“ Type: Fish & Seafood / Address: Marnixplaats 12 / 2000 Antwerpen / Belgium / Tel: 03 257 13 57 „
Apparently Antwerp is a wild place to be on a Wednesday night. The trainee who works for me is currently on secondment to our office just outside the city so I asked if she'd like to have dinner with me when I flew over last month. She explained that the city has a really big 'after work' party every Wednesday which shocked me - after all, it's not exactly the weekend and partying on a 'school night' just doesn't seem very Belgian. Another factor to consider when eating out in Antwerp is that despite the recession, there are a lot of people with a lot of money (many of them ex-pats on good expense accounts) and restaurants still get busy throughout the week.
As a consequence of the Wednesday Night Fever our journey into the city was a bit of a drag and finding a parking space on the large cobbled square was like looking for a needle in a haystack. After we eventually gave up and parked illegally on the end of a row, we were relieved to get out of the car and head in search of food. The restaurant Marianne had chosen was recommended by a colleague who eats out just about every night of the year and she'd recommended it because she knew I am a fishitarian.
~First, find your fish~
Fiskebar is on Marnixplaats in Zuid Antwerp which Wikipedia reassures me is 'a currently fashionable area'. Marnixplaats has a whopping big statue as a memorial to someone or something but sadly Wikipedia doesn't stretch to an explanation of who or what although a bit more research revealed that the chap on the statue is Neptune. I think we can assume a nautical theme - and of course where better for a fish restaurant to be located?
Getting in involved a brief tussle with the semicircular curtain that hangs just inside the door. I think it was Morecombe and Wise who used to regularly battle with their stage curtains and I suspect the diners on the other side must have wondered what was going on. When we eventually burst through into the restaurant we found a small but busy dining room which was almost full even though it was barely 7.30 pm. To one side of the restaurant a refrigerated display counter was piled high with fish of many shapes and sizes with two enormous giant crab legs at the back. Beside was the counter which served as a combination of bar, eating area for those not lucky enough to get a table and consigned to perch on high stools, and the dividing area between the kitchen and the dining area. We gave the name we'd booked in and were told our table was upstairs.
~A Sinking Feeling~
Following the instructions, we found ourselves almost in the toilets before diverting down a corridor full of bicycles and up the slightly rickety wooden stairs. The upstairs room was very small and filled with tightly spaced tiny tables. Despite having a booking we were sent to a funny little table standing like a little island abandoned in the middle of the space. It felt a bit vulnerable, a feeling that wasn't helped when I spotted a framed picture of the Titanic on the wall though I later put my glasses on and realised it was actually the Queen Mary and with a jolly decent glass of Sancerre inside me the sense of doom and disaster had already passed me by.
The floors were stripped wood, the tables were sparsely decorated and rather crowded (a couple of glasses per person, some crockery, a cruet and an oversized candle and there's not a lot of space to spare). The menu is written on chalkboards on the long wall of the room and is entirely in Flemish. As luck would have it, I'm a bit of a whiz when it comes to Flemish fish names (a potential Mastermind 'special subject' perhaps) and I really didn't struggle to work out what was what. The list of ten or so starters included fish soup with rouille, prawn croquettes, mussels, squid etc. The next panel listed a long selection of fish types but with no indication of how they'd be cooked or what they'd be served with. The next panel was dedicated to oysters and Fruits de Mer platters of various sizes and complexity, and the final board offered full dishes describing how each was cooked and what it came with. Absolutely everything on the menu was fish or sea food without exception.
I ordered a glass of Sancerre and Marianne took a glass of Merlot and I went to work on a large bottle of Perrier. The waiter took our orders and brought a small basket of baguette slices and a dish of extremely strong garlic butter. The bread appeared to have been sprinkled with rock salt which is just the sort of thing that would keep the folks at the UK's Food Standards Agency lying awake in their beds crying.After about ten minutes our starters arrived. We'd both opted for mussels because they really are a local speciality. Belgium might be the laughing stock of Europe for their lack of famous people, their Eurocrat political 'stuff' and for being home to some of the most notorious paedophiles of the 20th Century but they do get their priorities right when it comes to food. Chocolate, beer, fries and mussels; could there truly be a more distinguished quartet of culinary delights?
~The Mussels from Brussels (or in this case Antwerp)~
It's quite easy to go wrong with mussels and despite my determination to always hunt them down in Antwerp, I've had some really bad ones with some very questionable sauces. No problems at Fiskebar; the quantity was perfect (often you get too few or far too large a quantity), I had only one 'dud' in my bowl, each was plump and juicy and cooked to perfection and the sauce was light in texture and bursting with the taste of garlic, shallots and a hint of white wine. The small table proved to be a bit of a challenge since we needed a plate for the empties and in order to fit it on the table, the waiter moved the candle rather too close to me so that I was forced to reach round it each time to drop my shells in the bowl. The waiter popped back each time the mountain of shells threatened to get unstable and brought us spoons when we got down to the rich juicy sauce at the bottom of our bowls.
Marianne had ordered a 'mixed grill' for her main course whilst I'd chosen scallops with mushroom risotto and parmesan sauce. The mixed grill was enormous and easily enough for two people. On one corner of the plate was a heap of giant shell-on prawns. The next corner was home to three substantial fillets of fish - one an unidentified white fish, the second salmon and the third was tuna. The rest of the plate was heaped with dressed salad and mound of cooked in their skin roast potatoes.
By contrast my dish was rather more modest. There were just five scallops, one placed in each corner of the plate and the final one sitting on a square of mushroom risotto. The plate was decorated with swirls and drizzles of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a foam that should have tasted of parmesan but didn't. It was pretty but the quantity was a bit on the mean side especially when contrasted with the mountain of food on my colleague's plate. The scallops were perfect, firm and juicy and they cut cleanly under my knife. Personally I prefer my scallops with the orange roe still attached but that seems to be hard to find in restaurants. The mushroom risotto was almost as good as the one I make at home (yes, that's blowing my own trumpet but I'm proud of my risotto) but the portion was very small. I also had a chunk of Marianne's tuna which was not as rare as I like but still very tasty and not at all metallic in aftertaste.
With my wine finished I asked what beer the restaurant had, expecting that any Belgian restaurant would have a great selection. I was shocked that the choice was Carlsberg or.....well actually, there was no or. Carlsberg - take it or leave it. So I took it.
Marianne ploughed on with her grill but it was clear that there was no way she'd ever get through it all. She called it a day and the waiter didn't seem surprised when we said that we'd pass on dessert. I asked for a peppermint tea and Marianne asked for 'normal' tea which turned out to be a bit ambitious. My tea arrived with a large glass of hot (but not quite hot enough) water, a bag of peppermint tea (I think) arranged on a stick and the glass filled with fresh mint. Marianne's tea bag was similarly arranged on a stick and we both set about trying to coax some flavour out of our bags. It's typical in Belgian for tea to be beautifully presented but almost undrinkable due to the 'not quite hot enough' water situation - a classic case of too much style and not enough substance.
The waiter brought our bill and told us we'd need to pay downstairs. The total for the two of us came to Euro 67 which must be round about the £60 mark at the current exchange rates. I thought this was about right for what we'd had and the quality of the food. I paid on my credit card, received both a printed and a hand written receipt and then we headed off to fight with the curtains and out through the door. Despite the slightly mean main course, I couldn't fault the quality or presentation of the food and I'd certainly consider a second visit.