Bohemians in Benelux
A culinary travelogue through Amsterdam, Antwerp, and Luxembourg in eleven parts
Portland and the Air
Because I do not sleep when it makes sense to, I stay up the night before our flight, mainly double-checking that the back door is locked (it is) and shining a flashlight along the refrigerator's thermal seal (none of my house's valuable heat escapes onto the potato salad). My duffel, already packed, contains a change of shoes, nine days' worth of fresh underthings, and a shirt with a collar. At the last minute I throw in a pleasantly frumpy brown velvet blazer I'd picked up for twenty dollars at the Crossroads recycled clothing boutique, which on many occasions had rendered me a plausible sketch of a teacher with a hangover. There is talk of Michelin-starred dining, and somehow this jacket seems appropriate to my unslept mind.
"Should we use code names when we visit restaurants, like we do at home?" asks Laura, while we are on the plane. I am only recently, by profession, a restaurant critic.
"You mean like how we always intend to, but I just end up booking with my full first name, and last name, and occupation, because I don't like lying and I get nervous?" I say.
"Yeah, like how you should do your job, not how you actually do do your job." She sips on a crystal-clear lemon lime beverage with ice, making her neck pillow look almost sophisticated.
We decide that she will be Lady Hpuçek, and I will be simply Kermit, with the accent on the second syllable. "The accent will land like an angry fist on an oiled iron desk," I say. Since we're just talking about nothing in the air six miles above the sea, it doesn't really matter. I look around for my embarrassing neck pillow, but don't end up having the gumption to reach to my feet, and pass the next six hours mainly looking around the dark cabin and wishing I'd brought a pen for the crossword. I was getting hungry; the cheap airport sandwiches were a distant memory of fluff and mustard.
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
On the train from Schiphol we get directions from a young woman with a hip, thoughtful disposition that we will repeatedly discover is epidemic in the Netherlands. She asks where we're from, and when we say Portland, her face brightens as she replies happily to us, "Decemberists!" There is, it seems, a universal language of nostalgic maritime tragedy that unites our harbor cities.
After a while of tramping around the warrens of Amsterdam's identically lovely, canal-lined streets looking for both street noshes and Orwellian dumpster misery, as was our naive and romantic trope, Laura and I have found mainly the former. The personal shrines of vaunted and severe chocolatiers are just the beginning; the aged, cobbled molars of old European streetways lead reliably to hip bars, Gouda shops, and kebab stalls. Waterway railings bristle with layers of stationary, unlocked fixies-romantiques (a term I coined for the old-fashioned upright bicycles which virtually everyone rides—from fashionably shabby young men to elegant older women in pea coats), and on nearly every corner contented locals sit in front of "brown cafes" (locals' pubs) drinking Amstel and snacking on bitterballen, little goulash croquettes served with mustard that, alas, we never get around to trying. We do, however—at the urging of locals and guidebooks alike—try another national snack: the smoked eel roll.
Credit: Laura Locker
I will eat pretty much anything—recent adventures have included jellied snail salad and wokked buffalo animelles (testicles)—but I have a particular aversion to oily fish. Saving money on seafood is a religion with my Catholic-raised father, which means I grew up eating salmon that tasted of fermenting chum my entire childhood, and—as it is with homework and the SAT—I now sit bolt upright every morning at 7 a.m., pump my fist, and hoot with joy that my adult self no longer has to deal with it. But when in Amsterdam, eat as the Amsterdamers, and so the eel roll is a must.
Our eel roll comes from Frens Haringhandel, a shop which also specializes in herring sandwiches. For about three euro apiece we load up, take a seat by the canal at our elbow, and bite. The eel is bracingly fresh, adorned simply with chopped white onion and thinly-sliced pickle, on a cold, soft white roll (served this way, it is a broodje). The fillets are roughly the size of a candy bar, with a gently smoky flavor and chilled temperature, as refreshing as it is a relief.
The herring isn't as nice, and I do a highly scientific on-the-spot calculation that it needs fifteen to nineteen Amstels to wash it away. Maybe thirty.
