where a young lady was attacking her lobster with an axe.  




I chose a bottle of Alsace white to accompany our food.  I have quite a fondness for Alsatian wines.  Dry, crisp, and served chilled they are the perfect accompaniment for meat, fish or seafood.  Go for the Gewurztraminer if your budget will stretch to it, unfortunately mine didn't so we had a bottle of Pinot Blanc which was perfect.




Kitty ordered the pain de viande, or meatloaf.  This might seem a humble choice given the wide range of the menu, but her few remaining teeth were giving her gyp.  In any case, it looked home-made and quite delicious, served with a rich gravy and a creamy potato mash.





I was nearly lost for choice, with a vast range of my favourite dishes on offer, and dithered between the kidneys in port and the magret of duck, but eventually plumped for the jarret d'agneau, or lamb shank.  This was slow-cooked to perfection and glazed with a sumptuous gravy, served with a delicious gratin dauphinois and crisp green beans.  Perfection in simplicity.   The lamb fell off the bone, it was so perfect. 



Woodbine Kitty is an interesting character, and it was clear she has lived an interesting life, if her tattoos are anything to go by.   We were nattering nineteen to the dozen, it was a miracle I managed to make some mental notes on the food and remembered to take photos.  Anyway, she has a healthy appetite which did not seem diminished by frequent intercourse smoking breaks.

A couple of extra glasses of wine were required before we arrived at the dessert course.   All your Franco-Belgian favourites  -  Dame Blanche, Tarte Tatin, and Moelleux au chocolat.  In the end I couldn't resist the all-you-can-eat chocolate mousse.  It arrived in a soup bowl, and I had to push myself like Chris Froome in the mountain stages of the Tour de France to finish it.   But I ended up with the polka dot jersey, allbeit rather tight around the midships by that stage.   Kitty had the millefeuille au caramel salé, made with perfect crunchy pastry.  I had such an excellent meal that I quite forgot myself and had a double expresso to finish, and a dreadfully sleepless night.





Brasseries Georges is a delightful restaurant, quite huge with several interior spaces, and a vast terrace protected from the traffic by hedges, giving an impression of a French country brasserie.  It's upmarket, but the prices are reasonable for the high quality of food and service.  I have paid as much for far lesser dining experiences.  The downstairs lavatories all in marble are a credit to the establishment.   The clientele is a mix of well-heeled Uccle ladies in Chanel suits and young trustafarians with limited shellfish dissection skills.    This is the sort of place I imagine myself frequenting on a regular basis in retirement, maybe for a monthly Sunday lunch, dressed in my little Chanel suit and pearls,  where I will have my regular table and my regular waiter, hopefully young and muscular to help me down the steps, where I will tuck a 10-euro note in his breast pocket with a lascivious wink.   

 With its impressive wine list, its skilled chefs and especially its team of super professional waiting staff, I finally feel I have found a restaurant worthy of my highest accolade.  Brasseries Georges is now officially Daphne Wayne-Bough Five Stars approved.  

Brasseries Georges
Avenue Winston Churchill 259
1180 Uccle 
Tel:  02 347 2100

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

CARNAGE



Carnival has been and gone for another year, and the time for abstaining from meat is behind us.   Vegetarians scroll on, nothing to see here.  Meat is indeed the new black. When it's very well done.  Otherwise it's red. Or pink.   Vegetarians and (shudder) vegans are slinking back into the shadows, and carnivores are daring to bare their teeth again.

Brussels is not vegetarian-friendly.  They like their meat here.  They like it raw, stewed, braised, grilled, skewered, bleeding or barbecued (as you will know if you live within sniffing distance of a garden at this time of year).  Steak frites.  Hachis américain (steak tartare to you, Jean-Jacques).  Carbonnades à la flamande.  They can't get enough of it. Hence any new take on carnivorous catering is welcome in Brussels. 

Sad however to report the departure from Brussels of Irish butcher Jack O'Shea, who due to a series of unfortunate events has neither his butchery shops nor his steak house.  






Pampas, a Brazilian rodizio with two restaurants in place Sainte Catherine and Place Jourdan, and others in Antwerp and Gent, offers an all-you-can-eat 30 euro menu of Brazilian-style barbecued meat and fish, or a fish-only or veggie menu for 18 euros.  Good choice for an office night out. 







