City guide: Bruges and Ghent

Last week’s feature on al fresco dining got a fantastic response from you all, and is already, at the time of writing, the most popular piece I’ve published on the blog this year: thank you so much to everybody who read it, commented, recommended it and passed it on. And after the week we’ve had I have high hopes that it will come in handy for a while yet – in fact the weekend it came out I had dinner outside the Lyndhurst one night, Buon Appetito the next. So if reading it made you feel hungry I can assure you that writing it had much the same effect.

Anyway, by contrast this week it’s one of those pieces that’s a bit more niche, that will only interest a handful of you, so apologies in advance for that. But I had such an enjoyable week in Bruges and Ghent last month that I thought it was ripe for a piece, especially because my last guide to Ghent – the first city guide I ever wrote on the blog – is a creaking three and a half years old. But both cities are well worth visiting, both are gorgeous and ridiculously easy to reach by Eurostar and both offer a holiday unmarred by the flight chaos we might well see for the rest of the year.

Of the two I would say Bruges is smaller, quainter and (even) more beautiful, although it’s very touristy and decidedly sleepy of an evening once the coachloads of day trippers have moved on. Ghent is bigger and more sprawling, with much more of a big city feel – its historic parts are reminiscent of Bruges but it also has street art, a modern art gallery, a design museum and more of a craft beer scene outside the traditional Belgian pubs. You could easily do Bruges in a long weekend, Ghent might keep you occupied longer. But they’re half an hour apart on the train, so you could easily (as I did) make a two centre holiday of both.

Oh, one other thing before I get started – this is only based on places I went to on this year’s visit. So my piece about Ghent from 2018/2019 is potentially still worth a read, it’s just that I can’t vouch for places like Brasserie Du Progres, Oak, Otomat and Barista (I bet they’re great, though). I can however guarantee that the pastries from Himschoot are as gorgeous as they ever were: they’ve even opened a few additional branches since I was there last.

Bruges

1. Bruut

Bruut is in a handsome building next to an absurdly beautiful bridge overlooking the canal, and inside it’s all rather convivial – leather chairs, fetching tiled floors and exposed light fittings. But there are a few al fresco tables by the side of the bridge with that gorgeous view, and that’s where I sat when I ate one of my meals of this (or any) year. Chef Bruno Timperman offers a no-choice, no-substitutions set menu for lunch or dinner and comes out to introduce and talk through many of the dishes himself. And put simply, the man is a wizard: I don’t normally talk about chefs in my blog but this is all very much in his image and it’s very much his show.

Nothing I ate was short of dazzling, and there were almost too many highlights to mention, but a steak tartare made simply with high-grade beef, salt and milk to draw out all the flavour was a tender, mineral miracle. A pre-lunch nibble of prawns, cooked whole and dusted with a vivid raspberry power was like nothing I’ve ever eaten. And our dessert, cherries halved, hollowed and filled wih rose-coloured chocolate, topped with discs of elderflower jelly and sitting in a cherry gazpacho dotted with cherry balsamic, will live in my memory for an extremely long time. My only regret is not taking up the wine pairing – although in my defence it was only lunchtime, and the beer list has some superb lambics on it which made for an excellent alternative.

Bruut, Meestraat 9, Brugge
https://bistrobruut.be/en/

2. Assiette Blanche

More classic and formal and a little less cutting edge, Assiette Blanche has an attractive wood-panelled dining room and the meal I had there was absolutely top notch. They have a set menu or an a la carte (although you can sort of switch between the two) and the set, for dinner, starts at a reasonable forty-four Euros for three courses.

The dishes here are generous – robust but not clumsy, but certainly not a fiddly-plated exercise in nouvelle nonsense. I enjoyed the whole lot but my particular favourite was a monkfish saltimbocca – the flesh firm and pearlescent, the guanciale it was wrapped in providing the salt and smoke. The whole thing was on a bed of prawns and fregola, cut through with a dressing sporting just the right amount of vinegar. A white chocolate and rhubarb dessert, complete with a sweet, sticky syrup that spoke of time well spent, wrapped things up with a perfect bow.

Assiette Blanche, Philipstockstraat 23, Brugge
https://www.assietteblanche.be/nl

3. Café Rose Red

From hearing Zoë talk about Café Rose Red I was expecting to like it a lot, and I wasn’t disappointed. A rather attractive room, all red walls and roses hanging from the ceiling, it had a decent if not incredible beer list and an interesting range of options on tap. I’d heard good things about the food and so we ordered a few bits and pieces to graze on. The assorted cheese and charcuterie was surprisingly disappointing, but I think the trick is to go for dishes that the kitchen has cooked rather than simply dished up: the kibbeling – battered chunks of fish with a mild, soothing tartare sauce – was the equal of any similar dish I’ve had in Andalusia.