I should tell you something more about Laura, something intimate. We'd only been dating three months at that point, but I know that she likes a man who rolls up his sleeves and gets things done. I once built an impromptu barbecue pit out of firewood and scrap iron from my neighbor's garage, and that did something important for her, if you take me right. So I like to be a bit of MacGyver where I can. We needed a snack, I was feeling frisky and expansive, and it was two in the morning in Amsterdam. These are the raw materials of legend.
At a McDonald's, I order a Coke, a soft-serve ice cream cone, and a milkshake that tastes like an apple Jolly Rancher. I make her a float out of the Coke and soft-serve, drink the milkshake myself, and throw the now-extraneous cone to some ducks who seem to be having a drunken domestic dispute in the canal. I'm not going to tell you how the rest of the night goes, but let's just say that at the end of the trip, we fly home on the same plane, on the same day.
We glide by train into Antwerpen-Centraal, slowly rise several stories to street level on massive escalators, and pause to blink in the bright, spotless central square. Belgium won its indepdendence from the Netherlands in 1830, but despite its youth, the country feels older, more focused. If Amsterdam is a wild, extroverted, college party child, Antwerp is its hard-working father. At Brasserie Appelmans, a slick and polished gastronomic powerhouse that at first seems like just another another sexy, high-end absinthe bar, the nation is delivered in microcosm.
Chef Ron Diephouse is the sort of man who happily holds forth on the hundred-plus varieties of potatoes the Belgians make use of in their cuisine, like the proverbial Eskimo waxing poetic on snow; when pressed to offer an impression of American restaurant culture, he guesses that maybe we eat a lot of hamburgers? He goes on to claim that the French have become complacent where food is concerned, and are resting on their laurels; Belgians, he says, offer perhaps the finest example of respectful modern cooking. His nationalistic pride is admirable, though Laura kicks my ankle when the old-world, brigade-educated chef patiently explains that women simply don't have the strength required to work the line: "How can a woman lift a seventy-kilo stock pot?"
We duck into chocolatier Dominique Persoone's shrine to confectionery, The Chocolate Line, to load up on glossy little souvenir candies. Our local gastronomic fixer has assured us of Mr. Persoone's standing by relating an anecdote about how he created a custom chocolate powder snuff dispenser for the Rolling Stones. We are convinced, and though Persoone himself is not present that day, his staff operate with clear awareness that the man for whom they work is, in his way, a deity.
Credit: Laura Locker
By virtue of our dinner reservation at Het Pomphuis we are lifted in the eyes of concierges and cabbies, all of whom speak of the restaurant in hushed tones. It's located on Siberiastraat, a fitting name for a street everyone assures us is too far away to walk to—that simply can't be walked to—so we hop into a deftly-piloted car and are whisked off to the harbor-side edifice, originally used as a pump house for the shipping locks (hence the restaurant's name). Massive iron turbines still fill the exposed basement, giving the building a sexy sort of power. Soaring ceilings and massive windows frame the setting sun as evening fades into night.
Chef Christophe De Koninckx, handsome and commanding, strides out of the kitchen to greet us. To call his spring menu's compositions anything less than a vernal fantasy tableaux would be factually irresponsible. His plates are painstaking assemblies of nature with the carefree energy of, say, a handful of clematis and polished river stones strewn on a forest path. It is the successful illusion of happenstance natural beauty, built with superlative sets of ingredients. We settle into an elegant, hours-long meal, paced expertly so that each plate creates a new energy and appetite, with precise dishes bearing Belgium's bounty—white asparagus, petals of radish, pickled ribbons of fennel, dustings of baked, powdered kaases, smoked North Sea salmon —appearing and disappearing effortlessly on the hands of our affable but professionally distant old waiter.
Brigitte, our punctilious and sophisticated Luxembourgish hostess, takes us to a casual dinner party at an ultra-hip restaurant and bar across the city from our hotel, where a local celebrity chef is judging a group cooking contest. I gently worm my way into the panel of contestants—I'm not sure if my nonexistent Luxembourgish will be seen as rude, or my Dutch novelty trousers (procured in a vintage Amsterdam boutique called Lady Day) boorish, but I can hold my own with a knife and hot pan, so I figure I'm equal to the task, which turns out to be stuffing shrimp inside chicken breasts and stirring ratatouille. The worldly young crowd of participants accepts my odd presence graciously, as Luxembourgers must be used to, given their historic location as a geographical crossroads of Europe.