The courageously named Balls and Glory has two restaurants in Brusssels, in the rue de Laeken and at the Bourse, as well as a few others dotted across Flanders, and serves one dish: meatballs.  No Ikea kottballen these, however,  They are handmade giant meatballs coated in breadcrumbs and deep-fried, with pork, chicken or veggie fillings, more like Scotch eggs without the eggs, if you follow.  Served with good old Belgian stoemp, and sauce or salad for 12.50.  Beer, wine and homemade lemonade is on the drinks menu and no sodas.  










For the third time in nine years, I recently revisited Meet Meat, an upmarket Argentinian steakhouse in the Schuman area, and was delighted to find the steaks still of a very high standard, both in terms of meat quality and cooking.  The Argentinian vibe has gone since the first time I reviewed it nine years ago. The music is no longer Piazzolla but generic jazz fusion. The only improvement I would suggest to Meet Meat is (a) bring back the mural of Carlos Gardel, and (b) change your name to something like Tango! or Pampa! or maybe The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe.It's a simple menu, steaks and chips or baked potato with salads on the side.  But I have not enjoyed a meal as much in ages.  Aunty Em and I both had the ribeye steak, medium, with chips and churrascara hot sauce (her) and baked jacket potato with beurre maitre-d'hotel (me).  The service is efficient and the waiting staff are young and friendly.   I am no longer the young hothead who sang God Save The Queen in an Argentinian churrasqueria in Paris during the Falklands War.   I can appreciate that Argentina is a highly civilized and cultured country with a fine culinary tradition.  




250g Ribeye steak cooked medium, with baked potato and sour cream, beurre maitre d'hotel and salad garnish.  Simple but perfect.


Dessert:  Copa Argentina - a dollop of dulce de leche ice cream in a bed of dulce de leche, with a shot of Diplomatico rum on the side.  I moaned, audibly.  It was almost a When Harry Met Sally moment.










I have posted twice in the past couple of years about the gourmet burger invasion of Belgium (which hit other major European cities ten years ago).   Only last week when one of my colleagues suggested going to a burger restaurant for someone's birthday did I realize the extent of the takeover.  There is almost nothing else to write about in a Brussels food blog.  

Ellis Gourmet Burger are now an established chain, with three restaurants in Brussels, seven more in other Belgian cities, not to mention three in Paris and four in the Netherlands .  In one way I'm happy to see the end of the tired old 1960s style Belgian cafés with their formica tables and weak apology for coffee.  It's time this town kicked it up a notch, and I'm gradually noticing a modernisation of the food scene here, although it's a bit like one of those builders who comes and paints one wall, then goes away for a couple of months, then comes back and sands a floor down, then goes away again for six months .... welcome to Belgium, quoi.  The renewed spirit of eating out even seems to have spawned a new generation of serving staff with the superpower of being able to see customers and get their food to them while it's still hot.  If I stick around long enough, this town might end up challenging Paris or London as a cool place to go out to eat, although by that time I'll have no teeth to chew with.


Green Mango in trendy Ixelles is burger-fusion with Thai soups and a vast selection of burgers.  


Berlin Fabrik at place de la Chapelle 17 down in the Marolles has taken over the corner site which used to be Resto Sol, and offers a selection of burgers on German themes, such as a Kraftwerk burger, Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin Wall and, er, Uber Alles.  Still in the Marolles, Chaff on place du Jeu de Balle 21 offers a Burger Rossini as well as an inventive veggie platter for your sad friend.

Brewdog Brussels is a relative newcomer on the scene, the website shows a fair selection of quality burgers, although no prices.  Still, it's the beer you go for, right?  Nice big terrace in summer. 

Scott's Bar  is an old favourite at no.2 Rue Montagne aux Herbes Potagers, or the much more concise in Dutch Warmoesberg, a couple of minutes' walk from Place de Brouckère. Its website says it is 'recently opened' although it seems to have been here at least as long as me.  It has a selection of enticing burgers including one with the house Jack Daniels sauce. 





De Belmonte at Place St Gery 29 is in the swinging trendy hipster heart of Brussels.  They offer a range of burgers and calorie-laden desserts.

