little bit of
ANTWERP IS A WON-DERFUL, FRIENDLY, SAFE AND CIVILISED CITY with many treasures
and elegant shops to explore from the ornate Renaissance guild
buildings of the Grote Markt (the city's opulent central square)
to the Rubens museum, the zoo and the incredible choco-late shops. Oh
if you are so inclined, wonderful fashion and interior design shops and diamonds
at irresistible prices.
We visited the city late in December to sample, in particular, the restaurant
Gin-Fish and, just a couple of doors down the street, the Matelote
Hotel. This was the original name of the Michelin-starred Gin- Fish,
although the only connection now is that the hotel's breakfasts are served in
Matelote is a delicious blend of 21st century style and 16th century architecture
in an unbeatable location in the very heart of historic Antwerp. Situated on
a narrow street just off the Grote Markt, it has ten modern and
somewhat minimalist individ-ually-designed rooms [click on the picture
to the right to view the Matelote picture gallery]. All scored high on the
design scale: clean lines with soft, muted grey, white and chocolate colours
all contributing to
a relaxed and pleasant setting. However, a fairly important point is the access
to the bedrooms up a small and steep staircase. From the size of the
steps virtually everywhere, it is apparent that the Belgians used to once have
Our room was fantastic and I mean that quite literally. The panelled
walls and beamed ceiling were painted a stark but warm grey and the room furnished
in a minimalist style with recessed lighting, comfy beds (with puffy duvets
and crisp white cotton), a sofa and large television. The floor was quite extraordinary
it looked just like crushed grey Rice Krispies, and felt fascinatingly
hard on the feet.
The bathroom was huge, with a bath big enough for a party and a separate Hi-Tech
shower, with all the little additions such as tissues, hair dryer and so on
to make life comfortable. In addition, there was
a programmable in-room sound system, complimentary soft drinks in
the mini-bar and tea/coffee facilities. What more could you want?
The common areas, too, are beautifully decorated, combining the antique fireplace
in the sitting room with mirrors and marble floors, together with fanciful modern
lights. Altogether a lovely calm and peaceful ambience.
And more was on offer. Peter, the 'innkeeper', and his staff really
went out of their way to make our stay enjoyable. Nothing was too much trouble
and we could not have asked for more. Should you
want restaurant reservations made, Peter is inexhaustible with his suggestions
Certainly The Matelote is a brilliant place to stay, providing you are
able-bodied and do not have small children. It is no criticism to say that the
stairs are the only negative point of an otherwise terrific hotel.
Rooms start at €120 and rise to €190 and there is one suite, costing €240 per
night. Breakfast is a nominal extra and, as already mentioned, is taken in the
We had great expectations of the popular and internationally-renowned chef Didier
Garnich's food. His tiny two-level restaurant, situated in a small 16th century
house on the narrow street next to The Matelote, has gained a reputation
for serving some of the best fish in Antwerp. Quite an accolade for a country
and city where people are epicureans and have a great variety of dining choices
Twenty-six years ago, Didier Garnich and his wife opened their first small but
elegant restaurant De Matelote at the same premises, gaining a coveted
Michelin star. However, Didier eventually tired of having to slavishly follow
the classic formulae required in order to justify the Michelin star, and he
decided to relinquish his star in order to follow his own, more relaxed, culinary
In mid-2003 Gin-Fish was born, offering the same attention to detail
but now thirteen diners sit side-by-side at a long bar around a sunken stainless
steel kitchen where they can watch the final details of their food being put
together. There is no menu and instead you are served a four-course meal inspired
by the best of whatever the day's market has offered.
It is certainly entertaining and flattering to have a chef assemble dishes before
your eyes, and then lean across the counter to place them in front of you for
your pleasure and appreciation. We found it slightly theatrical but nevertheless
most enjoyable particularly the precision and teamwork of the staff who
seemed to work seamlessly without instructions.
