Wednesday, 10 November 2010

BROUGE

Twenty-odd years ago, when I was in my third publishing job in London, two "themed" restaurant chains were born: one, a Japanese noodle bar/canteen, was Wagamama, and the very first was in Streatham Street, Bloomsbury, just round the corner from my office on Great Russell Street. The other was a Belgian restaurant, called Belgo, which specialised in Belgian food, particularly "moules frites" and had a beer menu longer than the longest long arm. They both had two things in common - aside from the uncommonly good and tasty food, and lively, buzzing atmosphere - the minimalist decor and the exposed kitchens.

The first Belgo opened in 1992 in Chalk Farm, next door to the design studio of archiect Ron Arad, who designed the interior. It was well worth the schlepp up the Northern Line to eat there, for Belgo was truly a dining 'experience'. The staff were dressed like monks, in long, dark habits, Gregorian chant played soulfully in the background, or jaunty Jacques Brel, and the diners sat at long wooden trestles, as if in a monastery refectory. As well as the "moules frites", of which there were at least five varieties, ranging from the classic Moules Mariniere to Thai Green Curry, there were wholesome and robust Belgian specialities - sausage and stoemp (Belgian mash), Waterzooi (chicken, leeks and potatoes in a light cream broth), braised lamb shank, rabbit, all cooked with beer. The beer menu, which was vast, featured Trappist beers, White beers, Champagne beers, fruit beers, and the staff were happy to recommend a beer to have with your meal, rather as the traditional sommelier might recommend a wine. It was a great place to go with friends and one could be guaranteed to emerge, stuffed and tipsy, at the end of the evening.

Following on from the success of the Chalk Farm branch (called Belgo Nord), a new, bigger restaurant opened in Covent Garden (Belgo Centraal). Also designed by Ron Arad, but on a more industrial scale, one entered across a gantry and was transported to the basement dining area in a large lift, as if descending into a mine. Downstairs, the decor was similar to the Chalk Farm branch, and the staff were similarly attired, but the vastness of the restaurant space meant that during busy times the service could be rather slack. Later, a Bierodrome opened on Clapham High Street, also very popular and crowded.

I have not visited Belgo for years, so I was curious to try to local equivalent, Brouge at The Goat on the Fulwell/Twickenham borders. The pub, before it was done up and gastro-ed and Belgo-ed, was very non-descript (I'm being kind here!). It was renamed and a conservatory extension became Brouge, a restaurant specialising in Belgian food. Like Belgo, it has a long beer list (and a relatively short wine list) and a good menu, on which beer features heavily.

Arriving by bus (the 281 or 33 from Teddington stops close to the pub), there was time for a drink at the bar before we sat down. I chose a 'Brussels Framboise', a fruit beer which was a little like drinking raspberryade - only better, because it was alcoholic! My companion chose a Steenbrugge Brune. Later, we drank Leffe and Champagne beer. The food was robust and comforting: I had a lamb shank braised with a redcurrant, fruit beer and garlic 'jus' (that's 'gravy' in old money), served on stoemp (Belgian mash with potato, swede, carrot and parsnip), while my companion had the Flemish Fish Pot (with North Atlantic Cod, Scallops & Scottish Mussels, served with Frites). At the next table, four people were enthusiastically tucking into various types of moules frites. My lamb shank could have been braised a little longer - I like the meat to be falling off the bone, and I did have to hack at it, but it was flavourful and just the thing for a cold, windy November evening. The Flemish Fish Pot was declared "delicious" - I think I'll try that next time.

For pudding, my companion read my mind and selected Banoffee Pie (to share). Too often Banoffee Pie is temple-achingly sweet and cloying, but this was just right, with fat slices of banana nestled on a buxom layer of "dulce de leche" (that's condensed milk cooked until it is thick, brown and lucscious). Overall, a very nice evening out - and good value too. I would definitely eat there again: while I know I could cook anything on the menu at home, it was good food, well-presented, and the service was attentive without being sycophantic.
There are regular special offers and promotions, plus beer tastings and beer "masterclasses".

For more information and to view sample food and beer menus at Brouge and Belgo:
Brouge
Belgo

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