21 March 2007

Probably the best meal in the world

My disappearance over the last week is best explained by the fact that we had visitors, and while they where here I got to be a bona fide tourist. But to be honest, our tacit definition of "tourism" in Belgium was: waffles, beer, fries, chocolate, and other culinary delights. Granted, we had those things in various picturesque locations, including at the canal in Gent, or in a wood-paneled bar in Bruges, so we saw our share of sights, as proper tourists should.

Three meals in particular stand out:

Lunch in Gent actually caused us to miss out on the museums, so focused were we on finding the right food. (In our defense, the museums all closed ridiculously early, earlier than stated by the guidebook.) But it wasn't too great of a sacrifice, because in one little plaza we found all of the makings of a sunny outdoor lunch: in the cheese shop, we ordered substantial slices of extra-special Belgian cheese; in the bread shop, a spectacularly crusty baguette; and in the waffle shop, well, waffles. The sign proclaimed that they were "Probably the best in the world." Bravo for Belgian modesty; the slogan avoids false advertising (who has tried every waffle in the world?), and still lets you know that you're in for a good waffle.

Dinner in Bruges was a spectacular failure. I only mention it because it seems to be an inevitable experience, sooner or later, when traveling. You are hungry and in a touristy town. You don't want to spend loads of money. You ask a local, and the place he suggests is, upon finding the place and an inspection of the menu, too expensive. You wander around some more, and read menu after menu, of which the good ones all seem expensive. You finally find a place that perhaps might work, and tired of wandering around and making decisions, enter. The menu you receive after being seated doesn't have as many options as you remember seeing posted outside, and you order a pasta dish of some sort. The pasta takes nearly an hour to arrive. How difficult can pasta be? You convince yourself it will be worth the wait. When, at long last, the dishes arrive, it takes only one bite to realize that: 1. the vegetarian pasta you have ordered is made with a can of diced tomatoes and a barely discernible melange of sauteed veggies, 2. it is tasteless, and 3. you personally could have made something twice as good in half the time. You devour it anyway because you are starving after walking around all day. I don't mind publicizing the name of the place in case another traveler, unlike us, checks online for restaurant reviews. DON'T go to Simon Stevin/Poules Moules (the restaurant has two facades and two names but one interior; we should have realized that was a bad sign).

To banish bad memories, we had many other fantastic meals, including a couple that we made ourselves. But the showstopper was a farewell dinner on their last night here, all-you-can-eat tapas at Leonor.

I have been to Leonor some three or four times now, so I feel justified in making claims about their incredible food. Doesn't any proper restaurant critic visit several times and sample lots of the offerings? The tapas menu has been varied all of the times I've been there, but every time, EVERY dish is exquisite. Which is why we didn't tell them to stop bringing food until long after we were already stuffed and nearly unable to eat another bite. Each dish made us want to soldier on.

These tapas are not just dainty little finger foods or even small bite-sized portions; many of them could stand on their own and still be worth the 22 euros the whole thing costs. This is what we ate:

Manchego cheese and Spanish ham (the latter was up to M., since the rest of us are non-meat eaters)
Galician octopus and potato (deliciously doused in oil, sea salt and paprika)
Gambas in their shell
Clams in parsley butter sauce
Battered squid rings (chocos) (perfectly cooked; so often these are chewy and bland)
Calamari in a rich, dark sauce
Bacalao (cod) with squid ink and pesto (all the fish came in dinner-sized portions and was amazingly tender)
An egg, shrimp, mushroom and pepper scramble
Piquillo peppers (stuffed with cod) (one of my favorites)
Boquerones (a kind of anchovy)
A salad of baby greens with tuna empanaditas (filled with a tender, peppery sauce)
Spanish tortilla (potato and egg)
Lubina (sea bass) with apples and manzanilla sherry
Spicy potatoes in a chunky tomato sauce
Tuna steaks with tomato, rosemary, and passion fruit

Every time a new dish comes out, it seems unbelievable that it will be as good or better than the last, but it is. And notice how they hadn't even arrived at the meat courses yet? We did ask them to hold off on the meat as long as possible, since only one of us eats it, and there was more than enough to feed us abundantly.

So, if you are ever in Brussels, go to Leonor (at Porte de Halle). It doesn't look like much from outside, but I promise that you will eat well.

1 comment:

Bess/Luke said...

That's a lot of food!! And it all sounds wonderful...except for maybe the anchovies. Hope I get the chance to eat there some day! :) Food sounds especially good to a pregnant lady late evening on a Sunday too.....
~Bess