We ate well, starting with soft scallops on a bed of crunchy avocado and cucumber
salad mixed with Greek yoghurt, together with a hint of balsamic vinegar. To
follow, there was a foie gras sandwich to partner a delicate mushroom soup topped
fashionably with foam and a sprinkle of truffles. However, I found the truffles
tasteless but would add that
I have yet to eat truffles anywhere that lived up to their reputation.
[Good truffles are rarer than hen's teeth, and the last time we found some
excellent examples was in 1984 at the Clos du Roy in Bath Ed]
Our main course was, we felt, a little unbalanced. A delicious piece of brill
presented with a cube of potato and accompanied by the new season's petite cauliflowers
a whole one, which was rather a lot! To finish, a simple but delicious
baby rhubarb compote was accompanied by freshly-made vanilla ice cream, dotted
with little black pieces of vanilla seeds.
Didier is not interested in masking natural flavours with various sauces or
egg amalgamations, so each dish was presented with its own cooking juices whisked
up to form a 'sauce'. The result was food with its own clean and distinct flavours
and textures that complemented each other crunchy with soft; smooth with
Worthy of note was the interesting and delicious 2006 Spanish sauvignon blanc
wine that accompanied dinner. It was an inspired choice and set off the food
You can opt to sit at one of several small tables in the other room where there
is a bar, but I would not recommend it. I understand from Marie-Roos (Didier's
wife, who is in charge of front of house) that it is not many people's first
choice to dine there. The tiny, cramped room is fairly minimalist in style with
rather cold grey walls, which many might not find conducive to an enjoyable
culinary experience. However, the modern chandelier confection above the tables
is a very good and flamboyant touch and the restaurant obviously used the same
interior designer as the Matelote hotel. Certainly a startling change
from the original small romantic room with tables set with beautiful table linen.
The restaurant offers two nightly sittings, totalling thirty-six covers, and
is fully booked weeks in advance so it is an absolute necessity to make
a reservation. When we dined there on a Tuesday night in December, most of our
fellow diners were business people entertaining, probably on expense accounts.
The set four-course menu (including half-a-bottle of wine) is €80.
Gin-Fish is well worth a visit and deserves the restored Michelin star,
but we have eaten fish that was just as good at the Belga
Queen in Ghent. Nevertheless, Gin-Fish is a very interesting
modern addition to Antwerp's treasures.
ALTHOUGH IT MAY NOT BE CHRISTMAS WHEN YOU READ THIS, it
is well worth mentioning because it is the perfect time to visit Belgium.
Christmas is still a true festival here not simply an opportunity for
the high street shops to profit so make a note
in your diary now.
The lights and decorations are ever-present but not in your face; and no tinny,
jazzed-up carols. Most of the shops do dress up their windows, but to great
effect. Just the right balance is the result, and it creates a refreshingly
One of the most attractive and unmissable places was Hans Burie's chocolate
shop. The window displays are legendary and changed frequently. When we were
there we saw a great chocolate ball-shaped snowboarder in a daring pose
ie, just about to fall. And all, naturally, made of chocolate. Who could resist
a visit to taste the great chocolates? If you fancy a tour around his tiny factory,
you'd be best advised to book well in advance.
Reading the above you might think that the Belgians are a little res-trained,
as it is relatively low-key. That impression can be instantly scotched by visiting
the Grote Markt where all the fabulous historic Flemish houses and buildings
are festooned with Christmas lights. They are noteworthy as they are featured
in a series of light 'clusters'
and every few seconds a white ball of light 'dripped' like luminescent stalactites.
In the middle of the square was the 'Christmas market' and this is not like
those of Prague or Munich. Whilst there are some stalls selling crafts, most
sell instant pleasure local beers, jenevers, hot wine-based drinks
and interesting snacks. For the active, there is a very popular ice rink and,
in an adjoining square, a small fun fair.