Incidentally, the café is part of a hotel and from what I can see the rooms upstairs look well appointed and excellent value – next time I go to Bruges I have a pretty good idea where I’ll be staying. 

Café Rose Red, Cordoeanierstraat 16, Brugge
https://www.rosered.be/nl/

4. ’t Brugs Beertje

I probably would have liked Café Rose Red a lot more if I’d liked ’t Brugs Beertje a little less, but that was never going to happen. The Little Bear is arguably the Belgian watering hole elevated to its ultimate form, a little conspiratorial place with a great selection on tap and an eye-wateringly brilliant list of bottled beers, including some Belgian breweries I’d never heard of and a “vintage” section which gave you the chance to try dark beers and lambics which had been properly cared for across the best part of a decade. I had a Cuvée Delphine from 2013 by De Struise which had the kind of depth and complexity that haunts your imagination for a long time after you’ve taken your final sip.

But more than the impressive selection, it just felt like the perfect place to stop, drink, eavesdrop, people-watch and potentially get into random conversations. The room at the back, complete with plaque to original Belgian beer spod Michael Jackson (not that one, a different one) was nice too, but the front room was where you wanted to be, at a table with your favourite person, making inroads into that excellent list, in no hurry to be anywhere else. It reminded me of the Retreat in its previous incarnation under Bernie and Jane, when it stocked shedloads of Belgian beers – and always the right glasses to go with them – and it made me miss the Retreat of ten years ago, too.

’t Bruges Beertje, Kemelstraat 5, Brugge
https://www.brugsbeertje.be/en/home-2/

5. Vero Caffè

Bruges has lots of nice-looking patisseries where the priorities are the cakes and pastries and the coffee, though perfectly pleasant, plays second fiddle. I went to one on my final morning in the city and we waited ages to get served and even longer to get the bill: the pain au chocolat was good, but not that good. Far better, in a pretty little square with some lovely outside space, was Vero Caffè. It also sells excellent squidgy brownies, exactly as you would like them, so it gets my vote.

Vero Caffè, Sint-Jansplein 9, Brugge
https://www.facebook.com/VeroCaffeBrugge/

6. Cherry Picker

Come for the music, stay for the atmosphere! is the slogan of this record shop in the east of the city. Come for the music stay for the coffee, more like, because it served possibly my favourite coffee in Bruges. I love places like this – it reminded me of Truck Records, out on Oxford’s Cowley Road – and I’d have happily whiled away longer sitting outside or inside with a good book. They do cocktails and beer too, although precisely how much they expect you to put away before they close at 6pm is anybody’s guess.

Cherry Picker, Langestraat 74, Brugge
https://www.cherrypicker.be

Ghent

1. De Superette

Whenever I researched places to eat in Ghent, De Superette always came up but for some reason I’d never taken the plunge and booked a table there. And then on this visit I did and in the run up to going I looked on TripAdvisor (as you do) and had a bit of a wobble. Lots of people said it was overrated, or expensive, or small portions or suchlike.

Well, I overcame my fears and went and was rewarded with a superb meal which made me wonder what all the naysayers were carping about. It’s a bakery by day and pizza place by night, offering a really compact selection of pizzas and a little tasting menu of small plates to start you off. It was the kind of place you wanted to click your fingers and teleport back home, just round the corner from where you lived, and the clientele – a huge range of ages and types of groups – were all clearly having a marvellous time.

And the food was excellent. The small plates were clever, inventive and cracking value – glorious, just-cooked peas with guanciale, a moutabal brimming with smokiness, a clever gazpacho studded with pine nuts. And then the pizzas turned out to be some of the best I’ve had anywhere, all fluffy crust and supercharged clusters of ‘nduja. I left full, happy and determined to return. The table next to us, on the other hand, ordered two pizzas between five. Maybe it’s people like that who complain about small portions: if so, I have a really simple life hack they’re welcome to borrow.

De Superette, Guldenspoorstraat 29, Gent
http://www.de-superette.be

2. De Lieve

De Lieve featured in my previous guide to Ghent and I’ve eaten there on every single visit. Between my last visit and my latest, though, something happened: De Lieve was recognised by Michelin and awarded a Bib Gourmand, their badge of affordable high quality food. And the De Lieve I went to in 2019 was absolutely the kind of restaurant that gets a Bib Gourmand, but the De Lieve I went to last month feels like the kind of restaurant that’s aiming for a star, and that comes with pluses and minuses.

So it felt like the tables were that little bit closer together, the prices were that little bit sharper and the portions were that little bit smaller. The quality was still top notch, don’t get me wrong – my carpaccio of hamachi was a delicate, pretty, subtle dish, but by the time I finished it (a few seconds later) I was thinking about the bag of paprika Walkers Max back at the apartment and wondering if I’d be breaking into them in the not too distant future.

