Monday, August 25, 2008

senza nome

There’s a chain of relatively well regarded seafood restaurants in Singapore named “No Signboard Seafood” – they started out in a hawker centre selling their seafood dishes that mrs proprietor cooked up from the seafood that mr proprietor brought back on his bicycle from the market. They couldn’t afford a signboard for their humble little store then, but the food drew in a loyal clientele, and word of mouth spread round the tiny island of their signature white pepper crab – they became known as the ‘no signboard seafood restaurant’. Rather literal, but it worked – they now have a chain of 4 restaurants all bearing the same name, and cooking the same famous white pepper crab.

I digress. I’m not sure why I thought of the “No Signboard Seafood” restaurant when I mean to write about Senza Nome where me and y had dinner on her last night in town. Senza Nome, means “without a name” – I’m certain it wasn’t because they couldn’t afford a name, but it’s a curious choice nonetheless. They seem, however, to have made a name for themselves, they were fully booked that evening, and have got a Michelin sparkler for their efforts. I was excited. But then again, I’m always excited when pasta is involved.

A brief glance at the menu and I wanted to order everything that contained the word bottega, of which there were a healthy number. It was too hard to choose. y and I decided to take the lazy option and went for the degustation menu – four courses of seasonal offerings.
A bread board of cheese infused foccacia arrived which helped to assuage our hunger, as did an amuse bouche of soft mozzarella, cherry tomatoes and a bread stick, drizzled over with fruity olive oil.

We started off with a first course was seafood and mash. The attempted description in French did sound a lot more delicious – but the waitress gave up when me and y responded with blank stares. Her attempt to describe the dish in English resulted in something along the lines of “seafood and mash”. Scrumptiously plump mussels and shrimp resting precariously atop a mound of creamy mash which itself was nestled in a bath of tomato infused fish broth which tasted pleasantly not unlike boulliabaise. It was absolutely lovely.

The pasta course was simply amazing. And it’s not because I’m partial to pasta. It’s simplicity was not something to be sneered at. Perfectly formed fresh handmade egg pasta rolls, al denté and reveling in the luxury of a straightforward tomato sauce in which the neat cubes of tomatoes had been confit cooked in an abundance of rich velvety olive oil. It was very exciting to eat, yet very comforting.

The fish course came in the form of a fillet of dourade ( which google informs me is gilthead bream) smeared over liberally with a paste of aubergine. It was lightly grilled beneath this eggplant blanket, and came with yet another helping of the delectable mash dressed in the lightest drizzle of fish broth and more of that delectably virgin olive oil.

Having been gazing enviously at the table of five next to us who had also gone for the same menu while they ate their puddings, we had heretically considered asking the waitress to forego the fish course and get us straight to pudding. ours finally arrived – an shot glass with a rich chocolate mascarpone topped with an even richer chocolate sauce, next to it, a little dish containing a quenelle of tiramisu ice-cream, tasting wholesomely of espresso and more mascarpone and chocolate. Despite all its richness, none of it was cloying – the mascarpone had the lightness of mousse, the chocolate sauce adding a bittersweet note.

Like its name, the food at senza nome was simplicity personified – no fancy preparations, lecithin infused foamy chi-chi-ness to confuse and wow the senses. In a town where molecular preparations jostle alongside bistro brusqueness for your dining dollar (or rather your epicurean euros), the quality of the produce and the cooking at senza nome was a refreshing breath of confident sophisticated simplicity.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Le pré sale

I couldn’t in good conscience let Y spend a weekend in Brussels without a trip out for moule frite. It just wouldn’t be right. Deciding against chez leon, tourist institution purveyor of not-too-bad moule frite in rue tourist-trap des bouchers, we ventured into the fishier and slightly grungier streets of st Catherine.

st Catherine feels a little weird – it feels like it’s missing a large body of water, or a tiny boat bearing canal at least. Rows of seafood restaurants line the square which used to be a dock. In the wisdom of early Brussels town planners – they silted up the river and the dock became redundant, but somehow, the waterside feel of the place still lingers.

Le pre sale was heaving when we walked through its doors. We were offered a table after an hour’s wait. No worries – that suited us fine – lunch was still lolling about in our tummies and the extra hour digesting would make space nicely for a kilo pot of mussels. And chips of course. And mayonnaise. We considered all this while sitting along a tiny water feature in the place of where the dock used to be. And it made us hungry.

It was a little pointless giving me a menu – I had been contemplating all afternoon which moule flavour I was going to go for when I decided that we were going to le pre sale for dinner. Being extremely partial towards white wine and cream, but equally enamoured towards just lashings of garlic and butter, it was a difficult choice to make. The chalkboard menu solved my dilemma – they had garlic, and cream, and garlic and cream.

A large steaming pot of mussels came, plump and fat, dotted with chunks of celery and lashings of cream and garlic. It smelt delicious. I love moules. I can’t get enough of them. Bathed in the milky succulence of the moule steeped cream, I was so thankful I wasn’t planning on snogging anyone that night as I ate the garlicky goodness with abandonment.

