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.

Visiting a German bunker from World War Two

World War Two, AntwerpBelgium had it tough in World War Two. Unlike in the First World War, when the Belgian army stubbornly held on to part of the nation and its allies rallied to beat the Germans, in the second war the Low Countries and France were quickly overrun by a German army that now enjoyed superior military technology.

Occupied Belgium was soon covered with fortifications. The Germans feared an Allied landing and dug in. In a park on the outskirts of Antwerp you can see a network of these bunkers at the Bunker Museum.

Not many tourists make it here. In fact, my taxi driver had to call ahead to get directions. Those who do make the journey will be rewarded with a rare look at the life of the German soldier in World War Two. There are eleven bunkers, including barracks, a hospital, a communications bunker, and two large command bunkers.

One of the command bunkers has been turned into a museum. The entrance, shown here, clearly shows the two-meter-thick concrete walls. The roof is 2.5 meters thick. Inside are recreated sleeping quarters, displays about the war around Antwerp, and a large collection of parts from the V-1 and V-2 rockets.

My tour guide was Pierre Koreman, one of the museum caretakers. He was a young boy during the war and clearly remembers the day in 1943 when an American bombing run went astray and destroyed much of Mortsel, the town near Antwerp where he lived. Two schools were destroyed, but the third, which he attended, was spared. A total of 943 civilians were killed. Koreman showed me a letter of apology sent by one of the American airman.

“They had nothing to apologize for,” he said. “They just did their job.”

The intended target was the Messerschmitt airplane factory, where Koreman’s father worked as forced labor.

“He was the biggest saboteur there,” Koreman told me proudly.

He wasn’t the only one. The factory was supposed to test Messerschmitt engines. The workers discovered that the oil they were using separated at high temperatures, making the engine seize up. Of course they didn’t bother telling the Germans that.

“Instead of running the engines they played cards,” Koreman informed me with a smile.
World War Two, Antwerp

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Antwerp was liberated by British, Canadian, and Polish forces on September 4, 1944, but there was no fighting around the bunkers. This has left them in a good state. When the museum started they were completely empty, but careful research and collecting material from other bunkers has allowed the caretakers to give visitors a clear picture of how they operated.

Technologically they’re very impressive considering they were built more than 60 years ago. They have temperature control, filtered air, a system to keep the air pressure normal, generators, telephone, and radio. All this combined with the high-tech remains from the German rockets on display really brought home to me what a massive waste the Third Reich was. With all that effort and ingenuity they could have gone to the Moon. Instead they wrecked Europe. Luckily there was a generation of heroes to stop them, both on the battlefield and through quiet acts of resistance like Koreman’s father.

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

Coming up next: Fine dining in Antwerp!

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

Antwerp: Belgium’s historic and modern port

AntwerpI’ve often wondered why Belgium is such a rich country. Its main claims to fame–chocolate, beer, Tintin, and a heroic fight against the Kaiser’s army in World War One–are all noteworthy but hardly the stuff to earn billions. Some background research for this series taught me that Antwerp has a lot to do with Belgium’s wealth.

It’s the second largest port in Europe, and one of the top ten in the world. It has a petrochemical works second only to Houston. The diamond industry is a major factor too. It’s strange, then, that Antwerp isn’t better known as an economic center the way London or Zurich is. It seems the Belgians just quietly get on with it, without making too much fuss.

Legend has it that the city gets its name from the antics of Antigoon, an evil giant who charged a toll on those crossing the River Scheldt. The toll was one hand, which he tossed into the river. One day a youth named Brabo fought the giant, cut off one of his hands, and threw it into the river, thus saving the city for us regular-sized folk. The Dutch name for the city, Antwerpen, means “throw a hand.”

Etymologists say the name actually comes from the old way to say “on the wharf” or “on the warp” (manmade hill), but any story with a giant gets my vote.

Like so many Western European cities, Antwerp can trace its origins to Roman times. It steadily grew until it enjoyed a golden age in the 16th century as a major port during the Age of Exploration. Overseas colonies sent their wealth through Antwerp, and this wealth is reflected in the glorious curches and fine homes built during this period. The city has had its ups and downs over the centuries and is currently enjoying an up.

Walking around Antwerp’s historic center you’ll see architecture reminiscent of Amsterdam without the canals. The Gothic spire of the Cathedral of Our Lady acts as a landmark. It was consecrated in 1521, when Antwerp was really getting going, and is adorned with some of the finest art of the Low Countries. Rubens has several works here, including his Descent from the Cross, included in the gallery in this article. As I was admiring it yesterday, two British boys came up beside me. The older one said in his best public school accent, “It’s quite good”, to which his younger brother replied “Not for Jesus.”

The Virgin Mary is important to the people of Antwerp and you can see statues of her on many streetcorners, looking down on the passersby.
Antwerp

%Gallery-137603%A lesser-visited but equally interesting church is the 17th century Saint Carolus Borromeus. There’s some fine art and an interesting relic. Just to the left as you enter, look up and you’ll see a headless statue of a boy holding a little silver sphere. Through the glass of the sphere you can see a skull. This is said to be the skull of Justus, a Roman boy whose family converted pagans to Christianity. Roman soldiers captured him and demanded to know where his family was. He refused to say and they cut off his head. Visiting this relic is said to cure headache and nerve pain.