L'Affranchi, in the wannabe up and coming area around the Gare du Nord, has quite a glossy website which makes a rather outrageous claim to do with the year 1921, which, if you read the blurb explaining the history of the hamburger (fairly accurate), refers to the date of establishment of the first hamburger restaurant chain, White Castle, in the US.   Tenuous, but then for less than 10 euros a burger, and in this part of town, don't expect miracles. As yet sight unseen but to be tried soon. 

If you're in that area (Gare du Nord/Rogier) and fancy a burger, I would suggest you rather visit Brussels Grill which has a 70's vibe about it, but the steaks, burgers and salads are more than acceptable.  They've opened a couple of spinoff restaurants called the Boston Steak House which are apparently overpriced and overhyped, of which there is one next to the entrance of the former Sheraton on place Rogier, now an empty shell due to chronic mismanagement. Regeneration is a nice concept in Dr Who, but some parts of town are more difficult than others.

The Old Wild West Steak House is, as can be imagined, a themed restaurant on place Henri Maus, by the side of the Bourse, serving their idea of American and Tex Mex dishes (if you accept that a ladle full of chilli sauce on a plate of tacos is Tex Mex).  To be avoided, in my humble opinion.  The website alone is less than appetizing.  Better to go next door to Manhattn's Burgers  which consistently features in every list of the 10 best burgers in Brussels. 


Le Corbeau on Rue St Michel, just off place de Brouckère, is one of my favourite Brussels bars.  It does the ultimate hangover cure, a stoemp with sausage, bacon and egg, but also will do you a 250g BBB (Bleu-Blanc-Belge) steak and a mind-boggling choice of beers to go with it.   If the stories about dancing on the tables are anything to go by, it's worth staying late on a Friday or Saturday night. 

Enough burgers, enough steaks.  The cow is getting all the attention here, at the expense of the humble pig.  Amadeo on rue Sainte Catherine has been there for ever, and is famous for its all-you-can-eat pork spare ribs.   Despite the Italian name, it is resolutely Flemish, and the Brussels restaurant is the only one in the chain of 10 not in Flanders. Skip dessert and have their legendary Irish coffee while you peruse a volume from the book-lined walls. 


Black listed

Meet Me, boulevard Adolphe Max 96, Brussels - no relation to Meet Meat, and nowhere near the same level of food or service.  Restaurant of the Marivaux Hotel.  While we're on terrible puns on the word meat, Meat'ing Room at rue d'Arenberg 46 near Gare Centrale is mostly an Italian restaurant, but made it into The Fork's 10 best burgers in Brussels list.





I reprise below my list of steakhouses and burger joints for those of a carniverous disposition.

Steak
Meet Meat

Brussels Grill
Boston Steak House
Meet Me, boulevard Adolphe Max 96, Brussels - no relation to Meet Meat, and not the same level of food or service.  Restaurant of the Marivaux Hotel. 

Pork ribs: 
Amadeo

Burgers: 
B34 Steak and Burger House, Rue St Boniface 34, Ixelles
Burger Republic, Chaussée de Vleurgat 7  (off Flagey)
Chez Rachel rue du Marché au Charbon 100
Chicago (owned by Houtsiplou), rue de Flandre 45
Cool Bun Place Stephanie and Schuman
Cowfish Burgers, rue de Pépin 48 (Porte de Namur)
Delecta   2 rue Lannoy, 1050 Ixelles (off Flagey)  
Green Mango, Chaussée de Vleurgat 142, Ixelles
Hard Rock Cafe, Grand'Place
Ellis Gourmet Burger  Place Sainte Catherine, Place Jourdan and Place Flagey
Houtsiplou Place Rouppe  
King Kong, chaussée de Charleroi 227, St Gilles
L'Affranchi, 9A Chaussée d'Anvers (near Yser/Rogier)
L'Amour Fou chaussee de Wavre (opposite Ixelles town hall)
Be Burger, place Dumon 4, Woluwe St.Pierre (Stockel), Hector Henneaulaan 164, Zaventem
L'Harmony, rue de l'Eglise 86, WSP (Stockel) 
Lou Boire et Manger rue du Page 7-9, Ixelles (Chatelain)
Manhattn's Burgers   Rue Henri Maus 39 (next to the Bourse) and avenue Louise 164
Marcel Burger Bar at Rue Américaine 87
Schievelavabo, chaussée de Wavre 344, Etterbeek (Place Jourdan) and now also at 111 rue Jacques Bassem in Audergem (ex La Caudalie)
Scott's Bar 2 Rue Montagne aux Herbes Potagers
The Black Sheep Chaussée de Boondael 8 (off Flagey) 
Tram de Boitsfort  Place Payfa, Watermael-Boitsfort


