When it comes to tourism in Belgium, Brussels gets a bad rap.

Go to Bruges, they say, for the picturesque canals and mediaeval centre.
Go to Antwerp, they say, for world class art and hipster fashion.
Go to Ghent, they say, for more of the same plus cycling too.
Go to Ypres, they say, for WW1 history.

But Brussels? Brussels is often dismissed as little more than a hub for politicians and lobbyists.

Of course, there’s much more to Brussels than politics! Yes, Brussels is the home of the European Union, NATO and the United Nation’s European office…

…but it is also the capital of a country of two halves – the Dutch-speaking Flemish region of Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia in the South. Multicultural Brussels, the third region of the country, is bilingual though French is now more prevalent than Dutch. These days English is widely spoken as well as many other languages, indeed it’s said that as much as half the population speak neither French nor Dutch as their native tongue.

As a Londoner, one of the things I find most appealing about Brussels is this sense of multiculturalism. Although the issue of language is still a hot potato for many Belgians, especially when it comes to education and cultural identity, Brussels is a city that is very open to the world.  Indeed, we chat to Pierre from the local tourist board who tells us that the people of Brussels refer to themselves as zinneke (bastard dogs), wearing their mongrel heritage with pride. Pierre is himself the perfect example – his mother is gipsy, his father Walloon and Flemish, his wife Brazilian and his sisters are married to a German, a Frenchman and a Czech, respectively!

Brussels is a vibrant city with a historic heart and a modern outlook. And the Eurostar service takes you from London St Pancras to Brussels Midi-Zuid in less than two and a half hours!

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When it comes to sightseeing, you still can’t beat a good old-fashioned guide book, or the website equivalent. I won’t try to recreate that here but suggest that as well as the popular Gothic and baroque buildings of the Grand Place and surrounding narrow cobbled streets, the shiny Atomium housing a variety of exhibitions and the incomprehensibly mobbed corner where the Mannekin Pis resides you might want to look up Jeanneke Pis and Zinneke Pis – the squatting female and doggie equivalents of Mannekin, the Belgian Comic Strip Centre (and the Comic Strip walk that takes you past comics painted on the walls of a number of buildings), an amazing array of grand buildings such as the Cathedral of St Michael and St Gudula, the Bourse (stock exchange), the Royal Palace, the Basilique du Sacré Coeur and the architecture of art nouveau architect Victor Horta. Lovers of literature, art, history and even cars, will also appreciate several excellent museums in Brussels.

Instead, I’m going to share my tips for some great places to eat, drink, shop and sleep.

 

Chocolates and Patisserie

Brussels is awash with shops selling chocolate, but much of what’s on sale is cheap, bulk-manufactured products that are hardly worth wasting suitcase space for. Here are the ones that are worth seeking out.

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Laurent Gerbaud is one of Belgium’s rising chocolatiers and is fighting an uphill battle to move Belgians on from the idea of “Belgian chocolate” to an understanding of the actual origins and varieties available.

Like several chocolatiers I’ve met, Laurent was a chef first; he came to chocolate via chocolate sculpture with an artist friend, and that lead, eventually, to his current career. As a child, he developed an interest in China, perhaps because of several friendships he had with Chinese and Taiwanese families. He worked in Chinese restaurants, took courses in Chinese and, after a university degree in history, finally moved to China for a couple of years. There, he discovered that the Chinese don’t have as sweet a tooth as Europeans and he lost his taste for high sugar sweets. When he came back to Belgium, he had the obvious thought of bringing his experiences in China into his chocolate making but realised he wasn’t inspired by fusion flavours. Instead, he focused on quality ingredients, including some sourced from Asia.

Today, the Chinese influences is perhaps most evident in his logo which is an artistic interpretation of the Chinese hanzi characters for “chocolate” and his name.

Laurent is keen to make chocolate that people love to eat; he says “one of my purposes is to make junk food – you eat one and you want another because it’s really good”. Judging by the chocolates we tasted, he’s nailed it – I could have eaten a whole box of the chocolates made with dried figs from Turkey and candied oranges from Italy. His shop on Rue Ravenstein is also a boutique tea room, with plans to extend the service to offer a savoury menu too.

Tip: Of course, you can visit his shop just to buy some of his excellent chocolate, but for a more personal experience, book a chocolate tasting or chocolate making workshop.

