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On Menus in Brugge and Ghent

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Food in Europe

Winter Volume: 2005 Issue: 12(4) page(s): 9, 10, and 12

BELGIUM, known for its beer, chocolate, and mussels is also known for its fantastic food. Brugges, one of its most beautiful of cities, has several fine Chinese restaurants along with three top Michelin eateries. This so-called ''Venice of the North'' is a top tourist destination complete with its own canals, and it is not even the country''s capital city; that is Brussels. Making it popular are the two and a half million people who visit Brugge annually. This is an amazing number because only one hundred twenty thousand live here year-round. Fine Chinese restaurants in a place with very few Asians are among the forty-five thousand people living in the city''s center still amazes us. Also amazing are the better Chinese restaurants here than in most European cities.

We went to the tourist information center and they kindly printed out a list of their local Chinese eateries. There were six listed in the entire city. Not so, said one Chinese chap we met. He thought this untrue because they failed to count the city''s outskirts. This disparity turns out to be true when eliminating the dozen places the Belgians call 'take-away' eateries. There is a Van Haute Cuisine booklet about Brugge that touts three 'haute' or fine Chinese eateries. We visited all three and a couple of others. We do not share information about all of them, only those with the best Chinese food we tasted, and another that most tourist groups get taken to. When you go to this great city, take advantage of the fine Chinese food served there.

Aside from Brugges, we also report about a Chinse restaurant in the nearby city of Ghent. Future articles will apprise about Chinese food in Antwerp, the place that took back their business card and menu and would not serve us because they did not want anyone to write about them. Tour books already do.

RESTAURANT CHINA at Zuidzandstraat 45 in Brugges, their phone is: 050 332154 is a culinary delight. The above-mentioned book calls it 'authentic' and with 'excellent cuisine.' They say it is the oldest in Brugges. The back of this restaurant's business card says: Chinese Specialities and Delicious Cuisine. We found it the second largest Chinese restaurant in this city, and one with fantastic food specializing in the foods of the Zhejiang Province. It is easy to get to, near the city's new concert hall, and less than a block away from the tourist information bureau; almost around the corner from it.

Although it looks ordinary, this is no ordinary eatery. The food is sophisticated, prepared exceptionally well, and worth the visit. There are few other places outside of China where the foods of this cuisine are highlighted, so it is a treat to find it here.

Do ask what teas are available, and learn that green, jasmine, and Zhejiang’s unique peppery tasting tiny tea ball teas are all available. Ask for the latter and be in for a treat. The tea, like all dishes here, is robust and a with its own bite. What a treat to enjoy this uniquely flavored beverage.

As in restaurants in Brugge and throughout Europe, most Chinese places only provide chopsticks on request. Almost all provide an oblong candle warmer large enough for two dishes, no request required. Some of these warmers actually keep foods warm, others make you think they do, and a very few actually keep the food hot. They are not unique to Chinese restaurants, almost all eateries use them, and we wish ones in our own country would.

At this restaurant, we settle into our 18th century rosewood-looking Chinese chairs, and are ready to eat. However, it takes some time to decide what to have meaning our ordering is rather delayed. The menu is extensive and no one rushes us into selecting from it. While dawdling, ask for this tea and request chopsticks. That can set you apart from the local clientele. It also makes starting a conversation and getting help when ordering quite valuable.

Robert Chao-xiong Chen, son and now owner is a most gracious host. He chats with folks at all tables, does not rush anyone to order, and does not chase you out after eating. Many folk order an after dinner drink and stay awhile. Your check will arrive only after requested; a far cry from all too many Chinese restaurants in the United States. Mr. Chen works hard to please, and he succeeds. New and repeat customers feel at home, and we certainly did.

The Zhejiang chef and others in this restaurant do not cut corners in ingredients or in preparations. For example, a dish with bean sprouts comes 'cleaned' as he calls it, that is with their heads and tails removed. A chicken dish comes with every piece of meat cut in equal-size pieces. Every dish arrives with equal care. For example, a lamb dish, translated on the menu as Lamb Chop with Ginger and Tomato, comes making a spectacular display. Its meat is tender, tossed with bits of carrot, onion, and scallion, is on the bone, and the chops stand at attention. It is piquant and proves to be very special. We eat ours and lick fingers and lips abandoning chopsticks and just digging in. We did try to hold the bones with chopsticks, challenged to enjoy this phenomenal dish, but abandoned that idea, perhaps because we felt so at home.

