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Tot Straks (Antwerp, Belgium)

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Address: Bredabaan 332 / 2170 / Merksem / tel: 03 647 25 34

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      24.05.2010 19:17
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      Why don't people think of Belgium as a great culinary nation?

      Those old enough to have had a misspent youth will recognise the title as one of the classic songs by the self-proclaimed "rudest, crudest, lewdest, drunkest band in Christendom" in other words, the Macc Lads. Perhaps not too appropriate for a review of a genteel Belgian restaurant but in the land where beer and chips rule supreme, I can happily pass up on the sex and gravy.

      ~Better than the Canteen~

      The factory I visit in Belgium is based in the Merksem suburb of Antwerp. Or possibly it's not a suburb - it might even be a separate town, I'm really not sure. The company has a canteen but it's pretty dire (bread and cheese, bread and ham, bread and .........), so if I'm lucky to visit for a special event or to find a frustrated colleague looking for an excuse to escape for a hot lunch, we pretty much always go to Tot Straks. My recent visit coincided with the 'leaving lunch' of a colleague and since she technically works for me, I was invited along.

      Tot Straks - which translates as roughly 'See you later' - is on Bredabaan in the centre for Merksem. I believe it's open for both lunch and dinner but I've only ever been there for lunch although I have been many times. The restaurant doesn't have a car park but there is on-road parking at parking meters in the street directly outside and the tram passes directly in front of the restaurant. Despite not being far from the factory, we generally drive to maximise the amount of time we can spend there.

      ~First Impressions~

      From the outside it looks a little like a small café and it's only once you get inside and see the menu that you realise it's a fully fledged restaurant. The ground floor dining room is not very.big and has only around eight to ten tables. Most are tables for two or four people but they can be persuaded to push tables together for larger groups. I suspect there are more tables upstairs but I can't confirm that because we've only ever eaten downstairs. On my most recent visit, we were a party of seven.

      The décor is clean and simple with light tiled floors, dark wood tables, fabric table runners and often a few seasonal nick-nacks about the place - little pumpkins or gourds round Halloweend, Christmas decorations in December and other small touches. Wooden screens are used to divide up the space and create more of an illusion of privacy and the restaurant is generally well lit with a combination of wall and ceiling lights.

      ~I hope it's chips, it's chips, I hope it's chips, it's chips~

      With table filled and everyone settled, the waitress came to take the drinks orders and then returned with our drinks and a few tiny pots of mini pretzels to nibble on whilst we chose our food. On this most recent visit I noticed that the prices seemed to have increased quite a lot since I was last there and I was pleased that the local boss was picking up the tab. I don't mind paying Euro15 or so for a dinner main course, but I think that's rather a lot at lunch time although the portions are always more than generous. On previous visits, I've paid around Euro12 to Euro15 for lunch including one or two soft drinks. This time there was really very little on the main course menu that was under Euro18. If I eat somewhere that looks and feels fancy, that's not a problem, but I can't help thinking that the food is too expensive for the rather plain café-style setting.

      I usually order off the section of the menu described as 'snacks' which is only available during the working week. Don't worry, despite sounding like these are going to be small meals, the portions are still enormous. This section includes a variety of 'toast' based dishes, omelettes and burgers and my favourite - the salad Nicoise. Before you get the idea that I'm making a nice healthy choice, I have to 'fess up' that the reason I like the Nicoise at Tot Straks so much is that it comes with chips. You've got to love the Belgians for combining the self-righteous and the self-indulgent so seamlessly.

      ~Tucking In~

      With our orders taken, the waitress returned with plates of snacks. We each got a small china spoon with a mouthful of shrimp pasta and shared a bowl of small cheesy biscuits to nibble on whilst the chef prepared our meals. As you'd expect for a lunch time service, the food was turned around quite quickly and within ten to fifteen minutes our dishes were all delivered to the table. A wide variety of dishes were chosen by those around me. The person directly across the table had a giant vol au vent dish (with chips) containing a mountain of chicken in creamy sauce. The waitress placed a really big bowl of chips between the two of us - far more than two people could really aspire to get through so we shared them around as widely as we could. I don't recall all the dishes probably because I don't tend to pay a lot of attention to what other people are eating if it's got meat in it. Two colleagues chose a dish with an enormous slab of salmon served in an obscene amount of oily sauce and another had a dish of asparagus and creamy potatoes served with some kind of meat but I wasn't paying attention to precisely what it was. In the case of that dish, it was so large that it could have fed a family of three and the salmon dishes were also enormous.