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Pierre Marcolini is one of the few Belgian chocolatiers to make chocolate from bar to bean, before then using it to make a range of chocolates. His chocolate shop at 2 Rue de Minimes is certainly full of temptation but what I recommend above the chocolate is a visit to the address around the corner at 39 Grote Zavel, where his spectacular patisserie is sold. I found the macarons surprisingly disappointing but a glossy strawberry patisserie was a winner.

Other famous chocolate brands in Brussels include Wittamer (a long standing bakery and chocolate business) and Frederic Blondeel (a chef turned chocolatier who also makes chocolate from bean to bar).

 

Speculoos Biscuits

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Speculoos, hailing from Belgium and The Netherlands, are spiced shortcrust biscuits that were originally associated with the feast of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) in early December. Made from flour, brown sugar and butter with a spice mix that usually includes cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cardamom and white pepper, these days they are popular and available all year round.

Maison Dandoy, established in 1829, makes a range of sweet bakery products but is best known for its traditional speculoos and gingerbread biscuits. These days, it has a handful of shops in Brussels, but its worth making a trip to its oldest remaining store at 31 Rue au Beurre, to admire the beautiful wooden biscuit moulds lining the shelves. The Tea Room on Rue Charles Buls (also known as Karel Bulsstraat) is larger, offering the opportunity to enjoy a wide range of biscuits, pastries and drinks inside. There are an additional four shops in Brussels, plus one in nearby Waterloo.

Having tried several supermarket brands of speculoos biscuit, I was surprised to discover that it’s not just a case of fancy shops and branding – the Maison Dandoy speculoos biscuits are definitely superior!

We also tried Dandoy’s pain à la Grecque, a crunchy bread-cum-biscuit coated with pearled sugar crystals. I was more fascinated by the origins of the name than the biscuit itself – over two centuries ago, the monks of a local Augustine abbey used to support the city’s destitute by giving them bread. The abbey was located near a place known as Wolvengracht (Wolves Ditch); the gracht pronounced grecht in local dialect. Over time, pain a la grecht morphed into pain à la Grecque, confusing generations of shoppers with its erroneous suggestion of a Greek origin.

Tip: If you’re as huge a fan of speculoos biscuits as we are, make a quick visit to a supermarket to pick up a couple of extra large packs of mass-produced biscuits as well. There’s a mini supermarket in Brussels Midi Station.

 

Cuberdons

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I first fell for cuberdons over two decades ago, and if anything, I love them even more today. A purply-dark red colour and conical in shape, the cuberdon is a raspberry-flavoured gummy sweet, firm on the outside with an oozing interior. In Dutch, it’s known as a neus (nose), in French it’s called a chapeau-de-curé or chapeau-de-prêtre (priest’s hat).

You can find cuberdons in quite a few sweet shops in Brussels, several of which sell multiple colours and flavours, a relatively recent phenomenon. But we’ve found that the best prices for regular raspberry cuberdons is from the Cric-Crac sweet shop inside Brussels Midi station, which sells by weight.

Tip: These sweets are best eaten within a couple of weeks of purchase, as the liquid centre can crystallise and harden if left for too long.

 

Waffles

Belgian Waffles fall into two types.

Firm, rich and chewy Gaufre de Liège (Liège Waffle) are made from an adapted brioche-dough and work well both hot and cold. These are usually oval in shape and have a slightly crunchy exterior from the crystallised sugar that has caramelised against the waffle iron. They’re great for eating on the hoof as they’re traditionally eaten plain (though you can buy them with toppings too if you prefer).

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Rectangular Brussels Waffles are made with a leavened batter, resulting in a much lighter and airier texture and are definitely at their best enjoyed hot, fresh from the waffle iron. Traditionally, Brussels waffles are served with a dusting of icing sugar but these days you can choose from a wide selection of toppings including ice cream, chocolate sauce and fruits. But I suggest you ignore all of those and ask for your waffle with a generous dollop of speculoos paste. With a texture much like smooth peanut butter, this sweet spread is the same flavour as the famous biscuit and melts wonderfully into the indentations of a freshly-cooked hot waffle.

Tip: You’ll find waffles on sale all over Brussels, often from hole-in-the wall vendors, but if you want to sit down and eat, try Maison Dandoy’s Tearoom.

