Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Trufflicious Bonanza

It was time for a dinner five years in the making: L’Atelier de la Truffe Noire. After strong recommendations by a friend when I first moved to Belgium, I promised my then-boyfriend that when I finally nailed down a job, I would treat him to a meal at this Avenue Louise establishment.

I now have three concurrent jobs nailed down and decided that for our second wedding anniversary, I might as well fulfill an old promise.

L’Atelier is the affordable version of the unaffordable La Truffe Noire – one of the most expensive and famous restaurants in town. While I respect that the food of choice – the black truffle – is vegetarian friendly, it hardly seems worth spending Truffe Noire prices for a vegetarian meal. The menu options will be limited, and besides, I’ve heard the whole thing is overpriced to begin with.

The Atelier is another story altogether. The setting is more bistro-style; the menu is cheaper (although not cheap!); and even vegetarians have a respectable choice.

More than once I thought of my favorite restaurant in town – CafĂ© des Spores – which also happens to be a mushroom-based culinary experience. I would say that the Atelier is a bit more classical, and a bit more French-focused in its preparations, but that’s almost splitting hairs. It’s really the Adoration of the Truffle that makes it distinct.

I started with the house aperitif: fresh squeezed grapefruit juice, lait d’amandes, and berry liquor. Super sweet, but not overpowering. While reviewing the menu, we got hit with our first whiff of truffles as a plate was delivered to another table. I realized at that moment that part of the cost of dining here is purely to enjoy that smell; I already knew it would be money well spent.

For starters, I had a cappuccino of forest mushrooms, topped with white truffle oil. It was essentially a frothy soup of ample size, and it was exquisite. Gidon tackled two soft-boiled eggs, served with black truffle shavings and truffle oil. Delicious, but it paled a bit compared to the soup.

On to mains: I had tortellini, topped with a cream sauce and slices of truffle. Gidon opted for the millefeuille – slices of baked potato, covered in what seemed to be the same cream sauce, and topped with slices of truffle. Perhaps not a great degree of variation between the two, but oh-so-good (it was all I could do to prevent Gidon from licking his plate).

We were too stuffed to order dessert, but no matter, we went home happy. Besides, they don’t put truffles in the desserts, so what’s the point?

Our waiter was very attentive, and took care to point out that the amuse-bouche (truffle-free tiny cannelloni) was vegetarian. Apparently there is even good service to be found in this town, after all.
L'Atelier de la Truffe Noire
Avenue Louise 300
1050 Ixelles
Tel. 02 640 54 55
Open Mon-Sat; Closed on Sundays and Monday evenings - Reservations not a bad idea.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Lebanese Evening

Al Barmaki has been on my list for a long time. It's got a pretty good rep on the blogs, and it's mentioned in the Michelin guide. The latter may also relate to the one recurring complaint: it's overpriced. And to some extent, it is. But the food is also delicious and when you're paying for real estate a couple of blocks from the Grand Place, you have to pay a certain price for quality.

A vegetarian can eat well at Al Barmaki, but only the mezzes. You have to order a minimum of three per person, which is also just about the right size for one person. The server also offered to make up a mixed platter for us, even vegetarian, but I was wary of what the bill might look like so we ordered six dishes of our own choosing.

The menu just gives the names of the dishes, no explanation, but the server was happy to answer questions. Our six dishes were:
- Hommos: this had a significant smokey flavor that surprised me but was quite nice. If you want it with tehina, that's a separate dish; we passed on that.
- Tomato and cucumber salad: ample and delish, done up with a fresh, light dressing. As good as it was, I have a hard time justifying 7 euros for it.
- Cheese in pastry: another winner. The pastry dough was thicker than I expected; the cheese was soft and mixed with herbs. Yum.
- Labne: there was much debate between this dish and another mezze of yogurt with garlic. With 20/20 hindsight, I think we should have tried the yogurt - the labne was thick and creamy but I've had better.
- Fried eggplants and cauliflower: I envisioned fritters made of both items, but this was actually just the vegetables, fried up. The eggplant was exceptional. The cauliflower was a little boring.
- Falafel: another success. Crispy, good size falafel balls, and we had unconsciously ordered all the fixin's.

All this was served with thin, soft bread (I was corrected for calling it pita), and we got a bowlful of tasty black olives (and I'm normally not a fan of black olives) and pickled peppers. Service was mediocre by Belgian standards, and although the setting isn't particularly swanky, it would definitely make for a good date location.

Plus the place gets bonus points for the table seated right next to us: five older gentlemen who looked Lebanese and also looked like they ate there at least twice a week. That's the best vote of confidence any restaurant can ask for.

Split down the middle, the bill came to just over 25 eur for each of us, including drinks, which might be a bit on the steep side but isn't outrageous. In my never-ending quest for quality food in the area of the Bourse, I think I can safely add Al Barmaki to my list.

Al Barmaki
67, rue des Eperonniers
1000 Brussels
Tel. 02 513 08 34
Open from 19h to midnight, Mon-Sat
Reservations recommended.