The frites however, far surpassed any other chip I had ever tasted. I could eat them all day long and forget all conventional wisdom about cardiac health. They were the perfect size, finger length batons having the width somewhat in between the lanky French fry and the chunky English chip. It had attained chip nirvania – the finely tuned ratio between crunchy surface area and internal fluffiness which came from probably having been fried twice for ultimate crispness.

I love moule frite.


set within the grandeur of hotel amici, a stone’s throw away from grand place and its throngs of camera toting tourists, bocconi offered a quiet spot for an early sunday lunch. having just picked y up from gare midi, we settled upon brunch at bocconi and were expecting to eat our way through a promising sunday brunch buffet, we were disappointed to find out that the service of sunday brunch would resume only in September. it had started raining again and we were far too lazy to traipse all the way to the Conrad instead, so we stayed.
and I’m glad we stayed. I could possibly have eaten three helpings of the calamari ink taglioni with king prawns and cherry tomatoes in a lobster sauce. each forkful evoked happy vibes of tingly pleasure – the taste of the sea espoused in the savouriness of the smooth black taglioni compounded with the richness of the lobster infused cream sauce, foiled perfectly against the sweet acidity of the cherry tomatoes and the plumpness of the prawns. happy vibes of tingly pleasure.

y let me have many mouthfuls of the beef carparccio she started with and the absolutely scrumptious chanterelle risotto she had for a main. the thinly sliced beef carpaccio came with lashings of pecorino and a drizzling of fresh pesto. the chanterelle risotto was richness personified – the luxurious velvetiness of the rice grains, the meatiness of the large chunks of chanterelles – guilty bliss not usually associated with a meat-free dish.

we shared a tiramisu for pudding – the usual affair of espresso soaked sponge layered with mascarpone and cocoa jazzed up with the accompaniment of a shot of espresso granita and a very agreeable amaretto .

as we finally left bocconi, y said that hotel amici used to be a prison – gruesome beginnings for what is probably now one of brussel’s finest hotels where rock stars and politicians stay the night. if prison grub was anything like what we had for lunch, I’d happily be incarcerated there.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

i heart ramen

The ramen master scene in tampopo is hilarious. Watch it here, courtesy of youtube.

Just watching it makes me hungry. In the scene, the ramen master and his apprentice are at a ramen bar where they are served steaming bowls of ramen. The apprentice wants to dive in straight into his bowl of ramen, but his master sits there, contemplating the ramen, and upon being asked what the right way to eat ramen is, the ramen master launches into a soliloquy and goes through the rather elaborate rituals involved in approaching the esteemed bowl of noodles. It’s hilarious.
"first caress the surface with the tips of your chopsticks.."
"what for?"
"to express affection".

D and I did no such thing when we found ourselves seated at Yamato. I could hardly wait for the ramen. This was so exciting. D and I had been having i-love-ramen talks for a while and this was going to be it. the day of ramen reckoning. It was Yamato’s first day back in business after their summer holiday, and even before it had opened for the evening service at 7, a considerable queue had formed along the street. They finally let us in and the queue snaked in. Fortunately, D and I were able to bag the last few seats at the bar while the rest of the queue continued to wait. I admit there was a brief moment of schadenfreude joy.

I must have squealed in delight when the bowls were finally handed to us across the counter where behind it, mr and mrs yamato were busy cooking them up. Proper ramen noodles swimming deliciously in a deep earthy miso broth, topped with slices of katsu, a deep fried, panko coated fat marbled pork cutlet. None of that poseur nonsense that gets passed off as ramen in wagamamas and other pseudo ramen-yas of that ilk in london. I was so happy it was unbelievable.

Later in the fortnight, still beaming at the memory of ramen, I contemplated returning to Yamato for another bowl but somehow decided to head towards au bon bol for a bowl of their hand pulled noodles, or la-mian, the Chinese version, which technically is the ancestral root of all ramen. They were well springy, having been pulled and stretched into gluten submission, served in a clear meat broth and topped with my choice of roast duck. Despite having the same lineage, ramen and la-mian are almost two completely different creatures. Without prejudice to my own Chinese ancestry, I have to say I prefer ramen to la-main any time, but that’s perhaps largely due to the fact that I’m also extremely partial to the gyoza potsticklers that you can always get with them.


