The latest Real Meals column from the New Statesman:
A long time ago, when I could still bear to eat in social contexts, I attended a dinner at London Zoo given by the Royal Zoological Society. I was seated beside an expert on crustaceans who told me two things: first, that the fattest and tastiest crabs lifted in Cromer, north Norfolk, were found in the proximity of the town’s sewer outfall pipe; second, that he and his crustacean-expert pals liked to go on holiday to Belgium, where they would go from one moules frites joint to the next, challenging each other to identify the greatest number of parasites in any given kilo of mussels. Strangely, they never tired of this little game.
The parasites were entirely harmless – but still, there’s always something a tad suspect about mussels. To my mind, they’re rather like oysters that have been working out too much and hitting the sunbed as well – sinisterly tanned and toned. Still, my mother was very fond of moules marinière and used to cook them for us – no mean feat in England in the 1970s, when often the only fish available came in the form of Shippam’s paste. There’s something hugely inspiriting about a great, foodie waft of freshly boiled mussels: they smell at once nutritious and piquantly dirty. If raw oysters are the cunnilingus of gastronomy, then mussels are … well, best not go there.
In the mid-1990s, when I was the Observer’s restaurant critic, I was packed off to review a new restaurant called Belgo that had opened in Covent Garden. The gaff was subterranean and steely-clad. There was one room with long refectory tables, at which diners sat to be served by waiters dressed up as monks. The menu was heavy on the muscle-bound bivalve, and there was also a substantial carte featuring obscure Belgian beers brewed by real monks and a selection of Dutch genevers. These latter came in shot glasses set in depressions carved out of wooden paddles wielded by the monk-a-likes – so, it was an open incitement to get horrifically pissed on gin, which we duly did, and the evening ended … well, best not go there either.
I remember thinking at the time that the Belgo schtick was pretty much the apogee of themed restaurants; a sort of Blade Runner-meets-Trappist vibe prevailed that required only dry ice – or clouds of incense – to achieve total inauthenticity. If you had told me then that, 15 years down the line, Belgo would have several branches bedizening London, together with several more belonging to a subsidiary chain called Bierodrome, well, I’d have licked a tonsure in the top of my own head. Ho-hum. Such is the queer cavalcade of history.
It’s doubtful whether Belgo/Bierodrome qualifies as a Real Meals subject, as you could spend your whole life in Nuneaton or Nairn never clapping eyes on one of these joints. But that’s just the point: people need to be warned. An innocent provincial lad or lass, unsuspectingly treading the
streets of the Great Wen, and finding them not only not paved with gold, but also lined by Belgian-themed restaurants, could be severely traumatised.
Jaded as I am, I still felt pretty nervous entering the Belgo in Holborn the other evening. Still, I’d arranged to meet my god-daughter there – she’s fashionably wheat-intolerant and we needed to talk.
Actually, it turns out that the other Belgos don’t tog their staff in habits, and the interior was pretty standard for a mid-price eatery: tables, chairs, bar, etc. Not only that, but the staff were absurdly solicitous. The young woman who served me my starter of black pudding and apples told me about the blood pudding made in her native Hungary – later, I found out she’d just written a dissertation on Virginia Woolf. Frankly, that’s more social intercourse than I’d reckon on in an average month.
Bea – my god-daughter – chose moules marinière to start, while I had a kilo of Thai-style mussels for the main event. They were fine, although by no means overwhelming. Bea’s main-course salmon was overdone – but isn’t it always? As for desserts, I like sugar as much as the next 25 morbidly obese men who’ve had gastric bands fitted, but the cheesecake was still way too sickly. We finished up with espresso and mint tea. The bill came to 60-odd quid. All in all, it was an anodyne, mid-price, themed Belgian restaurant experience – not the heart of darkness I’d feared.