Frogs Legs with Garlic and Onion, a popular dish in most Chinese restaurants in Europe is served on fresh lettuce leaves. It is a mite spicy and very special. Scampi with Ginger and Onions comes with the shrimp in their shells, fried and tender. Locals chew them skin and all. We do, too, savoring their taste and texture. Chopped Quails with Soya Sauce arrive as large pieces of meat still on their bones. They are cooked in an excellent wine sauce, probably with a touch of brandy. The meat is magnificent, the sauce marvelous, too.

GOUDEN RIVIER at Swedenstrassa 49 in Brugges; phone: 050 347069, is about two blocks from the concert house, across the square and in another direction. It is in a residential neighborhood with a simple exterior. That belies this as a classy place, a mite modern, its chairs covered in yellow tapestry. Here, wine glasses sparkle, set out artistically on yellow paper place mats sitting atop golden damask linen. A single artificial yellow rose adorns each table.

Immediately after being seated, we request chopsticks and heavy plastic ones are put on gorgeous chopstick rests. Ours are blue crouched ladies, their backs the actual rests. This restaurant and its menu, as do virtually all Chinese restaurants in Belgium, has Indonesian-style rice-table set meals. Here, intended for two, they come providing meal ideas for expansion. Many begin with Tomato Soup, others have Hot and Sour, Wonton, or Egg Drop.

At Gouden Rivier, the menu says they specialize in Cantonese, Indonesian, and Thai foods of the sea. And, it shows they do buffet catering. It features sates and dim sum, oyster and shrimp dishes, even Peking duck. The owners, Christine Tong and Ivan Wong, encourage requests for foods made to order. Their chefs, trained in Indonesia and Hong Kong, are from Malaysia, they themselves from Macao. They all can cook and hence their ability and desire to deal with specific area requests actually works.

After sitting down, a white rice-fired teapot and gaiwan arrive, complete with covers and saucers. This special tea cup was discussed in Flavor and Fortune's Volume 7(3) on page 6. We do adore having our tea served in one. After placing our order, the candle warmer comes quickly, and they put our plates atop leaving time for them to warm. As there is lots of time before our food arrives, these warmers really heat up the plates, and really do keep their dishes warm. In this restaurant, the warmer does triple duty. It heats plates, warms rice, and keeps dishes warm. All this with impeccable service.

Lamb with Black Pepper and Squid with Kung Po Yau Yue sauce are the first two dishes we order. They are as sophisticated as is the restaurant. Both come with a simple decor of lettuce and tomato and an orange slice. Both are piquant, their vegetables many, and everything cut with class. The Iron Plate Frogs Legs with Garlic and the Prawns in Spicy Sauce come next. The former is on a sizzling platter that sings and spits when sauce is added. Cleverly, this is done on a gueridon in view of but away from the table. When it settles down, it is placed on the warmer device on our table. The staff at this six-year-old restaurant offers to serve dishes two by two. That is accepted, all restaurants should do that for those ordering many dishes; it keeps the pace unrushed, the dishes at proper temperatures. The Scampi in Mango Sauce, the Squid with Curry Sauce, and the Roast Peking Duck, as well as the Oysters served Two Ways, and more are some examples we enjoy that accomplish what these proprietors set out to do, provide good Chinese food and serve it well. They make dishes with care that bring complements to the chef, dishes that please their mostly-local non-Chinese customer base; and afficionados like us, too.

This Chinese restaurant seats sixty downstairs, has thirty more seats upstairs, and has very few in staff. In spite, or maybe because of that, they do manage to serve everything in a timely manner and with class, and accomplish all they set out to do.