The kitchen's resident chef, a man who is quietly sneered at in town for his insistence on never speaking Luxembourgish, proves to be a macho hothead who stomps around brusquely slamming oven doors and trying to scare the women. I befriend a gentle French girl who is impressed by my confidence with a spatula, and in our dorky toques we earn our supper.
We dine one night at the restaurant of Luxembourg's most exportable celebrity chef, Lea Linster. Lea is more than a woman. She is an education in feminine power. She is the aunt that you wish had taught you the brutal and exciting ways of the world—across a bistro table littered with the paraphernalia of vin rouge—during a teenaged summer abroad; she is a hot hand on the small of the back of someone who has no concrete plans. Her strong fingers slide into my own upon meeting for a photo, and linger long after. I look down; she is grasping Laura with an equal share of her affectionate magnetism.
White asparagus at Lea Linster
Credit: Laura Locker
Lea's eponymous restaurant in Frisange has a Michelin star and the feeling of a spacious home, and we dine in a white, airy nook before the open kitchen. It is Lea's birthday, and she has a private room for two dozen celebrating friends, but this hardly keeps her from lavishing attention on the restaurant's many diners. She is the only woman to ever have won the Bocuse d'Or, and we are treated to the menu she prepared that day: an exquisite tour of lobster with tarragon, foie gras, olive oil-poached salmon, and potato-crusted lamb. The food is remarkably simple for all the flourishes of its pomp, a stark comparison to the forceful, complex, competitive culinary artwork we found in Antwerp. The food here, like the Luxembourgers themselves, seems at ease and sophisticated.
As easily as breathing, and about as voluntarily, Lea launches into a monologue about how she is a large woman, and that that is fine, but it takes a certain kind of man—a "connoisseur," she says—to appreciate her correctly. When she says it that way, it makes you want to be that certain kind of man. Then, she surprises me by asking if I am Catholic. I say, with some confused hesitation, that I was baptized.
"Good!" she says, thrusting a little white parcel into my hands. "These are for you!"
It's a box of madeleines, extras from the Bishop of Luxembourg's recent state visit to Berlin, which she catered. In order to have special treats land on my lap, all I had to be was Catholic. Or, perhaps more accurately, be in the right place at the right time, like all Luxembourgers seem to be.
We find that Luxembourgers become philosophical after dinner. Kremant, a silken local sparkling wine of delicate petillance, fills their flutes, and they fall into a comfortable contemplation of the issue of Luxembourgish identity. There are few true Luxembourgers left, they say, and the commuter country's tiny population is in danger of becoming entirely dilute. The consensus seems to be that it's a numerical inevitability that this little place must ultimately blend with its imposing border countries. Still, the human need for identity, for specialness, coupled with Luxembourg's proud but ever-tenuous history at the nexus of empires, provides fuel for a thoughtful if somewhat languorous post-dinner argument.
Still, the Luxembourgers are as a whole far too modest and respectful for me to want to scoff at their happy, storybook lives. Laura and I marvel at the way that, with the luxury of time and comfort, they turn instinctively to introspection. The tiny nation lost much of itself when Belgium established itself as an independent nation in 1830 and took more than half of Luxembourg with it; like a parent, confidently passing time in a cashmere v-neck with a well-loved book, the country seems to know that while it may not now be what it once was, it has nevertheless done well. It's beautiful to see that here, in this ancient city of cliffside battlements and economic might. Given the chance, Luxembourgers seem to say, the human animal is a good and thoughtful thing, given to philosophy, pleasure, and art.
Multiple locations, incl. Koningsplein near Flower Market
2000 Antwerp, Belgium
tel: 03 226 20 22
******The Chocolate Line**
2000 Antwerp, Belgium
tel: 03 206 20 30
Restaurant Het Pomphius
2030 Antwerp, Belgium
tel: 03 770 86 25
Restaurant Lea Linster
17 route de Luxembourg
L- 5752 Frisange
tel: +352 23 66 84 11
Chris Onstad is an award-winning American cartoonist best known for creating the Achewood universe. A shameless spectator of the world's high and low food and cooking, he is also the resident restaurant critic for the Portland Mercury.
All illustrations by Chris Onstad