Restaurateur Gavin Rankin enjoys a gastronomic trip to Belgium but wishes travelling companion, chef Rowley Leigh, had kept his mouth shut about the ox tongue.
I recently lunched with two National Treasures – both Chefs – and was amused to see that their pointed bantering was every bit as spiky as might be expected from either the acting or the legal profession. Present were Rowley Leigh and Simon Hopkinson, both Titans of the Kitchen. ‘So’, said Rowley to Simon, what are you up to?’ ‘Well,’ replied Simon, ‘I was thinking of writing another recipe book’. ‘Really darling, and what will you call this one – Fifty Shades of Gravy?’
Occasionally I am asked which restaurants I like to visit as though I am an expert. I am not. Tavern keepers have fewer opportunities than most to dine out, so when they do it is an occasion and it as well to go to those places where they are genuinely welcome. I tend to favour restaurants owned by friends and to avoid the achingly trendy with a six week waiting list. The food does not have to be Michelin starred, with all the frigid hauteur that can involve, but rather places of merriment and friendliness. Tablecloths and round plates are always nice. Not nice are drinks ordered but undelivered; endless waits for menus; ingredients you have never heard of; and wine lists dreamed up by a favoured wine merchant with a bit of a wonky backlog.
Rowley Leigh and I recently went on a gastronomic tour of Belgium, land of my foremothers, which he had never visited. We took in one or two of the grander starred establishments which were a bit like eating in a carpeted Church, and about as much fun. But Bruges charmed. I warned Rowley not to speak French there as I did not want to get beaten up in a dark alley by Flemish Nationalists – so English only. A delicious lunch with all the niceties followed and Rowley had the Ox tongue. As we left he told the formidably sturdy Dutch proprietress, in a doomed attempt at cross-cultural culinary appreciation, that he thought her tongue was really succulent. Scandalised, and with hands on generous hips, she announced that she ‘waz going to get her hoosband!’ That’s torn it, I thought, as I tried for a tracking shot to the door, leaving the old fool to get himself out of that one. My way was blocked by a huge man with hands like shovels and a nasty look in his eye. We trembled before him but, fortunately, time spent in the UK meant that he had actually heard of National Treasure Leigh and all was well; once the linguistic unorthodoxies had been sorted out.
Most memorable, though, was a lunch in Brussels at Aux Armes de Bruxelles : a really charming brasserie near the Grand Place which has been around since the 1920’s. All sharp edges made round by the years and oceans of snowy-white table cloths. As soon as Rowley walked in, waiters wise in the ways of the world, could see what they were dealing with and we were ushered to an enclosed table usually reserved for the Prime Ministers of Belgium – when there is one. So there we were, Hims Ancient and Modern, (but which is which?), waiting expectantly with huge napkins tucked into our collars and upturned knives and forks in our fists.
There appeared Matjes Herrings (they have a season); Eels in Sauce Verte (sublime); Chicken Waterzoie (poached chicken and vegetables in a creamy broth); a panorama of cheeses and then impeccable Crêpes Suzettes, prepared at the table amidst great whooshing sheets of flame; not often seen but always impressive. Wonderful wines too and all consumed with much jollity, laughter and gossip. Also a lot of hazy competition over literary quotes and historical dates, generally preceded by the line (for maximum irritation) : ‘I think you’ll find’. Add to this a staff for whom nothing was too much trouble and we concluded that this had been the best, and the most honest, meal of the trip. That is my idea of a good restaurant.
Gavin Rankin runs (and even eats in) Bellamy’s Restaurant at 18 Bruton Place, London W1J 6LY