Saturday, 2 October 2010
Restaurant - Belgo Centraal
Location - Covent Garden
By Boeing : 4386 miles
By Boris Bike : 1.5 miles
If you type into Google ‘list of famous Belgians’ it is headed by two well known figures. One is known as the ‘muscles from Brussels’ and the other is a fictional detective invented by an English woman. Is it a country or a conundrum? So far the Fork and Flag odyssey has taken me all over the world and so to return so close to home, to somewhere so familiar, was, at first, a little underwhelming. Afterall, thanks to the Eurostar I know Brussels and Bruges better than Bridport or Bicester. I know their love of chocolates, intricate lace doilies and dunking fries in mayonnaise. But to return is to discover anew and exchange first glimpses for a panoramic view.
For many Belgium is the poor relation of western Europe. It lacks the style of France, the sophistication of Italy and the substance of Germany. It appears small, incidental and parochial in comparison with its neighbours. It isn’t in the G8 and I’m not convinced there is a strong case for it to be in a G80.
I’ve trodden the width and breadth of London to find culinary exclaves but for Belgium I couldn’t have been more central. Belgo’s, a successful and swanky chain, has its main restaurant in a vast subterranean vault in Covent Garden. At street level the entrance is comprised of uber-urban metal walkways, hoists and scaffolds; more like the set of a John Paul-Gautier fashion show than a Trappist retreat. But descending the stairs the Belgian theme becomes more pronounced, still modern and minimalist, but with brick arches and that evocative smell of musty beer and the garlic of a thousand doused mussels.
The waiters wore what I presumed must be traditional dress, flowing black and red tunics that were not so much androgynous as effeminate. This was, I thought, a Belgian theme, afterall Poirot can hardly be said to be the most macho of sleuths and even Tintin has a kind of Tilda Swinton tomboy charm. The waitresses, it goes without saying, were butch. Given that we were early I was struck by how busy the restaurant was. There were tables and alcoves as far as the eye could see and all of them were taken. A look at the menu and the reason for this popularity was immediately apparent. It is the only restaurant I have ever been to where the beer list is ten times longer than the wine list. You can get any beer in Belgium but it is particularly renowned for two types: fruit beer and Trappist ales. To start with I ordered a Strawberry beer. It was almost as thick as a milkshake. It was flavoursome but its childlike sweetness was a little unsettling, like eating a bowl of Malibu flavoured Angel Delight.
A closer look at the beer list revealed one vintage bottle at a quite staggering £38. In a hypermarket that would buy you a case of 70 mortal malts. But there are connoisseurs in all warps and life and for all tastes. I, for one, will issue a stern rebuke to anyone who claims a sausage roll is just a sausage roll. Those who in French restaurants order a £600 Bordeaux no doubt impress their friends in Belgium by ordering a round of £38 beer.
Unfortunately my fear and loathing of crustacea prevented me from ordering mussels, that quintessential Belgian delicacy. Thankfully my companion obliged. Instead I ordered Waterzooi, a traditional chicken casserole, delicately flavoured with cream. I was impressed when the mussels came served on a hot plate with mussel shaped indents.
By the time I had finished my main course I was getting into the spirit of the Belgian experience and starting to enjoy their quirky customs. While in this perky mood I ordered a chocolate beer, as I couldn’t think of any reason not to. It was, if I may be frank, disgusting. And of course that is exactly what it would be. It is an absurd partnership of incongruent constituents: like ordering marmite ice-cream. I felt I had been duped, been taken in for the tourist I was. I bet a Belgian has never once ordered a bottle of this foul tasting, stagnant ditch water of a beverage. This is Belgium marketing its eccentricity to a bewitched Britisher. I tried to recover the evening by finishing with that most Belgian of deserts: the waffle. A hot, freshly griddled waffle was served smothered in chocolate sauce. In Bruges or Antwerp these can be bought from a street vendor for no more than two euros but I would pay not far shy of a tenner for mine. But then authenticity is a commodity, and it comes at a cost.
I left the restaurant a little bloated and a little confused. What is this land that is half Flemish and half French? Is it boring or beguiling? It seems so quaint and harmless yet the Belgian empire was reckoned to be amongst the most cruel and uncompromising. It appears so irrelevant and yet is the seat of power for some of the most powerful organisations in the world. I concluded that Belgium is the central hub of a vast Venn diagram of opposing and counter-opposing influences. I then concluded that I was more confused than I thought.