Fresh back from a week in Tewkesbury and back to reality in bigbankbrussels, I headed out on my first day back at lunch for grown-up food at Ogenblik. having perused the menu online, i knew what i was going to get. I had to have it - the Mille-feuille de saumon et de queues d’écrevisses au coulis de langoustines. How could that one sentence not move you to insatiable and immediate desire? It had all elements that one legitimately lusts for – pastry, salmon, crayfish tails, and a langoustine puree. I had to have it.

and any establishment that starts my meal off with a good healthy chunk of warm rustic sourdough baguette, and a slab of butter will have a place of honour in my (potentially cholesterol laden) heart. A glass of house vin blanc, simply because it cost less than eau pétillante, me and the sourdough baguette anticipated for the arrival of THE DISH.

it was exactly what it said it was going to be - a wedge of pastry, layered with generous chunks of salmon and prawns, oozing with spinach and cheese, sitting on a creamy, velvety sauce which was the embodiment of everything good about langoustines - the sweetness that comes from being a hardy bottomfeeder - i find it best not to think of what exactly they feed on - they are after all excellent in almost any form. i ate it all 'ogenblik' - in the blink of an eye. like a bottomfeeder.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

the tipping point

I was sent some porn via email today – and it the picture of a fine bird. to be more precise, it was the picture of a lovely piece of roast duck over gravy soaked rice. I had to stop myself lusting.

I’d like to blame SQ, porn provider of the day, for having tipped me over the should-i-be-good-and-go-to-the-gym-or-go-and-look-for-roast-duck-instead balance. to be honest though, I had been craving roast duck and rice for the better part of the past homesickness tinged 3 weeks and this was probably just the excuse I was looking for to indulge those cravings.

and so it had to be done – a brief moment of half hearted contemplation as to whether the pursuit of roast duck was a worthy reason to give up attendance of spin class. of course I decreed that it was. I trotted off to the aptly named Hong Kong Delight at 33 rue Ste-Catherine with its rows of hanging barbequed meats. it looked admittedly rather dingy – but it was exactly what I was looking for – a good honest hole in the wall.

I was seated and presented with a menu written in chinese – it had the usual offerings - an assortment of one-dish meals on rice, noodles and soups. I ordered roast duck on rice, and a bowl of shrimp wantons in broth. sipping the jasmine tea I had been served, it almost felt like I was in a 茶餐厅 in downtown kowloon rather than lower town Brussels – the chatter of mandarin and Cantonese speaking customers around me, the sharp bang of the chef chopping up my duck, the strains of cheese over the radio.

the leg of roast duck had a good amount of meat, the skin was nicely caramelized though it could have benefited from being a little crisper. there was a good splash of duck gravy over the rice, and I added a large helping of chilli oil. the wantons were nice – proper thin egg pastry skins, and plump prawns, it was a good side to go with the greasiness of the duck.

I couldn’t be happier.

Monday, August 04, 2008


mr alien was in town on business, and very kindly brought me out to dinner on his very generous expense account. It was however a monday night in the dead of august (when many good restaurants in brussels go on holiday). determined not to be subject to the trappings of a usual tourist spot, i upped the efforts of my restaurant search (by eschewing the usual timeout guide wisdom for the recommendations of the lovely secretary at bigbankbrussels) and was nudged favourably towards jaloa.

mr alien was understandably hungry at the time I met him – and the 10 minute walk from his hotel near rogier to ste Catherine wasn’t helping. Ignoring his hints at stopping at quick for dinner, we soldiered on and rewarded ourselves with the order of the ‘surprise’ menu – 4 courses of seasonal food, putting you at the absolute mercy of the chef’s whims.

We were first served with a trio of tasters – a very light carrot soup, an even lighter carrot mousse and a fritter of courgette and cherve. It was all very tasty, but for that brief moment of doubt, I questioned whether this was the starter or simply an offering of amuse bouche. And for that brief moment of doubt, my heart sank ever so slightly because mr alien was very hungry and I hoped this wasn’t one of those restaurants where they served dollhouse sized portions in the name of chi-chi-dom.
Thankfully it was just an amuse bouche, because next the real meal started when we were served a tian of tuna tartare with tomato, chervil, coriander and dill and an olive breadstick. Drizzled generously with olve oil, it was a taste of the Mediterranean sea. It was light and refreshing, but substantively set us up for the rest of the meal to follow.
The fish course was in the form of a langoustine, wrapped in filo pastry. Atop a bed of ratoutuille and saffron foam. The saffron foam seemed rather odd as a combination to the ratoutuille, but it did bring out the edgy sweetness of the langoustine.
Veal sweetbreads served with green and white asparagus. Ris de veau is one of those things you don’t really find in London, but in Brussels, it seems to be a rather common occurrence – cooked rightly, it’s an extremely tender piece of meat without an overtly offaly aftertaste. It was fortunately cooked relatively well here in jaloa – the softness of the sweetbreads yielding against the bite of the asparagus, drizzled with a somewhat acidic yet caramelized sauce.
Pudding– a simple offering of cream with summer berries, topped with a round of speculoos, the Belgian gingerbread biscuit, bathed in a dense, rich chocolate sauce. It was one of those deserts where you try to kid yourself is healthy because it contains some manner of fruit, but the taste of decadence on your tongue as the cream and the chocolate sauce meet the crunch of the buttery speculoos tells you otherwise.
We did stumble out of Jaloa more than sufficiently satiated and I was certain I did mrs alien proud by ensuring her husband had been well fed. So till the next time you’re in town with your expense account mr alien…