DE LANGE MUUR at Saint Amandstract 11, is the most centrally located of the so-called 'big three' Brugges Chinese restaurants. It is nearest to the main square of the city of Brugges, and the largest of this city's Chinese restaurants. It seats more that two hundred people; that, and its location may be why Japanese tourist groups and others make meal reservations here. Another reason can be its looks. This is vintage Chinese, huge goldfish tanks within, hanging red lanterns on the outside.

Like other Belgian restaurants, many menu choices come with tastes of Indonesia. Here these menus are called 'Imperial.' The meals served to groups we observe look mass produced with mass appeal. One Japanese group of about fifty when we were there, leave over enough to feed lots of others. The kitchen staff may have indulged; we wonder if they enjoyed?

The carte of offerings has Menu A and Menu B selections, and manager Cheng Chew does try to help us order. We want a casserole dish or two, here called 'Sauce-pan' dishes. There were quite a few of these sizzling platters and many more Cantonese dishes on the menu. He suggests the more french-fry/mayo offerings, perhaps because they are the least expensive or because we seemed not able to decide what to order. These type of dishes may be what many Westerners want, but are an affront to those who do know good Chinese food.

Saucepan Langemuur tickles our fancy. It says it comes with king prawns, beef, chicken, and vegetables. When it arrives, there is lettuce, bean sprouts, button mushrooms, and a few carrots for decor. The chicken is swimming and delicious. The shrimp match the flavor in the sauce but are less than large. They are no match and minuscule compared to those served to a neighboring Japanese tourist group.

The Frogs Legs with Paprika and Black Bean Sauce come on a sizzling platter with many pieces of red pepper and very few black beans. Furthermore, they started out frozen and ended up mighty cold even though the platter sizzles for some minutes. We almost sent them back, but not a single staff member was there to do so when we needed them.

At the next table, the Pork in Curry Sauce looks bright orange. We admire the color and comment on its wonderful aroma. The girls who ordered it are from the Phillippines and the Seychelles Islands; and they do seem to enjoy it, even offer us some. Now living in Brugge, they say the food here in this restaurant is the closest to tastes at home. We suggest the two Chinese eateries reviewed above. Though in this city almost a year, they know them not but promise to try them.

Their and our tea needs help. It is green and tasteless, and not hot enough. Luckily someone is nearby, so we send it back. Did that twice, actually, each time getting the contents warmer, but never hot. On the last return to the table, the temperature meets that of a favorite local cookie, called Rombouts, they serve it with.

De Lange Muur has the best location, a huge bar, a huge menu, and an owner who only agrees to meet with us after learning about the magazine we represent. Through an interpreter, the only reason we could assess why she is having this Chinese restaurant only for economic reasons. On that score, it seems successful.

GHENT is called 'The Flower City' of Belgium. On one major square, we find a formal restaurant called PEKING at Korenmarkt 17, their phone: 09-2259382. Clearly visible, it sits atop a short flight of stairs directly across the street from a department store, a Japanese restaurant, and more. It was just a short block from a small outdoor market, gourmet food store, and more.

One mid-afternoon it is crowded, the folk within enjoying both Northern and Sichuan dishes. We taste a tofu dish intended to be mapo dofu. It is not piquant, nor particularly interesting. Our noodle dishes look delicious, but the chef just walked out the front door. After enjoying them and nothing else, do not stay to taste anything else as the manager advises the kitchen is now closed. The crisp green vegetables on the next table look lovely, they smell as they should, and do seem to have lots of flavor. Come back next week, he advises, but our plans have us leaving that night, so we need to do so on another trip.

ANTWERP and down the block from a store selling more than two hundred eighty different kinds of beer is a Chinese restaurant. We refuse to put their name or address typed in bold becasue our experience is an actual and outright rejection, so we recommend it not. They give us a business card then take it back when they realize we review restaurants. The do not want to be mentioned, afraid we will say something thy might not like. More about that and other Chinese restaurants in some of the small but fascinating cities in Europe in the next issue. Hope that will be in time for planning your upcoming vacation. Chinese food is upscaling even in the smallest of towns, and we look forward to telling you about them so that you can enjoy these changes, as we did.

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