Still life by Luis Meléndez
GOOD NEWS! Esquire.com now has a new food section called "Eat Like a Man," which will be featuring restaurant articles by John Mariani and others from around the USA.
THIS WEEK: What Your Favorite Restaurant Knows About You.
DAY TRIPPER: GHENT, BELGIUM
by John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER: EL PARADOR
by John Mariani
WINE: THE LURTON DYNASTY
by Mort Hochstein
Big cities demand a traveler's commitment to stay put for several days, or, as has been said of great cities like New York, Rome, London and Paris, if you spend a week there you'll know the city well; if you spend a lifetime, you'll realize how much you don't know. Smaller cities, however, can be visited with pleasure for a day or two, to take in the principal sights and determine if you want to return for a longer stay. In fact, I find such visits extremely enjoyable and, more often than not, make me hungry for more. This article is another in a continuing, occasional series I call "Day Trippers," intended to give the reader a quick, broad overview of a city where I was delighted for just a day or two. --J.M.
by John Mariani
The citizens of Ghent want to make sure a visitor is duly impressed upon arrival, and after exiting a train from another point in Europe and moving up an escalator to the entrance hall of the station (right), you will be very impressed indeed.
Train stations are the first thing many people see when entering a city and help to set the scene for the spirit of a city. And there are few more beautiful train stations in Europe than Ghent's, having been designed in a cruciform shape by Louis Cloquet and built just a year before the 1913 World Exhibition to show this old city had acquired a wholly modern face.
I have no idea why the British added an "h" to the Celtic-Latin name Gent, but there it is stuck, derived from a Latin word that meant a "place between two rivers." In any case, everyone, but everyone, speaks English perfectly. With a half million inhabitants, Ghent is Belgium's second largest city, but it has a small city feeling to it, owing to its inner historic core where rivers and streets seem to make up their own minds as to where they will go, and the natives are fine with the idea of meandering throughout the broad plazas and narrow streets, the alleys and cul de sacs where at one time or another a great merchant or prince may have lived. Since many streets are closed to motor traffic, Ghent is as amiable a walking city as any in Europe. And pleasingly quiet.
Its buildings have an enormous variety of architecture, for while the twilight picture below shows massed historic buildings, some dating to the 12th Century, none is of the same style, because with each passing era the Ghentians believed strongly they should not hang onto the past and so encouraged architects to design buildings in the newest style of the day; thus, you find late Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque structures bunched along the river and throughout the city, most richly decorated in ways you do not associate with the stoic-looking town fathers and guild members in the paintings of those days. To prove the point, there is a new, very modern Town Hall under construction whose steel lines echo the old roof lines but are in every other way completely of the moment. Along the rivers are also great old brick structures that were once warehouses, butcheries, and markets, now converted into everything from fish restaurants and student cafeterias to retail stores.
Ghent's main street and one of the oldest is Veldstraat, from which narrow alleys depart, once the site of the Corn Market and a hotel center, now the principal shopping area of the city. Sadly, the street has lost many of its old buildings and shops, but the still impressive Hotel Schamp is a baroque structure from the 18th century, and several historic mansions still lining Veldstraat.
We stayed at the fine 46-room boutique Hotel De Flandre (right), very quietly and centrally located, which has a bracing, lavish buffet (included in the room price), while our friends stayed two blocks away at the newly renovated Standton Grand Hotel Reylof, with 158 rooms, once an 18th-century townhouse. The ultra-modern, always booked Ghent Marriott, with its high glass dome, seems oddly situated down a narrow street, including its main entrance, but this was the only way Bill Marriott could convince the city his hotel would not intrude on the glorious historic riverscape, where the hotel's smaller, unobtrusive entrance is located.
Ghent's gastronomy is richly northern European but highly influenced by French cookery and readily accessible to ethnic ideas, so that there is every type of restaurant here, from pizza to sushi, and you'll find Turkish restaurants have a stronghold along Sleepstraat. Thursdays are called Donderdag Veggiedag, when public canteens and schools promote their vegetarian dishes, which is a rather odd idea in a country whose good health is not in question. Where the city should put its efforts is to stamp out smoking, now broadly indulged at outdoor tables at restaurants, meaning that anyone who is not a smoker is likely to be engulfed in cigarette smoke for the sin of wanting to dine al fresco.
After touring much of the historic district, we had lunch at a very popular brasserie off the grand plaza, across from the Ghent Opera, called, appropriately, Café Theatre, both dating to 1840, with a hiatus of nine year's closing, re-opened in 1998. The restaurant is a cavernous and friendly, a a youthful place, with notes on the menu that the staff, whose photos are on the menu, is dressed by Terre Bleue, a Belgian sportswear company, and they sell their own CDs and photo books. The menu notes, "Slow service on request," meaning this is a place to take your time, not to rush through your beer or wine--unless you're on your way to the opera--and to enjoy the pleasures of Belgian-French food and drink. At lunch it was filled with people off from work, business people, tourists, and one elderly well-dressed Ghentian gentleman at the corner table next to ours who sat with his newspaper and spent the afternoon quietly feasting on a three-course meal, all by himself, looking wholly content with his own company and probably well practiced in dining at Café Theatre several times a week.