Sunday, 17 January 2016

ROUND ENGLAND WITH A SCOTSMAN

Gorbals was woefully ignorant about England.  The boy has had an (ahem) 'progressive' education and apart from a few months in Hampshire his only impressions of England have been gleaned from books and the television, so he thinks London is a Dickensian nightmare full of cutthroats, murderers, oom-pah-pah wenches and toffs in top hats with Dick Van Dyke accents, and the North is full of dark satanic mills and madwomen screaming on moors.   I was determined to show him the real England in the manner of Boswell to Dr Johnson, only in reverse, and we set off last July to complete the boy's education. 


Borough Market
Our first stop was of course the great metropolis, where we would also terminate our grand boucle.  We started on the East Side, in trendy Shoreditch, close to Brick Lane which constitutes the boundary between hipsters and Moslems.  In some cases it was quite hard to tell the difference.  We had a curry on Brick Lane of course, but on the second evening a much better one a bit further away, in the Lahore Kebab House, which is a noisy, BYOB canteen where the food is cooked in a huge open kitchen and by 8 p.m. there is a queue for tables.    In between the two curries we tried to have a sightseeing walk but the rain started and after taking shelter for a while in Borough Market where we sampled cheeses like Bleu de Tottenham, we ended up digging in at The Sugar Loaf near Mansion House, where we had beefy sausages with mustard and watched the Dubai Duty Free Darts Masters final on telly, which got more entertaining as the beers slipped down. I am now a great fan of Phil 'The Power' Taylor.  



The last of the old East End

Brick Lane is notoriously short on pubs but there is a wonderful 24-hour bagel bakery at the top of the road, the last bastion of London's East End Jewish community who once occupied the area.  The bagels - or beigels, as they call them - are made before your very eyes, and sold in dozens and half-dozens for a few pounds.  A salt beef bagel sandwich was slapped together as we peered through the window, about half a pound of salt beef was hacked off a joint, slapped inside a bagel and thrown unceremoniously onto the counter.  ₤3.90.  

        

London is much too expensive to hang about for long, and so we picked up a jalopy at Paddington and headed out on the M40 towards Oxford.  It was Saturday and Oxford was heaving with Chinese tourists and graduation ceremonies.   Slightly embarrassed graduates in gowns were escorting their beaming parents around the colleges.  It was too crowded and we only had a few hours before we had to head off to Midsomer Dibley, where we were staying with my cousin Vera Slapp and her husband Cyril.  They took us for Sunday lunch at the Fleur de Lys in picturesque Dorchester-on-Thames, where Gorbals came face to face with Yorkshire Pudding for the first time.  Judging by his plate at the end of the meal, it was not an altogether unpleasant experience.




After a few stops to visit friends in the West Midlands and Cheshire, we headed for the Peak District.  In Buxton we stayed at the delightfully old fashioned Buckingham Hotel, which has a photo of Basil Fawlty on the front door and a cracking bar with a telly showing vintage.tv - I was soon singing away to David Bowie.  We had dinner at The Old Club House opposite the Opera House.  It was one of these pubco places, with one of those menus we were to encounter again and again.  I think we had steak and ale pie. Fashions change in pub grub don't they?  I was hoping for breaded garlic mushrooms somewhere, but they seem to have been phased out in favour of halloumi nachos or some such street food craze.  




The next day we drove to Chatsworth House, and walked around the free bits, while Gorbals whistled The Red Flag.   We declined to add to the massive wealth of their Lordships by eating in the cafeteria - although I did admire the chairs.  The restaurant is situated in the stable block which is the size of a medium sized palace itself.


