“ Address: Leopoldstraat 24 / Antwerpen 2000 „
~Pushing the Boat Out~
Last year I managed to pretty much avoid going to Belgium but 2013 is clearly going to be different. I had a gap in my team with nobody looking after the Benelux, hence I was allowed to ignore the place but this has to change. Following a bit of a reshuffle in Belgium, January 1st brought me the final piece of the team jigsaw when a colleague transferred into my group. Whilst Karin was new to the team, she was far from new to the company and we'd worked together in my previous role. The very same day she came into my group marked her 15th anniversary of joining the company. I thought that justified a celebration (if not a medal for valour and endurance) but apparently according to the local HR department it didn't. She would get a nice bonus cheque from the Belgian operation but no kind of 'jolly' so I decided "To hell with protocol" and offered her a celebration.
I suggested we could either go out with a bunch of her colleagues or if she wanted to go somewhere nicer, she could pick a couple of her favourite people and we'd go out in a smaller group. She preferred this second option and asked to bring her husband, Yves, and one of her closest colleagues, Natasja. Could we go, she asked, to a really nice place with a Michelin star which she had her eye on for some complicated work-related reasons which I really can't go into? Since I was trying to kick off the year as 'Nice Boss' I said yes and then wondered how scary the bill was going to be.
Het Gabaar is Flemish for 'The Gesture' which was appropriate given the circumstances. The restaurant is located in a very pretty house which I'd guess was roughly Victorian in age. The restaurant has the strange policy of only opening for quite a restricted period. Service is from 11 am to 6 pm so if you want to go for dinner, you've picked the wrong place. The chef, Roger van Damme, has achieved an interesting approach to work-life balance by deciding to not give in to the normally more lucrative evening trade. Despite this, in the six hour period the restaurant is open, he averages 120 covers per day, despite having tables for only 40 people. When you learn about the complexity of the food he serves, it's all the more remarkable to be able to serve so many diners in such a short time. From what I could gather, he's always in the restaurant unlike many celebrity chefs who are too busy off having a wild time being famous to actually do much cooking any more.
Van Damme is a Flemish chef who appears on the Belgian cable television channel Njam! (think yum and the sound is similar). Thus he is in the words of another of my Flemish friends "World famous in all of Belgium". His particular fame is for highly creative patisserie and Natasja had brought along her copy of his latest book, hoping to get it signed. I was warned to expect no starter because there's no way you can go to Het Gebaar and not have pudding.
Our table was booked for 2.45 pm which is not the easiest time to eat. Do you starve yourself from breakfast to round about 3.30 or risk eating lunch and not being able to do justice to the delicacies on offer? I was so put off by how we were treated on arrival that if it hadn't been someone else's choice to be there, I'd have walked out there and then and told them where to stuff their table. Natasja had arrived a little early and been told our table wouldn't be ready until 3 so when we arrived she came out of the restaurant - where there is very little space for anyone to wait, and we took a stroll around the wintery botanical gardens where the restaurant is based, returning at 3.00. When the waitress told us we'd have to wait outside, I pointed out that we'd already waited 15 minutes but the small bench for waiting customers was already full. We were sent to stand in the corridor vestibule. It was a very poor start to our visit. Eventually about another ten minutes later we were allowed back in. Karin did murmur that we should have been offered a drink whilst we waited rather than being left like parcels in the porch. We subsequently learned that the people who'd had our table before us had rolled up an hour late for their booking and then refused to leave. The problem is that should be the restaurant's problem, not mine. The head of the Michelin guides was in the same day as us but I'm willing to bet he wasn't left waiting in the corridor.
Once we finally got our table, things started to look up very quickly. The restaurant is small with tables split between two small rooms. There's not a lot of space but everything is presented very nicely. This is a comfy seats, thick table cloths and heavy curtains kind of place with traditional painted wainscoting and striped walls. Our table wasn't brilliant as we were right next to a side room which led to the toilets and the kitchen and there was a lot of 'traffic' from the waiting staff carrying empty plates and leaving them nearby. Since it was Karin's celebration, I made sure that she and her husband had the 'people watching' seats against the wall since I would be incapable of recognising any apparently famous people who were eating nearby. Yes, I can do 'Name 10 famous Belgians' but I don't think any of them were likely to be eating with us (or in many cases, alive). We ordered glasses of champagne and some water and then contemplated the wine list. With three of the four driving, we just ordered wine by the glass as we were split down the middle - two for red and two for white.
The waiting staff run around in very smart suits with curly wires coming out of their ears like FBI agents. I assume they are relaying important information to the kitchen. The lady who brought us the menus was apparently Roger van Damme's wife and she was very polite and very professional and whilst there was no English menu, she was happily preparing to translate the entire thing for me until I explained that I didn't eat meat so she could skip all of the meat dishes and not to worry too much as I'm pretty good at guessing and my colleagues could help. Learning about the meat situation she then told me about the special - scallops with pork cheek (but they could leave that off mine)- and the other fish dish would have been monkfish except it had all gone. The daily special is always a fish dish which was good for me but I'd have to warn vegetarians that I don't think there's a meat and fish-free option. Luckily I love scallops but it could have been tricky if I didn't. Natasja and I asked for the scallops whilst Yves and Karin ordered a pork dish.
