Tag: restaurant

Bruxelles alla Turca: restaurant review and lentil soup with mint butter

Having spent three wonderful summers excavating in Turkey, I’ve come to love the Turkish cuisine. I’m not the only one – everyone that has ever participated in the Sagalassos project has fond memories of pide (a Turkish type of pizza), güveç (dishes baked in clay pots) or sütlaç (delicious burnt rice pudding). I’m still in awe of the magic Turkish cooks can perform with a simple ingredient like yoghurt, and I’ve tested quite a few Turkish recipes myself (see below).

So when a friend proposed to go out for dinner to a Turkish restaurant, I eagerly said yes. We went to the Brussels Mecca of Turkish food: the strip of Chausséee de Haecht between Rogierlaan and Botanique, where every other place serves pide or pasta (Turkish for all types of sweet pastries). Finding a parking spot was not easy (we finally discovered ‘parking Express’, shady at first sight but perfectly fine and not expensive), I definitely recommend going there by bus (stops: Robiano or Middaglijn/Méridien) or metro (Kruidtuin/Botanique). We picked out a restaurant using the well-known ‘locals’ technique: it can’t be bad if a lot of locals are eating here. This restaurant happened to be Hünkar Sofrasi (Chaussée de Haecht 89). We were not disappointed.

The waiter spoke Dutch (always a pleasant surprise in Brussels) while we put to practice our culinary Turkish (probably the only Turkish words we can still remember). The three of us ordered one plate of mixed mezze and çoban salata (shepherd’s salad) as a starter. True to Turkish tradition, we were stuffed by the end of this course. The mixed mezze consisted of various yoghurt- and vegetable-based salads, cheese börek, and calamares. Yum.

We then proceeded to the main course: copious amounts of mixed meat-cheese lahmacün (round thin Turkish pizza), mixed meat-cheese pide (boat-shaped Turkish pizza) and spinach-cheese pide. All were absolutely delicious. The waiter, probably foreseeing our imminent indigestions, gladly offered to wrap up the leftovers, providing us with food for at least another night’s dinner. The feast was concluded with Turkish tea on the house (sadly, none of us had room left for sütlaç). We paid 15 euros per person, very reasonable considering the quality and quantity of our dinner.

Our Turkish feast
Our Turkish feast

As my last two posts were also culinary reviews, I figured I owe you a recipe. In keeping with the Turkish theme, I’m offering my new favorite Turkish lentil soup from Turquoise by Greg Malouf. This hearty, perfect winter soup reminded me instantly of the thick soup served at Turkish peasant weddings, but its spicy and eloquent touch makes it just as perfect to be served at Christmas dinner. I might just consider selling my rights as firstborn for this soup (might!).

Lentil soup with mint dressing

Ingredients for about 6-8 people:

one big onion, finely chopped
two big winter carrots, finely chopped
2 tbsp of olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tsp of ground cumin powder
2 tsp of spicy paprika powder (chili powder – not as spicy as cayenne)
2 tsp of mild paprika powder
1 small can of tomato concentrate
200 grams of red lentils (those tiny round orange ones – at the Turkish supermarket, or organic supermarket, or well-sorted supermarket)
2 liters of vegetable stock – or two liters of water with 4 stock cubes (the original recipe mentions chicken stock, which is fine too, but I like to keep it vegetarian)
5 tbsp of fine bulgur (Turkish supermarket)
2 tomatoes, seeds removed, chopped
sea salt, fresh black pepper
lemon parts, for serving

For the mint dressing (optional, but gives a very nice touch):

50 grams of butter
1 tsp of dried mint
1 tsp of paprika powder

How to:

Heat the oil in a large soup casserole on a low fire. Add the chopped onion, carrot and garlic and stir lightly. After a few minutes, add the cumin and two paprikas. Stir regularly until the vegetables start to become soft. Be careful not to let the spices burn (this happens to me sometimes in a casserole with a thin bottom) – it’s better to add the rest of the ingredients a little early if you see it’s starting to burn. Add in the tomato puree and mix well. Let it heat for one minute. Add the lentils and vegetable stock, bring to a boil. Let the soup boil softly with the lid on, stirring regularly for about 20 minutes, until the lentils are starting to fall apart, making the soup a bit ‘creamy’ or starchy. Then add the bulgur and the tomatoes. Season to taste with pepper and salt and let it simmer for another 10 minutes.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan and stir in the mint and paprika powder. Serve the soup in a hot bowl with a piece of lemon and add a few drops of the mint butter. Enjoy!

What to eat when you’re eating in Italy (2)

During my first post about Italy I promised to write about the rest of the trip, and although this message is way overdue, better late than never I guess… (good New Year’s resolution: blogging more regularly!) Hopefully this post about sunny Italy can bring some light in these wet wintry days.