After Chatsworth, Gorbals insisted we visit the opposite end of the social spectrum, Hadfield.  The reason for this was somewhat obscure.  Something to do with the village being featured in the opening credits of a programme called "The League of Gentlemen".    It was a ghastly place, and almost deserted.  There were two pubs, one of which was closed.  All the restaurants closed at 2.00 p.m.  We ended up buying something horrible  and gristly from a shop and eating it in the car.

Our ultimate destination that day was Manchester. This was a new experience for both of us. I had been to the old Granada studios to see the set of Corrie (Harold's mother's choice) but had never seen the city centre. Of course it was raining.  We stayed two nights in Manchester and I'm glad we did, there was a lot to see.  The John Rylands library, the People's History Museum, the Chopin monument, not to mention Chinatown and the Gay Village with the touching statue of Alan Turing.  Once again, our eating habits didn't fit in with English opening times, and we often arrived at a gastropub just after 8 p.m. to find the chef had just gone home.  Thank God for Chinatown where they will welcome you at all hours.




Gorbals gaying it up.






Me showing Alan Turing an i-Pad.

Friday we were heading for the Lake District but managed to fit in a few hours in Liverpool, don't ask me why.  We walked through the fabulous new docklands area although didn't have time to visit Tate Liverpool.   Mathew Street, where the Cavern Club is, had to be done.  We posed merrily for photos with the statue of John Lennon, unaware that Our Cilla was about to imbibe her last G and T over in Spain.  We did not have time to see the Cathedral or the famous Adelphi Hotel,   but we did see the inside of the scuzziest gay bar I have ever encountered (another of Gorbals' great ideas).   My whistlestop scheduling is famous, ever since the days of working for the Folies Bergere, where my boss said you needed a liver of iron and the driving skills of Alain Prost to keep up with my regional tours.

And so to Cumbria, where the scenery makes up for the lack of haute cuisine.  Not that you can't eat well in Cumbria, but there is so much else to do.  Climbing fells (small ones),  driving over passes, looking down on lakes, forging through undergrowth, we had a very active week and food was restricted to local takeaways and picnics.   However a lot of pubs were visited, and a lot of beers with funny names were sampled.







The weather was somewhere between poor and appalling for most of the time, but on the very last day we did a trip round the south end of Lake Windermere and back up through Coniston and Ambleside, and the skies smiled on us.  We lingered as long as possible on the shores of Lake Windermere watching an impossibly dramatic sunset.

A week was all too short, and before long it was time to start heading south.  We set off towards the Yorkshire dales in search of the Last of the Summer Wine, and some sunshine.








Monday, 31 August 2015

MAS QUE NATA - PORTUGAL, FOODIE PARADISE (PART TWO: PORTO)




After a resounding triumph in Lisbon with the KNOB* (applause) I made it to Porto with the aid of a Tomtom that Jurgen loaned me. I would never have found my way to the hotel in time for dinner with Cynthia and Angus otherwise. But the stupid thing can't figure out that 'rua Dom Carlos II' is not pronounced 'rua Dom Carlos eye eye'.  

*Kurt Nachtnebel Oompah Band


I made it to the Majestic Cafe in Porto, where I RV'd with Cynthia and Angus, a mere 20 minutes after the prearranged time.  We had a drink on the terrace and then moved inside to eat.  The Majestic is a piece of olde worlde grandeur, with chandeliers and lots of mirrors, and waiters in bow ties.  I had cod loin which was sumptuous. Angus had some kind of pasta with prawns, and Cynthia had cod cooked in one of the 1,000 ways they boast over there.












On our first full day in Porto we walked down through the town, past magnificent buildings and statues of Henry the Explorer, and over the bridge to Vila Nova de Gaia, commonly known as "Gaia", which is technically a separate town from Porto.  A bit like Manchester and Salford.  Although not much. 
There I was persuaded by Cynthia and Angus to try a Francesinha for lunch - it's like a steak inside an all-day breakfast inside a croque monsieur - while Cynthia and Angus, having already tried this bellybusting marvel of Portuguese cuisine, opted for more sensible dishes.






 


As a pre-birthday treat, my dear friends invited me for a tour of Graham's port lodge, followed by a tasting of three vintage ports - 1983, 2003 and 2007.  We returned via cable car over the rooftops of Gaia. I normally hate being separated from planet Earth buy anything less robust than a 747, but thanks to the port, I was not remotely bothered about hanging in the air suspended by a wire.