 

Beer & Bars

Belgium is world famous for its beers and rightly so, with a rich tradition that goes back many, many centuries. The range of beers produced by Belgian breweries is impressive, including pale, golden, amber, red and dark ales, dubbels and tripels, Flemish sour brown, Champagne beers (which receive a second fermentation using the method now most strongly associated with Champagne), wheat beers and lambics (spontaneously fermented with wild yeasts that are native to the brewery, as opposed to the addition of cultivated yeasts).

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Both Pete and I absolutely love what owner Jean Hummler is offering at his two bars, Moeder Lambic and Moeder Lambic Fontainas, located at 68 rue de Savoie and 8 place Fontainas, respectively. He started the first bar less than five years ago, after a career working for industrial food businesses in France.

He starts off by telling us why he wanted to do something different; “most places are not very selective, they sell coca cola and junk food” and their beer selection is not very inspiring either. He is committed to selling only quality produce and that applies to the beers, the food and even the soft drinks. He has two key criteria, the way a product is made and how it tastes. “Making money and brewing great beer are often not the same job”, he laughs. He looks for products that are made by hand, adding that he doesn’t want “industrial anything”. For a beer to be selected it must be made with craft and it must pass the taste test – it must taste good! Right now, he has approximately 150 beers on the menu of which 46 are on tap. These include beers from around the world, including a number from the UK.

The same principles apply to his sourcing of cheeses and charcuterie (which form the main thrust of the simple menu) and the non-beer drinks menu (which includes some delicious farmhouse apple juice, for those less interested in the beers).

The cheese selection (€12.5) is utterly wonderful; all are raw milk cheeses and range from soft and mild to fantastically pungent, each one a genuine delight. In the centre of the serving board is a bowl of pottekees – a blend of fresh white cheese, onion, pepper and lambic beer. Just as excellent is the meat selection (€12.5) which includes garlic sausage, French sausage, paté made with geuze beer, hâte levée – pork cooked slowly in bouillon with garlic and spices, Tierenteyn mustard, Belgian pickles (which are a lot like piccalilli). Both plates are served with a basket of bread and a superb raw milk butter.

As he introduces each item on the plates, his enthusiasm for the producers and their products is self-evident; “The idea is to offer another selection, another quality, another explanation that most people don’t know exists”.

Two other key policies for Hummler are ensuring that all his staff know and love the product range, and establishing strong relationships with each supplier – and one (of many) ways he furthers both is the Moeder Fucker series of beers brewed by Le Paradis microbrewery not far from Nancy, in France. For each beer he sends two of his staff to the brewery to help make it; they decide which style of beer to make and work with the brewery team to create their vision. During our visit, Moeder Fucker IV was on tap.

As we talked, Pete tried five beers, guided by Hummler through the staggering range available. He drank Taras Boulba by local Brasserie de la Senne (Belgium), Moeder Fucker IV by Le Paradis (France), Mozaic Black by Mont Saleve (France), Cuvée De Ranke by Ranke (Belgium) and Fièvre de Cacao by Thiriez (France).

In the end, Hummler is a man after my own heart. “We all have to decide. Each citizen has to decide what they want to do with their life. I decided for myself that I wanted to eat very good food. I eat less and less meat, maybe once a week but what I eat is very good, like the chicken that is aged 120 days on a small farm. Taste is very important to me.

Tip: Ask staff for guidance in selecting beers for your own beer flight.

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Small and traditional pub La Fleur en Papier Doré was the perfect place to meet local friends for an evening drink. At 55 Rue des Alexiens, it was very close to our bed and breakfast, and also easy to reach by local bus. The menu shares a little of the history of the bar, housed in a small maisonette that dates from the mid 18th century. In the past it housed a convent, which moved to a new home in the middle of the 20th century. As a pub, it became the favoured meeting place of the Surrealist cultural movement with regulars including René Magritte; a few decades later it was a focus point for the Cobra (avant-garde) movement, creators of experimental art and philosophy. Mementos of both remain on the well-worn walls of the cosy pub, protected (along with the façade, the ground floor rooms and some of the furniture) by the local government which has decreed them of historical value.

Stop for a few beers (and some charcuterie) or for a simple meal.

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The Cantillon Brewery welcomes visitors for brewery tours (7 Euros including a beer) or to buy beer. You can buy to drink in or takeaway; lovers of lambic will particularly enjoy a visit. The address at 56 Rue Gheude is only a short walk from the central tourist district.

 

Lunch Stops

My first recommendation for a light lunch is the cheese plate and charcuterie selection at Moeder Lambic, above. Super quality, and each provides a generous portion for the price.