Antwerp is a combination of winding little streets, a few broad avenues, and some stately squares. Many of these squares are lined with bars where you can sample some fine Belgian beer. The best bars have an immense variety to choose from, like Kulminator, which had literally hundreds of varieties on offer. A friend of mine recommended this place, saying, “They sell a beer bottled in 1984, consistancy of marmite. I didn’t remember anything for the next six hours.” I didn’t drink that one!

The city center is very walkable, and filled with museums, galleries, and palaces. I’ll be visiting some of them later in the series, but I did want to say that if you’re going to see just one museum, make it the Mas. This ultramodern high-rise along an old dock contains the collections of four previous museums. There’s everything here from video installation pieces to the Dutch Masters, all mingled together to give you a visual overload. It stays open until midnight (!) so it’s a great place to walk off some calories after a dinner of rich Flemish cuisine.

I’m not much of a shopper, but many travelers say Antwerp is great for fashion and jewelry, especially diamonds. I also noticed a large number of well-stocked bookstores. The Flemish region of Belgium is known for having a lively literary scene. If anyone out there can suggest some good Flemish authors who have been translated into English or Spanish, I’d like to hear about them.

The people of Antwerp are proud of their city, as I discovered on my first night as I was puzzling over my map trying to find my way back to the hotel. A guy came up and asked where I was going and pointed the way. A minute later he came running up to me to apologize. He’d sent me the wrong way. These medieval streets can even confound the locals! After he pointed out the correct route I thanked him and said, “You have a beautiul city.”

“We have the only beautiful city. You know what we say of the rest of the world?”

“What?” I asked.

“It’s the suburbs of Antwerp.”

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

Coming up next: Visiting a German bunker from World War Two!

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

Belgian chocolate: so good you can snort it

Belgian chocolate
Back in grade school, my friends and I used to eat Smarties, those little sugar tablets that were so popular back then. Some of us, wanting to show off, used to pound them up and snort them. There was no better sugar rush. We used to call them “Snorties”.

Well, we should have copyrighted it, because now in Belgium they’re snorting chocolate. Not just any chocolate, but gourmet Belgian chocolate. I discovered this at the appropriately named The Chocolate Line in Antwerp. The “applicator” is a plastic catapult that launches little piles of powdered chocolate into both your nostrils. To see a closeup of the nostril catapult, check out the gallery. There are lots of photos of more traditional chocolate and chocolate making too.

So how does it compare to Snorties Smarties? Not nearly as granular, easier on the nostrils, and a better aftertaste, although I didn’t taste the raspberry flavor that was supposed to be mixed with the chocolate. Good for clearing the sinuses too.

Belgium is justly famous for its chocolate. It has some of the best chocolatiers in the world and many of them live in Antwerp. The Chocolate Line is one of the most famous. It’s located at the elegant Paleis op de Meir, a palace that’s now converted into a museum, cafe, and chocolatier workshop. Here you can see elegant chocolate creations being made.

Chocolatiers dot the city. I also visited Günther Watté, which doubles as a cafe. After sipping a delicately flavored cup of Jamaica Blue Mountain with the traditional piece of chocolate on the side, I explored their wide selection for something to bring home. For other recommendations, see the well-researched Amsterdam Tourist Guide’s Belgian chocolate page.

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

Coming up next: Antwerp: Belgium’s historic and modern port!

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

Belgian chocolate

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New Gadling travel series: the lowdown on the Low Countries

travel seriesToday I’m starting a new travel series here on Gadling. While Alex explores Far Europe, I’m checking out Near Europe. I’m spending the next ten days seeing the sights and sampling the cuisine of the Low Countries. My first stop is Antwerp, Belgium, and from there I’ll head to Amsterdam and the Hague in The Netherlands.

There’s a lot to explore and I have a full schedule. I’ll be seeing castles, a German bunker from World War Two, beautiful historic buildings and cutting-edge modern architecture, and oddball attractions such as Amsterdam’s Tattoo Museum and its collection of preserved human skin. I’ll also be striking out into the Dutch countryside.

I won’t forget the culinary side to my journey, a mixture of fine Belgian cuisine and down-home Dutch cooking. Belgium is famous for its chocolate, and I’m under strict instructions from my chocoholic wife and mother-in-law to make a thorough investigation. In Amsterdam I’ll sample some of Holland’s excellent cheese.

Sadly this journey will include only two out of the three Low Countries. I won’t have time for Luxembourg. Gadling blogger Andrew Evans has already walked across the country so I’m not sure how I’d top that anyway!

I’m writing this from the Hotel Julien in the heart of the historic downtown. After my first few hours in Antwerp and I must say I have a good first impression. Winding little streets pass by lovely old houses that look similar to Amsterdam canal houses but with a bit of their own style. In one little square I found the beautiful 17th century church of Saint Carolus Borromeus with some elegant woodwork as you see here. After that I walked around the shopping district along and around Koepoort Straat, with an eclectic mix of antique shops, bookshops, metalhead music stores, and vintage clothing stores. Stay tuned tomorrow for a more detailed overview of the important and fascinating city.

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