 ...














Porto is not very big, once you've covered the waterfront on both sides and done your port-tasting, you've more or less done the town.  So on day 2 we went on the 'historic' tram to Foz do Douro, the seaside resort closest to Porto. The tram is tiny and packed and takes ages, and is also quite expensive, so I would recommend the bus which takes the same route only in a fraction of the time and more comfortably.  We were somewhat puzzled on arrival in Foz, as there seemed to be no restaurants overlooking the sea.  We found one eventually, where the food was superb but the clientele seemed to be wealthy trustafarians who double parked their Porsches on the street. Being neither rich nor young, and on foot, we felt a little out of place.  On the walk back to the bus terminus we found that all the beach restaurants were tucked away under the promenade, sheltered from the wind.

On our third day 'oop north' we went for a drive up into the hills and through stunning scenery to Amarante, picture-postcard village on the Tamega river, where the hermit saint Gonçalo is buried.  Zé da Calçada is a delightfully old-fashioned family-run restaurant on the river in Amarante, where we had a smashing lunch with Portuguese bubbly and everything. The amuse-gueule was almost a meal in itself, and I was so pleased to find a restaurant that still uses the proper cutlery.   Dessert was an all-you-can-eat pudding buffet where you help yourself. We couldn't trust ourselves to be sensible, so we demurred. Angus' massive plate of ham-stuffed trout was billed as a half-portion. 









Below us people pootled about on pedalos on the river. It was reminiscent of somewhere like Shiplake on the Thames, or Bouillon in southern Belgium, only considerably warmer.  Cynthia lost her head, and bought shoes.



   Angus and Cynthia, in silhouette, in Amarante




On our last night we had dinner on the Ribeiro, the Porto side of the Douro.  By this time we'd worked out that there is a cable car that takes you down to the riverside and back up again, giving you a spectacular view of the bridge and a stomach-churning drop on the last stretch. It's very touristy down by the river, and most of the restaurants on that side are much of a muchness, and not much to write home about.  The restaurants in Gaia, across the bridge, are better, and afford one the opportunity of crossing the spectacular bridge on the lower level, returning on the higher level if one wishes.

Portugal was a gastronomic nirvana.  There are more ways to cook salt cod than you could get through in a month.  The desserts are deadly, but what a beautiful death!  The coffee is good enough to turn a lifelong tea drinker like me.  The wines are light and pleasant and prices of both food and wine are democratic.  The service is efficient, fast, and charming, and the restaurants are often a bit old-fashioned, which is quite to my liking. Fish knives are still A Thing in Portugal.  

Oh, and the waiters are very handsome and flirty.  Which is quite important to Ladies of a Certain Age.  I am seriously thinking of retiring to Portugal.  Death by custard tart seems a suitably decadent way to go.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

MAS QUE NATA: PORTUGAL, FOODIE PARADISE (PART ONE: LISBON)


I put on 3 kilos in Portugal.  Basically, I ate everything I saw.  It was all divine. 

On day one, I set out in the jalopy to Sintra. If you imagine what the Garden of Eden would look like, with hordes of tourists, that's Sintra.  I went to see gardens.  Boy, has Sintra got gardens.  Huge ones.  They take hours and hours to visit.  As a result, come lunchtime I found myself in the gardens of the Montserrat estate, where the victuals were sparse and served in a kind of National Trust type tearoom.   I had a soda and a sausage roll.  The man behind the counter told me to go and sit down and he would warm up the sausage roll and bring it to me.  When it appeared, it had been daintily cut in two and served with a paper serviette.    The bill was 3,90 euros which was certainly not a National Trust price.




That evening I ventured into Estoril, the resort where I was staying just outside of Lisbon.  There were a number of unpromising looking restaurants either side of the esplanade in front of the casino (the very same casino that inspired Ian Fleming to write Casino Royale) and I was starving, so I went into Pinto's, a simple looking pizzeria.  This being Portugal, of course, there was more on offer than pizza.  I had an absolutely delicious veal steak with bacon, with a couple of glasses of white wine and a dessert.