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Another great option is recently opened Peck 47 (amusingly named for its address at 47 Rue Marche Aux Poulets). This all day cafe offers a short menu of home made sandwiches, salads, soups, cakes, fresh juices, smoothies and a small selection of local beers. For just €8, my poached eggs on sourdough with smoked salmon and homemade relish was far more generous than I expected and all the items were of excellent quality. The eggs were perfectly poached, the salad nicely dressed and the home made relish very good indeed. Pete’s sandwich – roast chicken, rocket, lemon and basil mayo and slow roasted tomatoes – also impressed, for €5.

Tip: A particularly nice touch is that the free tap water is stored in the drinks fridge in large bottles stuffed with mint. Ask for some!

 

A Traditional Dinner

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I have to say from the off – don’t go to Restobieres if you’re looking for great service. The three staff on duty ranged from friendly but incompetent through utterly disinterested to downright sullen. That usually stops me from recommending a place but Restobieres is a good option if you’re keen to try traditional Belgian dishes alongside a range of Belgian beers.

Herve Cheese Croquets (€10) were a tasty comfort food, served hot and freshly fried. Homemade paté with Rochefort and foie gras  (€12) was a generous slab; light on the foie gras but tasty nonetheless. My calf’s liver with shallots and Chouffe  (€20) was decent; I really liked the beer and shallot sauce. Pete had satisfactory steak and chips with another good sauce and a generous well-dressed salad. The star of the mains was our friend’s bloempanch blood pudding (€12) which was both tasty and generously portioned for the price.

The only duff note (with the exception of the service) was a scoop of speculoos biscuit ice cream (€4) which we decided could only possibly have been made by a chef who’d never tasted speculoos (and not bothered to look up a recipe for the spices usually used). The texture was unpleasantly gritty too.

Located at 9 rue des Renards, not far from the Jeu de Balle flea market.

 

Brussel’s Modern Dining Scene

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I already explained how much we liked the multicultural vibe in Brussels. This goes equally for the food scene, which has some great restaurants to explore. One such place launched just a few weeks before our visit; located along very trendy Rue de Flandre in the Sainte Catherine district, Gramm is a restaurant offering bold, inventive and modern food. It’s headed up by Chef Erwan Kenzo Nakata, who grew up in Brittany to a French father and Japanese mother, thus explaining some of the eclectic Japanese touches to otherwise modern French cooking.

The evening offering is a fixed tasting menu, 6 courses for €38. Although the courses are individually quite small, we felt very satisfied at the end of our meal, having enjoyed the array of tastes, textures and colours in Nakata’s self-assured dishes.

While I felt the food was good value, I was less impressed with the drinks pricing, for wines, beers and soft drinks (which were served in shockingly tiny glasses) so if you’re on a fixed budget, keep an eye on your drinks orders to avoid a shock at the end of the evening. Also, do set aside plenty of time. Service is very warm and friendly but the wait between courses, even in a nearly empty restaurant, is a little longer than ideal.

Tip: Don’t be shy about asking for more of the excellent bread and butter, by the way, it’s great for mopping up some of the juices and sauces!

 

The Marolles Flea Market

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Usually, I’m not much of a shopper but offer me the chance to browse a car boot sale or flea market and I’m instantly excited, so I was very keen to return to the famous Marolles Flea Market held daily in the Place du Jeu de Balle. On sale is a charming mix of cheap tat and more expensive “antiques”; it’s definitely a case of one man’s rubbish being another man’s treasure. With my love of retro kitchenware, I was in heaven as there’s plenty of it here, at very bargainous prices. It’s actually a miracle I came away with only a couple of ornate old teaspoons and two Nestle branded cups and saucers in amber glass – there was, I think, a complete set of six in the box but most were too chicken-shit-and-feather covered to assess very well, so I just bought the two cleanest ones for a whopping €1!

The market runs every day of the year. Official start times state that it starts at 6 am and finishes at 2pm on weekdays, 3pm on weekends.

Tip: Take lots of small change with you and of course, be prepared to haggle!

Brussels has many more markets to visit including markets for art, food, flowers and vintage clothes.