Fortunately balance was restored with a delicious Basque t-bone with rosemary gratin and a deeply pleasing jus, and a cracking tarte tatin completed an enjoyable, if pricey meal. It felt to me like bumping into a friend after a few years to find they’ve had very good, very expensive plastic surgery done. You know they look great, but in the back of your mind you think was that really necessary? Still, if you’ve never been it’s definitely worth considering on a visit to Ghent: I just miss the days when they had a puck of divine black pudding on the starters menu.

De Lieve, Sint-Margrietstraat 1, Gent
https://www.eetkaffee-delieve.be/nl

3. De Rechters

Still my favourite place for traditional Belgian food, De Rechters is a chic, contemporary-looking restaurant which is far better than it needs to be given its plum spot next to St Bavo’s Cathedral. On this occasion, for the first time, I got to sit outside in the sunshine and it made a good meal, if anything, even better. We drank Orval, and Zoë pointed out to me that her beer and mine were bottled on different days, which explained why mine was fizzier than hers: I love it when she goes full Raymond Babbitt about beer like that.

Never having had moules in Belgium – I know, such an oversight – I had some as a starter, cooked simply with thyme and they were plump and fragrant. But next time I’ll go the whole hog and have them as a main with garlic and cream, which for me is the only way really to eat moules, dipping your bread and frites into the sauce until you are truly replete.

The frites, incidentally, were a bit wan on this visit – which is a shame, because frites are something Belgium does better than practically anybody. But the stoverij, beer slow-cooked in beer until the whole thing is a symphony of dark brown, almost-sweet ambrosia, is worth the price of admission alone. You can get frites anywhere but beef like that requires patience and skill, both of which De Rechters has in abundance.

De Rechters, Sint-Baafsplein 23, Gent
https://derechters.be/nl/

4. STEK

On my holiday in Belgium I tried to learn from previous trips away and put a strict rule in place: one big meal a day. Maybe all of you already do this when you go on holiday, but sadly I’ve never been great at restraint and although it means I’ve eaten some amazing food it does make the post-holiday Monday comedown a downer of epic proportions. What do you mean I can’t have sherry at lunchtime and go to a restaurant? I’ll rail to nobody in particular. Make my own meals? Who does that?

On the plus side, it meant I could discover Ghent’s brunch scene, and that in turn meant a thoroughly worthwhile visit to STEK, an achingly cool cafe halfway between the centre and the modern art gallery. Inside it’s all plants – a lot of monsteras and plenty of other flora I wouldn’t recognise – and outside there’s a serene terrace, a proper secret garden with plenty of space where you feel nowhere near a big city. It reminded me a bit of the surprise you get when you walk through the Boston Tea Party on Bristol’s Park Street to find that massive garden out back or, closer to home, the bang-up job the Collective has done with its outside space.

Since I was embracing lunch and brunch I decided to go the whole hog and order the avo toast. Mine came with superbly crispy, curled, caramelised bacon, a fried egg with the yolk still runny, shoots and leaves and a little side salad and it was as pretty as its surroundings. It tasted phenomenal too, and the coffee wasn’t bad either. Maybe there are pluses to having a lighter lunch after all.

STEK, Nederkouter 129, Gent
https://www.stekgent.be

5. Take Five Espresso

My absolute favourite coffee place of the holiday was Take Five Espresso in the centre of Ghent. I never completely decided whether I preferred being inside, sat up at the big windows watching city life bustling by or outside in the sun (their seating is dead clever, making full use of the public benches on the street). What I did work out though was that their lattes were magnificent and that by the end of my trip it was hard to imagine being caffeinated anywhere else. It was the epitome of café chic and I enjoyed it a great deal. I never tried any of their food, but you can blame Kultur, the excellent bakery next door (and their pain au chocolat) for that.

Take Five Espresso, Voldersstraat 10, Gent
http://www.take-five-espressobar.be

6. Clouds In My Coffee

Clouds In My Coffee is one of the most stylish cafés I’ve seen in roughly a decade of going to Europe and seeking these places out. Quite aside from the Carly Simon reference, which manages not to be naff, the inside is truly gorgeous, like something out of Living Etc. From the street it looks small (and is surprisingly hard to find) but through the back is a wonderfully light, airy extension and beyond that another of those idyllic secret gardens that Ghent cafés seem to all have up their sleeves.

