Surprisingly few people know that Belgian cuisine is better than French. The sauces are as tasty, but without the richness that causes heartburn; the portions may be fastidiously exact, but are generally larger and cheaper; the combination of ingredients is less adventurous, but more sensible. Belgium has more top rated restaurants per capita than France. The restaurant industry hasn’t been wrecked by pretentious chefs, outsized gourmands nor millions of tourists. Quite unlike Paris, until a few years ago, you could not go wrong eating out in Brussels, even in those tourist-trap streets crammed cheek by jowl with bistros.
Alright, I confess, I am biased – my father was Belgian. As a good continental man he was the parent who did the cooking at home for special occasions and on weekends. He fled Antwerp in 1960, when Belgium was still a post-war country; he never wanted to go back.
Fortunately, where I grew up, the French were building Koeberg nuclear power station and our local supermarket (unlike anywhere else in South Africa back then) stocked a host of European luxury comestibles and airlifted in witloof (Belgian endive). On the playground the other children would run away from me because of my stinky Rockford cheese sandwiches, until they discovered I also had pralines. During exam periods I was put on a diet of calve’s liver, beetroot and smoked oysters. Papa wasn’t a great chef, but Belgian cooking is part of my make-up.
You’ll find Belgians running restaurants in Swellendam (the Old Mill), Robertson (Rosendal), George (Het Vijfde Seizoen) and even on some game reserves. There have always been Belgian restaurants in Cape Town, though 0932 and the quaint Café du Cap have both closed. Café Gainsbourg in Kloof Street is Belgian owned but the food has slid horribly. Your best bet currently is Den Anker in the Waterfront.
Designed to suggest a ship, it sits on the quayside of the V&A Waterfront with a centre bar called the African Queen, and floor-to-ceiling windows giving a postcard view of Table Mountain. You can eat out on the wharf, watch the dragon boat races, the seagulls fighting for scraps, and the occasional smelly seal waving its flipper.
The menu covers all the bases for which Belgium is known, fore mostly the beer. On tap are the popular Antwerp brand Bolleke Koninck; Anker Bier specially brewed for this esablishment and refermented in the barrel en route to South Africa; and the refreshing white beer Celis, similar to the better-known-here Hoegaarden (each R24.50). The full-bodied Augustijn (R28) has a whopping 8% vol. alc. Also on offer are a selection of Trappist beers brewed by Cistercian monks in their abbeys. Every beer has its own style of glass. The Kwak glass is so expensive the restaurant demands one of your shoes as a deposit, held ransom in a basket hanging from the rafters until you return the glass. Typically Belgian.
Starters include such gourmet offerings as seared foie gras (R180) and Os à Moelle (R39), which are marrow bones described as “a delicacy you only eat away, or end up with a jealous dog”. Brussels sprouts don’t feature, nor witloof, but they serve asparagus in season, green and white à la Flamande. Not on the menu now, but when I had it here last spring it was R54.
Seafood is emphasised because of the location, but the herring is imported of course. The moules marinières (R98) you can be sure is exactly one kilogram of mussels. Shrimp croquettes are popular and the menu informs us that Belgium is the only place where shrimps are still fished by carthorses wading up to their breasts in the water dragging nets, a custom you can still see at the shrimp festival in Oostduinkerke which is on right now in June.
Another Belgian speciality is the thick rabbit stew (R125) simmered in Belgian beer. Other choice mains include steak tartare (R98) for the brave; a respectable fillet béarnaise (R145); and the magret de canard (R135), duck breast, panfried rare with a plum and ginger infusion.
Frites are part of the national pride of Belgium. When one of my relatives opened a café in Oostende years ago, we discovered he could serve pasta and various foods without a special restaurant license provided he didn’t touch a potato. If potatoes were to be served in any form, the authorities had to approve it. Oddly though, and this was true of 0932 as well, the frites at Den Anker are not authentically up to scratch.
But the pralines from chocolatier Daskalides certainly are.
Although Den Anker is somewhat a tourist haunt, it gives one a small taste of Belgium.
Den Anker, Pierhead, V&A Waterfront, Cape Town. Open Monday to Sunday for lunch (noon – 4pm) and dinner (6pm – 10.30pm). Tel: 021-419 0249.