 

An Elegant Pillow

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X2B Brussels is a family run luxury bed and breakfast in the heart of Brussels, just a few minutes walk from the Grand Place. The three guest bedrooms are each on a different floor – we booked the first floor double and were delighted to discover a vast room with soaringly high ceilings, simple and elegant furnishings and a very generous en-suite bathroom. Do note that none of the rooms have step-free access and, as you’d expect in a private home, there is no lift. Guests are welcomed either by owner Xavier or his mother Monique, who sit down with guests on arrival to share tips for visiting Brussels, personalised to their guests’ interests. Breakfast is excellent: a basket of fresh bread and pastries with an enormous selection of jams and spreads, cheese and cold hams, yoghurt, eggs however you’d like them, rounded off by coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice. The hot freshly made raisin bread pain perdu is a lovely touch. Free wifi is also a boon, for those of us who like to stay connected. From £160 a night including breakfast.

Tip: make sure you jot down the house number as well as the street name; there’s no obvious sign on the outside so we walked up and down the same stretch of road several times, eventually identifying the B&B only by peering at the tiny labels for individual doorbells.

 

Getting Around

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In terms of getting around, the key sites in Brussels are within a fairly small area and its certainly possible to walk. But you can also make use of the metro and tram network, as well as local buses. The Brussels Card gives unlimited use of public transport, free entry into some attractions, discounted entry into many more and discounts in shops and restaurants too. You will also be given a free city map. Available for 24, 48 or 72 hours for 24€, 36€ or 43€.

 

With thanks to Eurostar for the complimentary return tickets between London and Brussels and thanks to the Brussels Tourist Board for their assistance in planning some of our sightseeing highlights and their insight into historic and modern Brussels.

 

Following a recent invitation to discover some of the food and drink highlights available at St Pancras International station, Pete and I had a lovely morning visiting Benugo’s Espresso Bar, Searcys Champagne Bar and Sourced Market.

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Unlike the downstairs branch of Benugo, the upstairs coffee bar (near the Martin Jennings sculpture of poet John Betjeman) is much quieter and cooler. An original tile floor leads to the service counter; the seating area next door has been designed to evoke rail travel of old; gentle jazz music completes the retro feel. During our morning visit, we tried coffee and cake (the shop has one coffee blend for espresso and espresso-based drinks, and another for drip filter coffees). Manager Ondrej was on hand to give further information about all the options, including some good quality loose leaf teas, for those who aren’t in a coffee state of mind. I particularly enjoyed my chocolate, pear and rosemary tart and the biscotti served with coffee.

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Searcy’s champagne bar might seem like an option better suited to summer, given that the concourse is open to the elements at both ends. But booths have little heaters at foot level, and guests are offered blankets and hot water bottles too, so it’s actually rather cosy as a winter destination. I found my hot chocolate excessively sweet but Pete enjoyed his rose champagne tasting trio (£19 for 50 ml each of Henri Giraud Esprit Rose, Besserat Cuvee des Moines Rose and Laurent-Perrier Cuvee Rose). It’s also a lovely spot to admire the beautiful architecture of the station.

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Sourced Market, downstairs, was a revelation. This little store has crammed in a lot of great products into their wide but shallow floor space. As well as delicious lunch options such as a variety of pies (with mash, gravy and peas), sausage rolls, scotch eggs, charcuterie and cheese platters, soups, sandwiches, salads and more you can also buy ingredients to take home. Pete was particularly impressed by the excellent selection of bottled beers, with small London breweries particularly well represented. I loved the cheese counter and the bakery table. There were lots of delicious treats and I’ll certainly pop in again before long. My only gripe about this lovely place was that all the seating provided was stool-style chairs and table, which are really challenging for those of us with hip, back or mobility problems, not to mention difficult for small children.

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Kavey Eats were given a guided tour of the above venues at St Pancras International.

 

Since our weekend in Amsterdam a couple of months ago, I’ve shared a comprehensive list of Amsterdam food specialities and my recommendations on where to find great coffee, cakes and snacks.

In this post, I want to share a few tips on restaurants and bars:

Getto (Burgers & Bar)
Brouwerij ‘t IJ (Brewery Bar)
Lab 111 (Bar Restaurant)
Cafe ‘t Arendsnest (Pub)
Cafe t’ Smalle (Pub Restaurant)

 

GETTO

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Getto is a burger bar with bling. Describing itself as "an attitude-free zone, for gays, lesbians, bi, queers and straights", the space is both a restaurant and a drinks lounge and has more disco balls hanging from the ceiling than you’d find in a disco balls shop. All the burgers are named for drag queens who perform there, though our early evening visit meant we missed them.

