I did a quick survey last week on Facebook to get some suggestions from my very favourite readers. Many of the comments were to review more affordable, less high-end places, which I totally agree with.
So I booked a dinner at Café Belge at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in DIFC. I appreciate this is in no way following the calls for austerity that my dear readers asked for, but The Serb and I had been trying to get to this place for about three months, and it was just one of those things I had to get done. You know the Serb by now.
The room is grand, with high ceilings, marble floors, and crown molding. As the hostess walked us to our table, she made a stop off at a quaint apple cart that happened to be in the area, where a young Flemish farmer was selling his homemade apple cider to passersby.
OK, that’s not strictly true – it was a cider promotion of some sort, and had I known the cider was complimentary, I would have made sure the Serb put some extra in her handbag.
Our table was a banquette table close to the bar, and I felt there were better tables available – but in typical fashion, I said nothing and chose to grumble about it here.
A lady in a dangerously red, tight-fitting dress approached the table, wearing a single chain-mail glove on her left hand and a holster around her tiny hips. I thought, “Oh dear Lord – please, not again.” Luckily, she wasn’t there for that.
She was merely a young Flemish oyster catcher, bringing her wares to market hoping to shuck oysters for passersby.
You know you’re no longer in Rock Bottom when the shooter girl is shucking oysters for well-heeled finance guys at the bar. My last memory of a shooter girl was a cowgirl named Molly giving me test tubes shots from a leather belt that was wrapped tightly round her chest.
I took a better look around the room from our slightly disappointing table. Off in the distance, I could see a great looking terrace, with high ceiling fans, greenery, dark woods and young, good looking people having fun. Maybe next time…
The restaurant has a nice feel to it – the bar is elegant and well stocked with beers and wines, and the dining room is well divided, light and spacious. It was a cross between a train station terminal and a French provincial estate.
Café Belge serves a Flemish menu, which is heavily influenced by German, French and Dutch cooking. Café Belge has a strong seafood emphasis with salmon, cod, oysters, Dover sole and more. They also have traditional Moules and rabbit à la tournaisienne, side by side with more international items such as burgers, risotto, and steaks.
The Serb got frustrated with the menu, claiming she couldn’t pronounce anything off the menu. I asked her what was the challenging with “Grilled Salmon.” It was met with a vicious stare while she butchered the pronunciation of chicken Vol-au-Vent Cromesquis.
“Chicken Voldemort Chromes I Quit” was her impressive attempt. I think she was just making a point, because when she ordered it, she said it like a native Brusselonian.
For starters, we ordered the tuna tartare and the chicken Voldemort. For mains, we went with the fillet of cod and the beef carbonnade – a beef and beer stew.
The bread for the table was warm and crusty, and the butter was salty and room temperature. You can tell a lot about a restaurant by the temperature of their butter, by the way.
The starters arrived and immediately you could see the quality of the ingredients. The dishes looked fresh, lively and oozed superiority. Finally, all those years of food Instagram are rubbing off on European chefs!
A Cromesquis, for those interested, is a croquette of sorts. Our Cromesquis looked nothing like a croquette of any sort, no matter how much interpretation you were allowing the chef. It looked remarkably like a chicken salad. There was a simple explanation for this confusion – it turns out it was a chicken salad. Perhaps the Serb’s pronunciation wasn’t as good as we thought. I said nothing, of course.
Regardless, the starters were simple yet excellent. When a recipe is basic and uncomplicated, a good chef knows that the ingredients need to do the talking. The chicken salad was light and fresh – the dressing was balanced, and the sun-dried baby tomatoes provided the right flavour intensity.
The tuna tartare was good – chilled tuna with excellent presentation. They also slipped in a magic disc of watermelon that bought a wonderful freshness to the dish.
Like the menu, the service was also influenced by German, French, and the Dutch. Our waiter was efficient, a little standoffish and quite tall. There was limited interaction, and I would expect a little more engagement in a “Café” setting.
If our starters were light and gentle, then our mains were the opposites.
Influenced by provincial farm cooking – both dishes were cooked in sauces, with lots of seasonal vegetables and herbs to bring out the right flavours. The filet of cod was simmered in a wonderfully light but flavorful fish sauce, with tomatoes, peppers, fennel and more. It was served in a shallow bowl and was hearty and filling.
The beef carbonnade is a Flemish stew – beef slow-cooked in an umami-intense beef and onion stew. Beer, thyme, and bay leaves bring a sweetness to the overall balance. This dish was good – strong on the flavours and mouthfeel, but if I am honest, the beef was a little too lean, dry and heavy going, to score full marks. It came with some bone marrow that provided the fat that was missing in the beef, and some excellent thick cut fries.
The meal came to 495 dhs for two, with free cider, which isn’t too bad, but it’s still premium. However, for once, I felt that my money went on ingredients, not some greedy landlords pocket.
I know it’s a Ritz Carlton, but I would have enjoyed a little more genuine hospitality, rather than the stereotypical polished five-star service. Not everything needs to be polished so much.
A consistent, high-class venue with reliable food and service. Good for safe dates, and shucking oysters with finance guys at the bar.