Talking of drinks, we explored the bars and two were particularly noteworthy:
Het Elfde Gebod (The Eleventh Commandment) situated, rather appropriately,
just behind the Cathedral. The Flemish are rather quirky, as this bar confirms
beyond doubt. Who else would theme their bar by covering every surface (ceiling
included) with religious icons? This has taken the owner twenty-five years
it works, and guess what? All the beers are made by Trappist monks, including
the beer awarded the accolade of the 'best in the world'.
The second bar the Den Engel on the Grote Markt
was recom-mended by a fellow drinker in the Elfde Gebod, and it, too,
has great atmosphere and friendly service. Despite being very busy, the waitress
took time to explain the various jenevers (the local gin) which come
in all sorts of flavours and ages. We tried, amongst others, the black-currant-flavoured
jenever very more-ish. No class system here: you will see the
street sweepers drinking shoulder-to-shoulder with the top brass in commerce,
with everyone more interested in good drinks and socialising.
The illustrious League of Flemish Artists ranks Rubens highly. Antwerp is justly
proud of his citizenship, and a number of pictures have stayed 'at home' on
public display. You can delve a little deeper into the artist and his patron,
Nicolaas Rockox who also lived in Antwerp in a very grand house which
had a friendly atmosphere. This must be infectious, as the staff was most welcoming
and cheerful. He, and others, must have paid Rubens very generously as the artist's
home was only a little less grand. From our point of view, it was difficult
to imagine that the same hand had both designed his house and created such a
moving and stunning body of work on canvas, as they were so different in approach
High culture often accompanies somewhat lower culture and here we found interest
in the city's ancient sewers, which have recently been added to the tourist
trail! They have the advantage over the Paris sewers in that you get an underground
boat trip and you feel a bit more involved as you have to be kitted out in very
full, all-weather gear for the wading part of the adventure. Somehow they managed
to find an appropriate smell as you enter this underground labyrinth of canals.
Thankfully, today it is imported clean water that one floats over and wades
through, so perhaps the smell is ingrained in the brick walls…? Whatever, they
set the scene well, including a large display of Wellies that would inspire
Damien Hirst! So it was that we entered with a degree of trepidation
or should that be amazement that we had decided to venture where we could
meet unmentionables far worse than rats? We were surprised to emerge both unsullied
and to have actually enjoyed the experience!
OF COURSE, YOU CANNOT VENTURE INTO BELGIUM WITHOUT TRY-ING THEIR HOT CHOCOLATE
and here it is drunk in some style. At the Guylian café, the drink
is served in a large, individual jug and you pour this into a huge cup containing
large pieces of dark chocolate before stirring vigorously. The result is a smooth,
unctuous liquid far removed from our Cadbury's hot chocolate. Naturally,
this was accompanied by a chocolate praline as are all cups of coffee
in the cafés. Bliss…
Whilst on the subject of cafés, we must mention the Lantern café just
opposite the Matelote. The Belgian apple pie served there was to die
for quite, quite delicious and a must with a cup of coffee for a pick-me-up
after a long day of sightseeing.
Some fifteen years ago we made several visits to Antwerp which we very much
enjoyed at the time, but back then there were some fairly run down areas. These
now seem to have disappeared, and we were pleasantly surprised to see that the
original spirit of the area and street layout has been retained, with conversions
where possible and gaps filled in with new buildings.
One area that nearly fell to the demolition hammer is the exotic early-20th
century architecture in half a dozen streets in Zurenborg, just within the frenetic
ring road. Some thirty years ago, squatters pro-tested loud enough and long
enough to make people aware of the treasures that were at risk ie, a
vibrant mix of houses from every style imaginable, all so joyfully expressed
cheek-by-jowl in the grand scale.
One could imagine a very merry party, where people vied to outdo others with
ever-more extravagant designs of large houses. What is more, they had the funds
and the confidence to follow up their design aspirations. These houses have
largely been restored and now give
the greatest of pleasure to both onlookers and residents alike. Bonnie
MotorBar would like to thank Tourism Flanders-Brussels for providing the
food in Gin-Fish and the Hotel Matelote