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December 17, 2010

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Hot gastropubs serve gourmet grunge

IT was an unlikely laurel: the first-ever mention of a pita-and-falafel joint in one of Europe's leading culinary guides.

The GaultMillau, whose influence is on par with that Michelin or Zagat, only granted the Finjan restaurant 13 out of 20 points. But the fact it was tapped at all drives home a new phenomenon on the culinary scene: frugal is fashionable in Europe's bleak economic times.

The continent's recession has been cutting into pocketbooks and expense accounts, hitting exorbitant Michelin-starred restaurants hard. Europeans are turning to humbler fare to tickle their finicky palates: call it gourmet grunge.

The growing attraction of homely brasseries and gastropubs is another sign of how lean wallets are feeding a back-to-basics approach to food.

After spending at Belgian restaurants suffered an 11 percent slump in 2009, it's estimated to fall a further 3 percent in 2010. But this year, a clear class differentiation also emerges: if the over-35 euro (US$46.25)-a-head restaurant is projected to have 7 percent fewer visitors this year, the cheaper under-35 euro class is bouncing back with 4 percent more, says Gert Laurijssen of the Foodstep study group.

There's even a name for it: "Bistronomy" - Bistrots going for slimmed-down gastronomy, says Jan De Haes, head of the regional HoReCa restaurant federation. "It is a downgrading, for less money customers keep asking for the same kind of quality," he says.

For some gourmands, the trend offers a welcome counterpoint to the deconstructed, sometimes hocus-pocus, cooking of Ferran Adria's El Bulli, Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck and others that explore new culinary frontiers with the "molecular gastronomy" that has been all the rage in recent years.

There is no liquid nitrogen or espuma froths at Finjan. Pita sandwiches come in paper napkins. And GaultMillau doesn't mind.

"The food is simple, pure and succulent and has many pure flavors. That is why we decided that this restaurant can - or must - come into the guide," says Philippe Limbourg, editor of the Belgian edition of the GaultMillau guide.

Owner Josef Chacham never sought culinary recognition beyond good business but knew he was onto something special when local chefs kept coming back after their shifts for more.

"They understand. For me, that is the proof that we are doing good things," Chacham says.

Even the best of cooks understand the winds of change - especially as they are often first in line when the captains of industry and other rich patrons get a bit stingier on their budgets.

Geert Van Hecke, one of Belgium's only two Michelin three-star chefs, remembers the days when he was an understudy at the once-famous Villa Lorraine and saw the Rolls Royces roll up for lunch and dinner, every day.

"Luxury restaurants still have clients but not like 35 years ago," he says.

On top of running his three-star Karmeliet restaurant in the heart of historic Bruges, Van Hecke has also come to rely heavily on his adjacent Refter, which was named 2010 Michelin brasserie of the year.

It shows in his kitchen.

Next to the gleaming white 9-kilogrm halibut waiting to be filleted for marinading as a key starter in a 190-euro Karmeliet menu, simple coffee cookies for the Refter were cooling down. A three-course menu there goes for 35 euros.

"People just have another idea about food. The stars come in handy but to a lesser extent than the brasseries," he says. Beyond Van Hecke's success with the Refter, it is a comforting thought for any cook to be able to count on some 120 seatings a day when the going gets rough in the fine dining section.

Even disregarding the financial crisis, Van Hecke says top restaurants relying heavily on fancy food work only had themselves to blame for underestimating customers' attachment to simple pure ingredients.

Take oysters, says Van Hecke.

"In many major restaurants now, they get oysters infused with 35 products, including 20 Japanese vinegars," he says. "It is a major reason why the top restaurants are having less turnover, because they don't serve the real product anymore."

Fed up with overly fancy cooking, several chefs in France and some in Belgium have opted out of the Michelin rating system in recent years, complaining that it costs too much to maintain stars and no longer gives them the sheer joy of cooking with simple ingredients.

Customers, and guides, increasingly understand them. Van Hecke too - and he has no objections to Finjan's sudden fame either.

"Today, everything goes and why not? I have no problems with that," he says, as long as the products are outstanding.

So far, pita restaurants have been bottom-dwellers, often charmless grease emporiums bathed in eye-blinding lights serving strips of cork-dry meat smothered in factory-made sauces.

Finjan is changing that and stands out even in Antwerp's trendy 't Zuid neighborhood.

GaultMillau caught on when they discovered by chance that chefs from nearby restaurants often ended up at Finjan - it stays open until 4am on weekdays, 5am on weekends - after work is done and they're ready for a lamb kebab.

An Israeli with family roots going back to Iraq, owner Chacham is overwhelmed by his listing in the GaultMillau - a guide he had never even heard of before.

"For me this means appreciation, recognition of the work I did all those years. A good pita is good quality. It is not junk fund. It is not fast food."


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