Fine dining in Antwerp

fine dining in AntwerpFor such a small country, Belgium certainly has contributed to world cuisine. French fries, for example, are actually Belgian, making that whole “freedom fries” movement back in 2003 even stupider than it appeared. They also gave us Belgian waffles, although over here they’re called “Brussels waffles” after the capital. And let’s not forget about Belgian chocolate!

I’ve been exploring Antwerp, a wealthy city with hardworking inhabitants who like to splash out on fine food. Here are four restaurants worth a visit. Office casual attire is the rule here. Entrees range from about 15-25 euros ($20-28) except at Flamant Dining, where they’re a bit more.

My first night I dined at Brasserie Appelmans. This restaurant and absinthe bar only a few steps from the cathedral in the heart of historic Antwerp is popular with both tourists and locals. It’s strange to go from the Gothic spires and 17th century facades outside to modern minimalism inside. Through dim lighting you see a split-level plan with little décor besides mirrors, exposed brick and woodwork, and candlelit black tables.

For a starter I had an incredibly rich tomato soup with fresh cream and meatballs. It was almost filling enough for a main, but I managed a big bowl of Antwerp stew with veal prepared with Grimbergen Dubbel beer and served with thick-cut Belgian fries and salad of white cabbage, celery, and cherry tomatoes. After a long day’s walking and with the winter chill setting in for the evening, it certainly hit the spot.In keeping with the décor of the restaurant, the absinthe bar is dim and chic. It looks very popular and they had a large variety of absinthes but I didn’t partake. I can get absinthe at home in Spain and it’s not the thing to drink alone, certainly not alone in public. Both the restaurant and bar are busy by 7pm, as are many places here. Living in Spain I find Belgians to be early eaters!

Another fine restaurant is Felixpakhuis. Located next to the redeveloped docklands and the famous Mas Museum, it has a spacious and bright interior that gets quite loud as it fills up. Again bare wood and minimal decoration is the rule, although this time the colors are light instead of dark. For starters I ordered pumpkin soup with scallops followed by the Coc au vin. Both were well done and I appreciated the more casual atmosphere than you get in many high-end Belgian restaurants. While service was good at all the places in this post, the waitstaff at Felixpakhuis were the friendliest and quickest of them all. Make this your stop after seeing the Mas.

For those seeking the high end, try Flamant Dining, a restaurant on the first floor of the equally exclusive Les Nuits hotel. This is not a place you’ll stumble upon; locals have to tell you about it. It has a more intimate feel than the others, with a roaring fireplace and fine but minimal décor. I started with crispy goat cheese in a pig’s cheek spring roll with sweet red onion cream. For the main I had Australian filet pur grain fed with a pepper sauce, green salad, and Pont Neuf potatoes. Both were cooked to perfection, the pig’s cheek dissolving sweetly in my mouth. I found the pepper sauce a bit strong and overbearing on the excellent filet, but scraping a bit off solved this.

Another well-known and popular place is the Dome, which is a restaurant, a bistro, and bakery all within sight of each other. I had lunch at the bistro, a less formal and quicker option than the actual restaurant. A long aquarium took up one wall and windows took up much of the rest of the space, so between the fish and the Art Nouveau mansions outside I had plenty to look at during my meal. The chef brought out a series of small portions, including mackerel with mustard vinegar, scallops with pumpkin sauce and salad, spicy calamari (perhaps too spicy for some), and swordfish a la plancha with butter sauce. I’m a land lubber and rarely order seafood, yet I thoroughly enjoyed and finished everything. The restaurant, where you eat under a large neoclassical dome, is more formal and is hugely popular with the locals. The bread from the bakery is excellent.

The only criticism I have of Belgian cuisine from my limited experience on two trips to the country is that it’s too heavy. My appetizers were always too filling, yet too tasty not to finish. I saw very few small or light appetizers listed on menus, and when the hearty main course was set before me, all thoughts of dessert disappeared. Considering that many desserts included Belgian chocolate, this shows just how stuffed I was!

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Masterpieces in Silver!

This trip was partially funded by Tourism Antwerp and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

The green fairy flies Virgin America

Absinthe-fueled bowling, anyone?
The green fairy flies! Following the US re-legalization of absinthe (it was banned for 96 years), Le Tourment Vert has become the First Absinthe in the Sky on Virgin America.

To celebrate their collaboration, Le Tourment Vert and Virgin America have teamed up with the Palms Resort in Las Vegas to bring us the Suite Surrender Giveaway: the winner gets a round-trip flight to Vegas to kick it in the suite above (oh hey, private bowling alley).

To enter the giveaway, click here and spill the beans about your personal Sin City fantasy — be creative — and definitely check out the new “Mile High” cocktail on Virgin America (made with Le Tourment Vert and Sprite, garnished with a lemon or lime wedge). You probably won’t hallucinate like the French philosophers, but it will almost definitely give you some weird dreams.

Yacht + Helicopter = Skiing

Still mad that Europeans are greeting the New Year without snow, I think I’ve found an answer.

You can charter a boat called the Absinthe, to take you and 11 of your friends skiing in British Columbia. Billed as the world’s only yacht-based ski-lodge, this $36,000 per day (not including meals and fuel), 201-foot yacht will cruise you along the BC coast until you near an appropriate mountain. Then you’re fully equipped with skis and board their helicopter, which takes off from a heli-pad on the yacht, carries you up to the slopes with a ski-guide, and picks you up later.

And, if not all of your friends are skiers, they can take advantage of local hot springs, sea fishing, fly fishing, visits to Indian villages, kayaking, or a host of other activities offered from the yacht. Absinthe-drinking comes to mind.

From Prague, For the Absinthe-Minded

Dude, I got so wasted on absinthe last night…

If you’ve spent some time in Prague, you have heard this line one too many times. Walk into any bar on the beaten path and you will almost for sure see a group of American college students doing shots of the bright green liquor, which they think (or hope) will make them hallucinate.

The funny thing is that most of the stuff they sell here in the Czech Republic is not even absinthe. Not only is it not derived from wormwood, but it does not contain thujone (which is exactly the substance that many countries regulate heavily for its alleged hallucinogenic effects.) Generally, the brighter the color, the more fake it probably is. Don’t get me wrong – you can still get a mean hangover if you drink this stuff, but that’s mostly because the “green liquids” contain 60 percent alcohol and some food coloring. If you really want to go over the top, try that stuff with Red Bull. Make sure to sign up for life insurance well in advance though.

If you want to taste the real thing, you can still do it, but don’t expect to pay $3 per shot. It will be more like $10. For example, the Czech company L’OR makes The King of Spirits (see picture), which is the real thing containing 10mg of thujone. A bottle of this will set you back around $60. If you want the King of Spirits Gold, which contains 100mg of thujone and is illegal even to sell even in the Czech Republic, is available to ship for $200+