Our party of four began with a good portion of mi-cuit duck foie gras with fig chutney and toasted brioche; a specialty here is the beef tartare with Belgian fried potatoes (which are sold as a snack all over the city, with toppings from mayonnaise to vinegar), again a hefty portion. Shrimp croquettes were tidy little morsels with lemon and fried parsley, while a sweet tomato came stuffed with tiny peeled grey shrimp. The dish of the day was a plate of those ultra-tender morsels of chicken imbedded in the crook of the thigh, here lightly sautéed crisp and hot.
For our main courses we had a juicy roasted monkfish with smoky bacon, mashed green lentils and fried potatoes; sautéed sole in a classic buttery meunière style, with steamed potatoes; and an entrecôte of Scottish beef with a rich Béarnaise, grilled potatoes and seasonal vegetables, ending off the meal with a selection of housemade sorbets.
Prices may seem high to Americans bemoaning the weak dollar, but they are moderate for Belgium, with starters ranging from €13.50 to €18 and main courses €18.50 to €26.
That afternoon we also had a chance to visit the Gruut Brewery in the center of the city, about which I wrote last week here. And, after a good walk, we noshed a bit more--a yeasty Belgian waffle split among the four of us, a visit to a chocolate shop or two, and something new to us--cuberdon candy, made since the 19th century by only a very few candymakers (right). It is a little purple cone of sugar containing raspberry syrup, which oozes out when you bite into it.
That evening we enjoyed an aperitif of elderberry liqueur called roomer, then went to an even bigger place--600 square meters--and a magnet for everyone who lives or visits Ghent--a multi-tiered restaurant named Pakhuis (warehouse), this year celebrating its 20th anniversary. You come upon the place suddenly after passing down an alleyway, and you look up and see people everywhere: downstairs at the bar, in a room reached by ramp, up the stairs to the mezzanine and balcony (below). In the Chef's Corner at the bar you can feast on iced shellfish.
Chef Koen Lefever is justly proud of his commitment to the very finest ingredients--many, including the famous blue-footed Bresse chickens, raised at the restaurant's own farm, and to sustainability; they even have their own wine label; Pakhuis also supports many charitable organizations through special dinners throughout the year. You can certainly taste the truth of it all in the food, and a good way to go about it is with the Market Menu at about €43, currently featuring smoked eel and fried mussel salad; various oysters; baked fillet of mullet and mussels with tagliatelle; roasted fillet of guinea fowl (its own) with chicory and celery root; and apple puff pastry with ice cream. There are also both cheaper and more extensive fixed price menus. À la carte, we enjoyed a pan-roasted lobster with vegetables, and the Bresse chicken had wonderful flavor and crisp skin.
Afterwards we joined those throngs of people who take the two-hour Light Plan walk, when the historic buildings of Ghent are brilliantly illuminated like a movie set, a leisurely stroll under starlight and clouds, moonlight and shadows, giving the city the calm beauty of a medieval romance. We didn't last the whole two hours, though, filled as we were with a good dinner and fine wine, but we took in enough to know that returning to Ghent was now much higher on our wish list than we could have imagined a day before.
NEW YORK CORNER
Parador Café in Murray Hill is not, as claimed, NYC's oldest Mexican
restaurant (defunct places named Xochitl on West
46th Street and Mexican Gardens on Waverly Place
dated back at least to the 1940s), but after six
decades in business it can claim to be the most
longlived, having been opened in 1959, and in my
opinion, one of the very best in the city.
This week the Man About Town is on assignment.
His column will appear next week.
To contact Christopher Mariani send an email to email@example.com
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
THE LURTON DYNASTY
by Mort Hochstein
The Lurton Family, left to right: Sophie, Christine, Denis, Pierre, Berenice, Marie Laure, Jacques, Marc, and Francois and Thierry in front.
Mondavi and Gallo in the United
in France, Antinori in Italy. These are the names that
come to mind when I think about great wine families.
But the largest and least heralded of them all
are the Lurtons of Bordeaux, whose ten family members
quietly own or administer some 30 properties in France and
throughout the world, the best known being
Château d’Yquem , Cheval Blanc and
NEXT THING THEY'LL BE WANTING
STALE BREAD AND COLD WATER!!!
former jailhouse inmate turned jailhouse cook, Brian
D. Price, has cooked last meals for 218 prisoners on
death row in Huntsville, TX, but after state
officials said they would no longer provide
condemned prisoners their last meal requests, Price
offered to prepare meals for free. The officials
said no thanks.
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