We left off in Orvieto, with its mighty cathedral and remarkable underground dovecotes. From there we went on to Napels: one of the noisiest, most disorganized and wildest cities on the entire European continent. I’d been there before to visit a friend studying abroad, but my boyfriend was quite bewildered at the sight of the vespas chasing each other through the Neapolitan streets. He pointedly remarked that even the Neapolitans, who seem to like living their life ‘dangerously’, put on helmets while driving their scooters – just goes to show. Once we’d settled in at our hotel and gotten our host’s talk of “don’t wear jewelry and shiny watches in the street” we decided to be adventurous and leave with just the map, no touristic guides (yeah, this is as adventurous as it gets…). We strayed around the city for a bit, walking in and out of shirt and suits shops (tailoring is a Neapolitan specialty – if you’re ever looking for a fancy custom-made suit, go there!) and taking in the rough beauty of the city. Unfortunately, the route we’d chosen didn’t really take us past any restaurants. We ended up having a spritz cocktail on a terrace at Piazza Bellini and then continued our search for dinner. We ended up at a restaurant called Leon d’oro, where we were forbidden to sit outside on the terrace for no obvious reason but decided to give it a try, anyway. Luckily, the politeness of the waiters was reversly correlated to the quality of the food. Delicious antipasti, pasta puttanesca, pesce spada, pizza and even dessert on the house came our way, accompanied by a good bottle of whine (what else?). Oh man, everything those waiters (literally) chucked onto our table was absolutely wonderful. And the bill was quite all right as well. Great!

The next day in Naples we explored Ercolano (Herculaneum), Pompeii’s less-known but equally grand sister. We ended at the archeological museum, which has, despite its tragic lack of funding, some great must-sees like the mosaic depicting Alexander the Great at Issos, the erotic cabinet or the Pompeii frescoes. Then we decided to take on a local classic and went for pizza at Sorbillo (after another spritz at Piazza Bellini). You have to stand in line outside for a while, but the pizza is cheap and very good. We amused ourselves by trying to calculate the number of pizzas the place bakes in one day, it must be a few hundred!

An ancient street at Ercolano
Frescoes at Ercolano

We then took off to Salerno, a modest (and frankly, slightly boring) coastal town about 40 minutes by train from Naples. We stayed at a hotel opposite the train station that breathed classical Southern Italian style, with personnel that takes your luggage into your room for you, soft carpet on the floor and extremely helpful receptionists. In Salerno, we had a simple but great lunch at a place called ‘Pizza Margharita’ (how original!). You can tell a good Italian restaurant when you see old ladies all dressed up, eating pasta with their granddaughters and entire families celebrating something with plates and plates of seafood and pasta… We then took the local train to Paestum, where we visited the museum with its impressive Etruscan remains and of course the glorious site of Paestum, the best preserved colony of Magna Graecia (the Greek colonization of Southern Italy). We concluded this absolutely wonderful day with a meal at Spunzillo by the seaside (if you ever go there, better make reservations – we arrived right before all hell seemed to break loose, customer-wise). We tried Salerno’s specialties; fresh seafood: I had risotto pescatoro and cassuola di mare (sea casserole).

The impressive temples at Paestum

The next day we set out to our most Southern destination: Taranto. Hotel Arcangelo, where we stayed, was excellent with a funny overly friendly receptionist and a lovely breakfast – they even upgraded our room. The poverty in this little fisherman’s town, once a glorious Spartan colony, was also very striking – as soon as we got there we were asked for money by a random passerby on the street (who wasn’t even actively begging but just happened to notice us and give it a try). We spent our first day visiting the stunning archaeological museum – an absolute must see – and sipping spritz on a sunny seaside terrace in a fancy chocolate/ice cream bar. The next day we went to the beach, where we were laughed at for being really white by bronzed Italians and experienced the social consequences of a car accident in Italy firsthand from the bus. The food was like the town: simple but glorious. We had dinner at Trattoria da Ugo, a fisherman’s restaurant that serves whatever the sea has offered that very day. So that night, we had mussels and squid, prepared with only a little parsley and lemon juice – fantastic. Just about everything at the trattoria cost 3 euros: the antipasto, the main course, the liter of wine… we paid 28 euros (and still had the impression they’d charged us too much) and left the place completely stuffed.

Narrow streets and faded glory at Taranto

From Taranto we took the high speed train to Ravenna – all the way up at the shore side, a scenic view. The hotel, called Astoria, was not exactly the best we had all trip due to a noisy and malfunctioning air conditioning throughout quite a humid night. We explored the town a little upon arriving there and then sought out a good restaurant. We picked out La Gardela and were not disappointed. We tasted some excellent regional specialties like Squacquerone cheese, a very rich and creamy variation of mozzarella and I had risotto with bitter radicchio and sangiovese wine (oh great heavens!). Even though we were accustomed to Italian goodness by now, we enjoyed every bite of our dinner and had a bottle of local Prosecco to celebrate life in general and our very recent engagement in particular. The next day, we visited Ravenna’s great touristic sights: all the monuments from the glorious Byzantine era, like the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the Basilica di San Vitale, the Basilica di Sant’Apollinaire Nuovo… Ravenna struck us as a quaint, cozy little town, quite like Salamanca in Spain or Leuven in Belgium, completely different from the laid-back southern style at Taranto. There were also some great shopping opportunities. In the early evening, we took the train to Faenza, where we met up with a friend who’s studied abroad in Italy, fell in love with the country and is half Italian by now, still going there for excavations and his archaeological research. We had aperitif (spritz, what else?) at Faenza and then he took us through the mountains to the quiet town of Brisighella, where he’d once been to a good restaurant. The restaurant was an absolute culmination of our Italian adventure, with an abundance of local specialties. Actually, even the word abundance is a complete understatement – the Italian family next to us had ordered two full meals for every three persons (smart, I must say so) and at one point we had fears of not being able to drive back just because we were too full… A merry evening indeed. I had the full vegetarian menu which was equally abundant but a little less heavy and showed once again how delicious cooking with vegetables can be – and the seemingly effortless Italian mastery of the vegetarian kitchen.