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The burgers are all priced between €12.50 and €12.90 and come with a portion of home made chips, a little salad and a pot of sauce and include such beauties as the Jennifer Hopelezz (melted cheddar cheese, bacon and guacamole), The Lady Bunny (bacon, sautéed mushrooms and gorgonzola sauce) and the Windy Mills (grilled chicken breast with warm goat cheese, bacon and honey, served with whole grain mustard).

The burgers were decent, but not stellar. The main let down was the patties themselves which I think must have been deep fried. They had a hard crust on the outside and were a little tough throughout, though the flavour was good. However, what won the day were the stonkingly good house chips, skin on and cooked till beautifully brown and crunchy on the outside and soft and fluffy inside. The secondary fillings and sauces were also spot on.

By the time we left, a few more customers were finally arriving, and I’m sure this would be a great party spot for those with open minds and open wallets.

Getto
Warmoesstraat 51
Open Tuesday to Sunday from 4 pm to late.

 

 

BROUWERIK ‘T IJ

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An obvious destination for beer lovers visiting Amsterdam but is it a worthwhile one?

The Brouwerij ‘t IJ is located in an old bath house, grain store and windmill, however it’s not as old as you might expect, founded less than 30 years ago in 1983. Today, the brewery still brews all its beer on location here, and visitors can enjoy scheduled tours, should they wish.

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The best way to sample their offerings is to start with a taster of five beers for €7.50. Pete really enjoyed these, and afterwards, a glass of the 6th beer on tap that day.

For me, a number of the beers had a distinctly urinal smell (and no, I wasn’t sitting too near the toilets) which I found off putting but everyone else seemed to enjoy them immensely, and of course, I’m not a big beer drinker.

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The bar also sells a range of snacks, including peanuts, eggs, cheese, salami and a specialist local raw beef sausage.

There’s also a neighbouring cafe called Langendijk which offers a more extensive food menu. I particularly enjoyed the meatballs I had there as we waited for the brewery bar to open.

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Long communal tables make for a friendly experience and we enjoyed chatting about Amsterdam food and drink to a local couple who visit the brewery regularly.

Opening hours mean this isn’t an option for a late night session, so best to visit during the afternoon and take advantage of the outside tables in good weather.

Brouwerij ‘t IJ
Funenkade 7, out east past the Scheepvartmuseum
Open: daily 3 pm to 8 pm

 

 

LAB 111

Lab 111 "media cafe" is located within the SMART Project Space. SPS is an cultural centre offering a continuously changing programme of exhibitions and events.

SMART opened in 1994, in a former Pathological Anatomical Laboratory located in a deprived urban neighbourhood not far from the city centre. The website talks of civic improvement, of providing high quality municipal service and creating a new cultural platform. As well as several galleries for the exhibition of art and events, it also provides 12 artists studios of which 6 are reserved for Dutch artists, and the rest for artists from abroad. Patrons, sponsors and an in-house team support the artists in developing, producing and realising their projects.

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But we didn’t go because we’d heard about the worthy arts centre. We went because I’d read good things about the food.

We walked from the tram stop deeper into a large housing estate. It was dark; at first there were no other people on the streets, then a group of teenage boys, loitering. When we failed to find our destination, we pulled into the lighted entrance hall of a block of flats to check our map and I started to feel conspicuous, nervous, even vulnerable. I had no reason to be – the boys weren’t showing any interest us, let alone doing anything to warrant my fear – but still, we swiftly decided on a direction to try next and quickened our pace.

Just I was about to curse myself and my plans to try something a bit different, and give up, Pete noticed a large red brick building and a tiny sign for Lab 111.

As we entered the main reception, it reminded me of a school. No one was about, the floors and walls had that low budget public building look to them. We followed signs and quickly found ourselves inside the bright, light space of Lab 111.

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Bizarrely, though I kind of liked it, the walls were covered in photographic print mimicking the stacked shelves of a supermarket. All around us were food, drink and household supplies, all with their shelf price labels

Tables and chairs were utilitarian, and not the most comfortable, but OK. Part of the space was given over to a stage area. During our visit it had extra tables set up on it, but it’s used regularly for live performances, we were told. As well as the more formal dining area, there was a large bar and a big green communal table underneath what looked like medical operating theatre lights. As I said, a strange place, but likable.