The next day I took the local train into Lisbon, where I totally fell in love.  I had been to Lisbon before, for a New Year weekend, but now it was warm, people were eating outside, and Harold wasn't with me.  I felt my boxes being ticked all down the line.  I ate lunch at a small corner restaurant called A Campesinho off Agusta in the Caixa (shopping district) where I had a salt fish croqueta from the shop on the corner where they were made, with a salad and a glass of wine.  A gipsy accordionist was providing the ambient music.  I had just bought two pairs of divinely beautiful and comfortable sandals at a very democratic price.  Life was good.


The old vegetable market in Lisbon has been transformed into a trendy food court called Mercado.  The top restaurants in Lisbon have outlets here where you can sample their menus seated on high stools at long tables.  It was packed on Saturday evening.  Better to come with some friends though, you'd feel a bit of a gooseberry sitting there on your own, unless you are of a particularly gregarious nature.


Opposite my hotel was a cake shop called Zenith, outside which I found a sweet spot to park the car.  (Sweet spot - ha ha - geddit?)  It was a modern style cake shop, and I noticed they did have pasteis de nata.  It would have been rude not to.  I bought 4 which were daintily packaged up in a box, for me to take back to my hotel room, for a furtive afternoon delight.  Oooh missus.  The man in the cake shop told me that their pasteis were better than those from Belem, as they didn't have to make them in industrial quantities.  He could have been right.










On the Sunday it was scorchio so I went to the beach at Carcavelos.  Toda Lisboa was there.  I strolled along the promenade with an independent air, humming "Copacabana", and ended up sitting down for lunch in Ondo Grande (Big Wave) where I had garlic prawns with a tomato salad, a glass of wine and a pudding.  Nearby some young men were playing beach volleyball in shorts, so I lingered over a coffee, and then another one, taking in the view.  






On my last night on the Estoril coast I went into Cascais.  The main square is a mass of tables, so that you can't see where one restaurant ends and the next begins.  I took a table in a sidestreet, since the main square was rather awash with celebrating football fans, Benfica having just won the Portuguese league.  I ordered sardines, which came with boiled potatoes.  As I was taking the photograph you see above, I noticed the chap at the next table whisper something to his wife.  I knew they were English, and thought "Oh no they think I'm one of those hipsters who's always photographing their food!"  so I looked straight at him and said "I'm a food writer."    He looked quite delighted.  "I just said to my wife," he declared, "I bet she's a food writer!"  I smiled indulgently, waiting for the predictable question.  "I say," he began, "You're not that .. Daphne Wayne-Bough, are you?  Yes, you are!  You're our favorite food writer!  Can we have a selfie with you?"    I get this all the time.  Jay Rayner would kill for my retweets.
My next port of call was Lisbon proper, where the KNOB* were performing, but I had time to swing by Sesimbra on the way.  By this time I had managed to figure out how to use my phone as a GPS, and hence drove straight there and not via Madrid!   What an absolute godsend that GPS is.  I was quite hostile to it for years, but have realized the error of my ways.   In Sesimbra I finally got to try the famous bifana steak sandwich - not necessarily beef, despite the name.  I could hear the chef bashing the life out of it in the kitchen. Next time I'm having the piglet sandwich. Sesimbra is a quiet seaside town with half a dozen or so decent restaurants and no tourist traps. 

* Kurt Nachtnebel Oompah Band




After the brass band competition we were invited to a buffet dinner for all the bands at Restaurante Clara.  It was a set menu, so we weren't expecting anything exciting.  After a fairly dull soup, we had Bacalhau a braz: comfort food. So comforting I had two helpings. Followed by a tasting of as many of 10 desserts on offer as I could get on my plate. I now feel extremely comforted. The restaurant had a gorgeous garden, but it was quite windy that night and a bit cold, so had to photograph it through the window. And PROPER FISH KNIVES! And silver service ... a bit old fashioned but frightfully elegant - so moi.  The dessert buffet is very common in Portuguese restaurants.  Reminiscent of the sweet trolley in our own restaurants of the 1970s.





We were all staying in the Hotel Sana Lisboa, in the upmarket part of town.   I must say it is an excellent hotel.  The staff were highly efficient and charming with it, particularly the doorman who was the spitting image of Cristiano Ronaldo.  I must however compliment the pastry chef, whose creations were the jewel in the crown of the buffet lunches. As you can see, they were too good to have just one.