Desserts are Roger's speciality and guests are asked to order their puds when they order their main courses. This is an unusual tactic but I guess they're just not willing to rush their speciality. I was trying to be good and picked an apple-based dish called 'Pomme Pomme'. Yves chose to order the cheese plate, Karin went with a dish called 'Soleil' whilst Natasja went for the most famous and renowned of the puds, the so-called "Botanique". Lots more details to follow! If you go towards the end of the afternoon though you can order pancakes or just order dessert although these options are not available at the peak lunch time.
Roger wandered over whilst we were waiting and I was surprised to discover Karin was on 'kissing terms' with a Michelin starred chef. We soon received bread to nibble on whilst we waited and then a sort of pre-main course. You couldn't call it a starter as it was really just a little tasty distraction whilst the chef worked on our main courses. The others received almost spherical glass bowls with a delicately constructed concoction of salad and meat. I didn't look too closely but Karin grabbed my camera to take a photo. I received a similar little bowl with something in the bottom - I think it was crushed nuts and tiny pieces of cauliflower and a pea shoot but I'm not completely sure - and then the waitress poured a small volume of intensely flavoured cauliflower soup on top. It was very pretty and nice that they made the effort to offer me a meatless alternative but I had to ask for a spoon as they'd forgotten that soup's tricky with a fork.
My main course was fabulous, absolutely fabulous and I loved every mouthful. I had three large juicy scallops whilst Natasja had one fewer but had the pork cheek instead to make up for the extra scallop I had. The scallops were laid out on a curve on the plate with blobs of stupendous creamed potato and pureed pumpkin. At least I think it was pumpkin or something 'squash-ish'. Dolls house sized carrots were perched on top some of the potato blobs and at either end of the curve there were strange mounds of something dark and crumbly which I subsequently found out was supposed to be some kind of malt. The curve wrapped around another of the spherical glass bowls which contained a tiny quenelle of crab meat resting on a little blob of lobster sauce. Every mouthful was amazing. Karin and Yves' pork was a work of art, served crackling side up with what looked like blobs of stuffing and vegetables along with a rich gravy.
We had quite a long wait for the puddings but that wasn't a bad thing. When I saw the size of them there was no way we could have tucked in straight after the main courses. Presentation is everything at Het Gebaar and even Yves' cheese plate was a work of art with a curved display of four or five cheeses, a bowl of hand made bread slices and a balsamic dressing. Karin's 'Soleil' was a ring of vanilla panna cotta with white choc buttons, blobs of exotic fruit mouse or possibly sorbet and a rising sun of passionfruit sauce in the middle. The 'Botanique' was a little chocolate island with a chocolate tree perched on top. Rocks of green and yellow something-or-other (I didn't taste, I only looked) and egg-shaped blobs of chocolate mouse were piled on top of the mound of sweetness. Remember I'd thought the cheese plate was artistic? Well it wasn't in the same league as the Botanique.
My idea that the Pomme Pomme would be a dainty little fruit based dish was blown away when my dish arrived. I don't even know what half of the ten or so things on my plate were. There was a circle of some kind of thin biscuit held in place with a blob of sauce. The largest item was an oblong block of finely chopped firm apple pieces wrapped around with something that looked a bit like a fine ginger snap. The next biggest was similarly wrapped but contained a sort of firm custard that tasted just like my mum's finest bread and butter pudding, but had the consistency of something slightly chewy, slightly wobbly, totally confusing. There were an assortment of blobs and egg-shaped beads of various things. A small pot contained an intensely flavoured sort of sorbet, another cream sat on a bed of crumbed biscuit (maybe). A blob of some kind of balsamic reduction sat next to the cream. There was also a little green cake with a roll of apple flavoured I don't know what perched on top.
To be honest I was a bit overwhelmed by the complexity of my pudding. Should I eat each thing one at a time and risk getting left with the least interesting bits at the end? Or should I have a tiny piece of each and work my way round several times? I was uncomfortable with not really feeling confident about what I was supposed to do with my food. Everything was exquisitely crafted and of fantastic quality but it was just too much of a sensory overload for someone who rarely has a restaurant pudding at all.
We ordered coffees which were served with a tiny cookie, a tiny cake and a glass of thick, rich cream. Even the sugar was complicated stuff with a small dish of shaped sugar lumps and various coloured sugar pieces. By the time we'd finished our coffees, we'd been in the restaurant for about three hours. Roger came over to chat and to sign Natasja's book and stayed for ages, talking about his television work and his new range of desserts sold in one of the national supermarkets. One of his young sons wandered over and told him "Daddy, I don't like the food". "That's OK," Roger told him, "If you don't eat it today, you can eat it tomorrow". Karin translated this for me after we'd left and I thought it was a lovely down to earth response to a child moaning about his dinner made by a top chef.
The bill for the four of us came to 320 Euros which was slightly less than I'd feared. Main courses were around Euro35 each, puddings a shade under Euro20 each and we'd had four glasses of champagne, four glasses of wine and four coffees on top. £70 a head is well over my normal budget and I was very nervous when I put it through my expenses (could I disguise it as dinner for 20 people instead?) However, even rather ordinary restaurants in Antwerp are more expensive than I'd generally expect in the UK so the difference between Roger van Damme artistry and Joe Ordinary's run of the mill diner probably wasn't that enormous.
Open Tuesday to Saturday - 11 am to 6 pm. Reservations are ESSENTIAL.