The review I’d found online suggested a more unusual menu than we were given, things like salt cod fritters with paprika ketchup and wakame seaweed. However, the most unusual thing on the menu was kangaroo and that’s common enough, these days. Still, there were plenty of appealing options.

Pete had the soup of the day (€6.50), a rich squash of some type. It was decent.

I went for the scallops with red and yellow beet carpaccio and lobster gravy (€9.75) which was generous and delicious. My three large scallops were plump and beautifully cooked, with caramelised surfaces and soft flesh. With them came the paper-thin slices of beetroot and a well dressed salad. A good dish.

For our mains, we both ordered the beef steak with potato gratin, mushrooms, beans and garlic gravy (€19.50). Plating was pretty sloppy, even given the casual nature of the place, but the cooking and flavours were good and the portion very generous. Both of us enjoyed it well enough.

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The biggest disappointment was my dessert, a banana cream pie with dulce de leche (€7.50). It sounded like banoffee but had very little flavour and the layers of bread between the cream and banana were dry and tasteless, having not been soaked in anything for flavour or moisture.

Overall, our meal was good not great, but we really enjoyed it.

Within an hour of our arrival, the place was packed, and I’d imagine none of the other diners felt the slightest hesitation on walking to the restaurant. When we left, walking back along the same route, through the estate, across a canal bridge and back towards the busy main road and the tram stop, I chided myself for my irrational and judgemental reactions earlier. The estate might not be wealthy, but the properties were well looked after, and I had no reason to consider it any less safe than anywhere else we visited in the city.

Certainly, Lab 111 is not in a conventional location, nor easy to find for tourists like us, but it’s clearly popular with people who come from much farther than the small local neighbourhood for the food, the buzz and the art.

Lab 111
Arie Biemondstraat 111
Open daily from midday until 1 am (3 am on Fridays and Saturdays)

 

 

CAFE ‘T ARENDSNEST

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Pete has already written about the wonderful Cafe ‘t Arendsnest which we visited twice during our visit, so much did we like it the first night.

To our surprise, most of the bars in Amsterdam serve Belgian beer. Not so Cafe ‘t Arendsnest which serves a huge array of only Dutch beers, claiming to have at least one representation from each of the country’s 50+ breweries. And better still, the bar has 30, yes 30 taps so there’s a superb selection on draft as well as the wide range of bottles.

‘t Arendsnest means The Eagle’s Nest and is also a pun on the name of owner Peter van der Arend, a Dutch beer enthusiast and expert.

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A huge blackboard lists all the draft beers (with ABV and prices provided) but you can also ask the "beerologists" for advice; the cafe is staffed by men and women who know and love their beer and are happy to help customers discover new favourites.

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For a proper meal you’ll need to go elsewhere but bar snacks include various Dutch cheeses, meatballs and nuts.

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There are non-beer drinks, for those who want them. I absolutely loved the Speculaas Liqueur by Zuidam, and their Amaretto was very good too. Pete enjoyed a wide range of the draft beers over the two nights.

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I should say a word about the look of the place too – all comforting wooden panels and polished brass, with enormous lights that look like something out of a ship.

It’s not a big place, with a long row of bar stools and just a few tables, but as the leery drinkers tend to head for the bars selling cheap lager and playing loud music, serious beer lovers should be able to find a corner to squeeze into.

Cafe ‘t Arendsnest
Herengracht 90, corner of Herenstraat
Open Friday 4 pm – 2 am, Saturday 2 pm – 2 am and Sunday 2 pm – midnight.

 

 

CAFE ‘T SMALLE

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Located on a pretty canal in the city centre, Cafe ‘t Smalle is a cafe pub restaurant located in a tiny space within a building originally built in 1780. Many of the beautiful vintage brass features date back to its origin as the Hoppe distillery, and there are old oak casks stacked above the bar, opulent chandeliers, lots of wood panelling and the most beautiful lead glass windows.

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Unlike ‘t Arendsnest, ‘t Smalle doesn’t specialise in Dutch beer, and indeed much of the offering is Belgian/ international. Staff are friendly and prices are normal for Amsterdam.

The ground floor bar area is for drinks and bar snacks and the small restaurant dining room is located on a mezzanine up a narrow staircase at the back. In warmer weather, the tables outside are very popular.

