Indian country, Brussels style: Daphne Wayne-Bough tries out some of the city’s Indian restaurants
Subcontinental food is becoming popular in Belgium, if the increasing number of Indian restaurants in Brussels is anything to go by. There are now about 40 in Brussels alone.
Unfortunately French gastrofascism got its garlicky fingers into Belgian culinary tradition decades ago, and anything that is not in the Larousse Gastronomique is viewed with suspicion, if not outright fear. I met a couple in Paris once who would not go to Chinese restaurants because there was no bread on the table! Indian cuisine is therefore adapted to local palates, which is not always a bad thing. The lower the chilli factor, the more you can taste the subtle blends of spices.
However, some lovers of sensations fortes – mainly British men – like a degree of pain with their rogan josh. It’s a macho thing. You won’t find anything in Brussels to compare with Bradford, Leicester or Tooting Bec but have a discreet word with the waiter and most chefs here will turn the heat up a notch or two on request.
‘Spicy Grill’ is an unlikely name for an Indian restaurant, but it is Brussels after all, and in the shadow of the European Commission to boot. Just think what a Flemish speaker could do to the word ‘Maharajah’. It is neither olde-worlde Mughal nor modern Bhangra Brummie. It is elegant, housed in a Brussels-style town house typical of the area. The dining room is long and narrow, and the tables a fraction too close together, but the menu is extensive and has all your standards - tikka masala, shahi korma - which are served in white china, a cut above your standard stainless steel serving dishes. Indian beers Cobra
and Kingfisher are available alongside Belgian beers and an impressive wine list.
I saw Baroness Ashton eating in here once, if that’s any recommendation. (Ed’s comment: it depends what she was wearing.)
Myself and friends ordered a selection of samosas - two chicken, two vegetable - and a couple of onion bhajis. The samosas were fine, although not remotely spicy, more like triangular Cornish pasties, and the onion bhajis were tasty but about the size of a truffle. For main course we shared a lamb danzak, a chicken tikka masala and a vegetable curry. The lamb danzak was generally judged to be the most tasty of the three, the taste of lentils came through unswamped by fiery spices. The vegetable curry was mild but flavoursome all the same. The chicken TM was the colour of a radioactive carrot. We asked the waiter what they put in it. He insisted just paprika and general masala spices.
With one garlic nan, one plain nan, and two portions of basmati rice, the whole lot came to around €26 a head. The waiters are smiling and nice but don’t expect the sort of expertise or banter you’d get in Sauchiehall Street.
Personally I find wine a bit wasted with curry, as it all tastes the same with the strong spices, and Indians themselves recommend drinking either beer or lassi (fermented milk) with their food. Indian beers have been designed especially for drinking with curry, having a lower gas content. If you follow me.
I ventured to the 'Koh-i-Noor’ on Avenue de la Chasse with a pal from the land of the long white cloud . This small, unprepossessing establishment must have taken over the premises of a Swiss fondue chalet if the décor is anything to go by. Wood-paneled walls made me feel I was inside a cuckoo clock. We tried to channel the patience of Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tensing on the first conquest of Everest while waiting for the food, which took an inordinately long time. One little lady runs this place single handedly, she does all the cooking and serving, but we had the impression that base camp was quite a long way down. The place is not exactly heaving on a Friday night - in fact there were just the two of us. This would seem to be more due to lack of appreciation of Indian cuisine from the locals, or possibly the off-centre location, than on the quality of the food which, when it did arrive, was extremely good. We munched on a pappadom and worked our way through a bottle of Beaujolais while we waited for our large plate of mixed entrees, which comprised two samosas (one meat, one veg), an onion bhaji, pieces of chicken tandoori, chicken tikka, lamb tikka, shik kebab and a little side dish of mint yogurt.
By the time we’d worked our way through these, the main courses were ready: a chicken tikka masala that was reddish but didn’t glow in the dark, a lamb badam pasanda, a vegetable biryani to share and a side order of vegetables. All the food was freshly cooked, including the garlic naan which was the best I have tasted anywhere. A second bottle of Beaujolais at €17 was required due to the slow service, which whacked the bill up a bit to just over €40 a head, but I cannot fault the food which was delicious.
The third in my trio of Indians is ‘Annapurna’ on Rue de Laeken, which advertises Indian, Bengali, Tibetan and Nepalese dishes. I popped in for a quick standard menu (samosas - chicken tikka masala - basmati rice) with a French friend. The waiters are sweet and speak good English, although they can barely speak French. It was quite busy, and they obviously weren’t used to dealing with a full house, and the wait for our main course was interminable.
It eventually dawned on them that they’d forgotten us. Some panicking in the kitchen, and we finally got our meal - which was delicious. I can’t fault the food, but avoid it on a weekend, as they haven’t quite come to terms with their own success yet.
Indian restaurants here are somewhat timid in their cooking, and in none of these three did the waft of curry spices hit you as soon as you walked in.
If you are a novice where Indian food is concerned, Brussels is probably a good place to start. If you’re a Brit desperate for a really good curry, London is only two hours away on Eurostar.