      My salad was very big but I'd have to say not terribly authentic. It's my usual choice so I wasn't disappointed because I knew what to expect but somehow, despite including almost all the required elements of a nicoise (tuna, hard boiled egg, olives, anchovies) there's always a lingering feeling that something's missing. It must be more than just the absence of green beans that makes me feel that something is not quite right and I think it's probably what they add that gives truth to the old adage that 'less is more' - in short there's just too much salad on the bottom and it includes unexpected things like carrot and cucumber. They really are alien interlopers in a salad nicoise. However, lest my reticence leads you to think that I wasn't enjoying my salad as much as I should (especially considering it was costing the boss nearly Euro15), there's one thing that means no matter what they put in or what they leave out, I'm going to go away feeling happy. Quite simply nobody in the world makes chips as good as the Belgians do.

      Belgium may indeed - as we often remind Belgian colleagues - be an artificially created country that exists merely to keep the Dutch and the French apart; it may be a place that's been invaded so many times throughout history that there must have once been a busy trade for flag-changers; most people who don't live there really would struggle to name more than about three 'famous Belgians' (and at least one of those may well be paedophile and it's unlikely anyone can remember the chap who's 'president of Europe') but it is undoubtedly the country where food and drink priorities are right on target. If I were to frolic on a mountainside singing like Julie Andrews about 'my favourite things', then Belgium's got most of them - chips, beer, chocolate and mussels. It's heaven on earth despite the bad weather and the awful traffic.

      As a result of the mountain of rabbit food in front of me, and the similar mountain of chips, it took me a long time to get through my dish. Everyone else had long finished and I was still chomping away whilst the boss was presenting my colleague with a small present and making a long speech. When I was eventually finished all the plates were cleared and the waitress came back to try to tempt us with puddings. We all declined and ordered a few coffees and teas to extend the lunch break a little longer.

      ~Happy Birthday~

      Just after the drinks had been delivered, the waitress returned with an additional plate full of desserts as a birthday offering to one of our group. This was a very kind gesture for the blushing birthday girl - blushing all the more so because her birthday had been 3 months earlier. When reading the menu she'd mentioned - within the hearing of the waitress - that there was a note on the bottom saying to let them know if it was anyone's birthday. The waitress had asked her if it was and she had jokingly claimed it was her birthday. Her fibbing chickens came home to roost with the delivery of not only a large platter of different desserts, but even a lit 'sparkler' sticking out of one of the balls of ice-cream and 'congratulations' written carefully in custard around the top edge of the plate. I have never seen Natasja speechless before and certainly never seen her go so beetroot red. So take care - if you want a big free pudding, fib about your birthday. If you don't want to be embarrassed in front of a room full of diners (thankfully nobody sang), don't tell the waitress it's your birthday - especially if it isn't.

      ~I'll be back!~

      I will undoubtedly go back to Tot Straks again and will most likely have my not-quite-Nicoise salad many more times. It's not the greatest restaurant in Belgium or even in Antwerp, but it certainly beats the factory canteen and the chips alone make it worth a visit. In my opinion it's a bit pricy for a quick lunch and the prices have gone up several euros on a lot of the dishes just in the last 6 months but the service is good, the food is well cooked and the portions are more than generous.

      Tot Straks is open daily from 10 am Monday to Friday and slightly later on the weekends. It closes at 9 pm Monday to Thursday and at 10 pm on other days - so don't go too late or you might get caught out.

      ~Details~
      Restaurant Tot Straks
      Bredabaan 332
      2170 Merksem/Antwerp
      www.tot-straks.be

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