Cafe ‘t Smalle
Egelantiersgracht 12
Open Sunday to Thursday 10 am – 1 am, Friday & Saturday 10 am – 2 am

 

Eurostar UK provided Kavey Eats with return train tickets to Amsterdam and the first night’s hotel reservation.

Apr 032012
 

The new Hawksmoor Spitalfields Bar is both a new venture, for restaurateurs Huw Gott and Will Beckett, and a return to their starting point, located as it is in the basement of their first restaurant, Hawksmoor Spitalfields.

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Unlike the bars at their Guildhall and Seven Dials restaurants, the latest bar feels like a much more separate space, and indeed the regular restaurant menu is not available here, due to the small size of the kitchen. (The main restaurant upstairs uses the original kitchen, also pretty small).

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Bang on trend, the space is dark and intimate with retro tiling and a simple decor. There are three huge booths, of which we are lucky enough to be seated in one, and a number of tall tables with stool chairs around them.

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Some things are familiar though, such as a list of original cocktails and a short sweet list of mainly local beers from brewers such as Meantime and Kernel. A handful of cocktails are on the permanent list. These are joined by the Desert Island five, which will be devised and selected monthly by the large bar team across all three properties.

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The menu is short and sweet, split into food, sides and puddings.

We order four items from the sides list, thinking some will work as starters and some as sides to our main order.

I’ve already heard great things about the shortrib nuggets (£6) and they don’t disappoint. Served piping hot with a vibrant and punchy dipping sauce these bread-crumbed beauties contain soft flakes of deeply flavoured meat, chopped pickles and oozing melted cheese. There are 6 in the serving and they don’t last long!

Smashed cucumbers (£3) seem a little steeply priced but are rather good. Very lightly soused in a mild, sweet pickling liquid, they still have the taste and texture of fresh.

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The oxtail poutine (£6) comes out with our mains and is not an attractive dish. That’s because it’s all about the eating, and believe me, on that front it definitely delivers. Fantastic chips, fluffy inside but with a decent crunch on the outside, are smothered in gravy, melted cheese and immensely savoury oxtail meat. There’s gravy beneath them too, so the bottom chips get good and soggy by the time you reach them.

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I am unable to resist the lobster roll, which is priced at £15 rather than the £20 listed on the online menu. That’s just as well as it’s not very large, though it’s reasonably generously filled. The roll is soft and sweet, which brings out the sweetness in the meat. Although the meat tastes really great, it’s a touch too soft, either overcooked or cooked and left aside for too long, I’m not sure which. In any case, it’s a minor quibble and I enjoy every bite.

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Pete’s chilli cheese dog (£10) is also a little expensive though it tastes fantastic, with a lovely smoky dog, punchy chilli, though very little of it and some oozy cheese. However, the roll it’s on is far too small for it, so small that it’s actually not possible to pick it up in the conventional way, as the roll doesn’t extend at all around the sausage. It’s a delicious dog but a tenner ought to buy a big enough roll to hold the thing!

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The Tamworth laab (£6) is the one thing on the menu that just doesn’t make sense to me. Laab is a Laotian / Thai ground meat salad and the Spitalfields Bar version is good and tasty – strong flavours and a pleasant but not too strong chilli kick. It could do with a few more lettuce leaves with which to parcel up the meat, I think, but the dish is decent. However, it doesn’t fit with anything else on the menu, and I can’t work out what it’s doing on there.

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I am already full but, like a moth drawn to a flame, am unable to resist once again, when I see peanut butter shortbread with salted caramel ice cream (£7) in the puddings list. Served hot out of the oven, this is magnificent! I’d venture to say it’s one of the best desserts I’ve had for ages, and the mix of hot, crumbly pastry, a gooey melted peanut butter filling and the tangy sweet salted caramel ice cream is worth busting a gut for!

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So good is my own sweet that I don’t even want to taste Pete’s lemon meringue pie (£6) as it’ll mean one less bite of my own that I’ll be able to manage! He assures me it’s a good example of the dish.

So that’s the food, what about service? We’ve been looked after by Miguel all evening, and he’s enthusiastically helped us with understanding some of the menu items, making our selection, and checked that everything is OK during our meal. Staff seem well trained and on the ball, as they do at all the Hawksmoor venues.

I know that if I worked locally, this is just the kind of casual bar restaurant I’d love to have around the corner, to drag colleagues into for a quick drink and tasty bite after work.

 

Kavey Eats dined as guests of Hawksmoor Spitalfields Bar.

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