Stunning and well-preserved art work in Ravenna's monuments
Mosaics in Ravenna's UNESCO World Heritage

The next day, we stuck around in Ravenna a little longer, taking the time to shop, collect souvenirs for our neighbors who’d helped care for our plants and friends who’d borrowed us their touristic guidebooks and sip cappuccinoes while it started raining outside (it sort of felt like the circle was complete, after we’d started our vacation with rain and had several sunny days in the South). We then took the train for the last stop in Milan, which felt very cosmopolitan and big compared to cozy little Ravenna. We had dinner at a rather touristic pizza place after fruitlessly trying to get into a really good-looking restaurant (next time in Milan, we’ll have to make reservations…). We left early the next morning at the Milan train station and arrived in Brussels without any troubles that evening, after a train ride that took us past the breathtaking Italian lakes.

Bye bye, Italy!


Home sweet home

What to eat when you’re eating in Italy (1)

Soo, I haven’t been here for a while! My vacation in Italy would be responsible for that. We (that would be, my lovely partner-in-crime and I) toured Italy by train from north (Torino/Turin) to south (Taranto) and back up again, passing by Ravenna. What can I say… I was in culinary heaven for two weeks. So I’m eager to share my newly discovered not-so-secret addresses with you, for those who ever pass by in one of the Italian cities we visited. Some of them were gastronomically advanced, some were very simple fishermen’s restaurants and in some we got really rude treatment from the waiter. But all were great in their own way. Here we go!

Our first stop was Turin, home of the slow food movement. During the day, we encountered a fantastic supermarket-meets-restaurant/coffee bar place called Eataly (apparently it’s a chain in Italy). You can buy some great quality groceries here (pasta, coffee, fresh vegetables…), have lunch downstairs, sip some coffee upstairs… I fell in love with the place at once. We had dinner at L’Oca Fola (the crazy goose). We found this restaurant, which happened to be very near our hotel, through a slow food-guide. We went for a complete dinner menu, which was a little more than we could handle… We tasted some very typical Turin dishes like risotto and gnocchi with heavy cheese sauce, accompanied by local Barbera wine. Breadsticks, which were invented in Turin, were also omnipresent. Let’s say the menu was a bit on the heavy side and reminded us of food you’d want to eat if you were about to go do heavy work all day. We definitely shouldn’t have tried eating all the dishes that kept coming at us, and the free grappa at the end of the meal was very welcome to help digestion! The food was good, but not especially refined. If you’re in Turin for just one day, I’d recommend looking at one of the restaurants more towards the city center, but L’Oca Fola is great to try if you’re there for several days.

Eataly, the fabulous supermarket in Turin

Next, we moved on to Perugia, a cosy little city with a very medieval feel and lots of stairs and elevation (they even have a public elevator in the middle of town!). During the day we came across a restaurant/wine bar called Énonè and decided to try it for the night. It was fantastic. We tried some local cheese with honey and preserved figs as an appetizer. As a first course, we had pasta – simple ravioli in tomato sauce and spaghetti with scampi. My main course was something called ‘Grand Vegetarian’ – a simple collection of grilled vegetables such as tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant which was absolutely delicious. The dessert was something scrumptious with mascarpone and amaretto cookies with grand marnier. As we were sitting at the table chatting away after the meal, the owner brought over some bitter liquor to taste. Needless to say, I’d recommend this restaurant to anyone going to Perugia and we’d absolutely go there again! Another thing to try in Perugia is Sandri, a bar that’s been there for several decennia and looks exactly that way. The waiters wear those traditional uniforms and they have a bar filled with sweets and pastries… It’s great to just sit on their terrace, which is in Perugia’s main street, sipping from a cappuccino, nibbling on some sugary piece of pastry and watching people pass by. Or sipping a bellini cocktail and having some rice ice cream, or downing an espresso with a piece of chocolate pie… You get the point.

Scenic view at Perugia

We went on to Orvieto, where we had a nice but not especially remarkable dinner at Mammaurelia, with some very good wine. We followed the Lonely Planet guidebook to an ice cream parlor called Pasqualetti and had some delicious gelato there with a view on the impressive cathedral. We also took the underground Orvieto-tour, which went past the underground colombaria or dovecotes. These were basements of peoples’ houses carved out to accomodate doves, which were then caught and prepared as a lovely dinner!

The impressive cathedral of Orvieto, barely fitting into the picture
Dovecotes dug in people's cellars at Orvieto

We went on to see and eat at Napels, Salerno and more… will be featured in the next post!