Did I want a coffee? Absolutely. Was my latte delicious? Of course it was. Did I look at the menu and wonder if it was too early for an Aperol Spritz? You bet I did. And did I feel like I was soaking up design tips for the duration of my visit? Yes, along with thinking Why doesn’t Reading have anywhere like this? The only drawback is that Clouds In My Coffee is the epitome of the best house on a bad street: Dampoort, where it lives, is an up and coming part of Ghent that, from my visit, has more upping and coming to do (the cafe’s website calls it a “multicolour fuse”, which I think is nicely poetic). The walk there from the tram stop involved walking through an Aldi car park and, for an awful moment, I thought I’d wandered through a wormhole in space and found myself on the outskirts of Basingstoke. Still worth a visit though, if only to go somewhere that fitted in about as much as I did.

Clouds In My Coffee, Dendermondsesteenweg 104, Gent
https://www.clouds9000.com/en/cafe-gallery

7. Het Waterhuis aan de Beerkant

On my first visit to Ghent, at the tail end of autumn 2018, I rather liked Het Waterhuis aan de Beerkant, a tall building by the canal (aren’t they all?) with rooms across several floors: the room right at the top reminded me of mid-90s boho drinking culture in a way which somehow summoned up memories of Bar Iguana. But it wasn’t until I went back on a hot July afternoon that I really got what the fuss was about – sitting at a sunny table, overlooking the canal, surrounded by other afternoon revellers of all shapes and sizes it was an extremely agreeable place to while away a few hours and sink a tall, cold Brugse Zot on draft. We don’t have a word, really, for what time spent like that is like but I believe the Dutch describe it as gezellig.

Het Waterhuis aan de Beerkant, Groentenmarkt 9, Gent
https://www.facebook.com/Waterhuis-aan-de-Bierkant-171209319595287/

8. Gitane

I waxed lyrical about Gitane after previous visits to Ghent, and it’s still one of my favourite watering holes. But, like Het Waterhuis aan de Beerkant, it was a decidedly different experience on a hot and sunny day: everybody was chattering away at tables which fill the street outside and if you’re forced to sit in, as we were, it made for a slightly Marie Celeste moment.

No matter: it’s still a great place for a cosy drink, all wood panels and tiled floor, and if the list is less compendious than those at Ghent’s more feted bars and pubs it makes up for that with some really interesting choices from some of Belgium’s less established breweries. I had a cracking New England IPA from Brouwcompagnie Rolling Hills which married East Flanders and the Eastern Seaboard very harmoniously indeed.

Gitane, Meerseniersstraat 9, Gent
https://facebook.com/100054309860476/

9. Dulle Griet

The two other “proper” Belgian pubs in Ghent, both with compendious beer lists, are Trollkelder and Dulle Griet. Both are idiosyncratic to put it lightly – I had a drink sitting outside Trollkelder only slightly put off by the weird models of trolls eyeballing you through the window. I liked Dulle Griet better, although both are an experience and you should at least try a drink in one of them. It’s named after Mad Meg, a figure in Flemish folklore who led an army of women to storm the gates of hell. Whether that explains the decor and all the weird figurines hanging from the ceiling I have no idea (I wouldn’t want to do their dusting, put it that way) but it made for an interesting and characterful place to stop for an afternoon beer, especially as they had Westmalle Dubbel, a Trappist favourite of mine, on draft. Given that they boast over five hundred different beers on their list, you’d probably find something to enjoy here.

Dulle Griet, Vrijdagmarkt 50, Gent
http://www.dullegriet.be/en/

10. HAL 16

HAL 16 is a food hall and brewery out towards the docks, and is a perfect place to visit whether you like beer, food or ideally both. I think it used to just be the tap room for local brewery Dok Brewing, but there have been some changes and it now shares the space with three different food vendors: think Blue Collar, but even more cool. There’s also a branch of the excellent bakery Himschoot just round the corner, terrific coffee from the nearby OR Espresso Bar and a beer shop – De Hopduvel – which sells all the beer (and matching glasses) you could possibly want for your trip home.

I had already bought a Dok Brewing glass from a shop in Bruges by then, because I was already a fan. Dok does some truly lovely beer and there are something like thirty taps at HAL 16, with a mixture of beers brewed on the premises and fascinating stuff from breweries I’d never even heard of: the highlight of this visit was a stunningly dank DIPA from Virginia’s Aslin Beer Company. But the other reason to come here is for the food from RØK (they like their block capitals in this part of town) which smokes and grills meat, hispi cabbage and anything else they think might be good.

On a previous visit in 2019 I had a huge, smoked, blackened pork chop, fresh off the grill, which ducked under the velvet rope and went straight into my gastronomic hall of fame without passing GO or collecting £200. This time round it was all about the lamb neck, tender and moreish, scattered with salt and served with a puddle of aioli and a properly zingy salsa verde. We made the mistake of ordering pizza from another vendor first and then picked up the lamb dish from RØK just before their kitchen closed, but when I return – and I will return – I’m ordering everything on their menu, even if it leads to a Mr Creosote situation.

HAL16, Dok-Noord 4b, Gent
https://www.hal16.be

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