Mark Bibby Jackson travels to Antwerp, Flanders for The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards 2021 to discover the host city has its own rich and diverse culinary scene.
Although Copenhagen might have scooped first and second place at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards 2021, in many respects it was the host city Antwerp that in reality emerged triumphant.
Antwerp is a really multicultural place, with some 175 nationalities living in the city and estimates that more than half of the roughly 500,000 population has an immigrant background.
It is this which gives the Flemish city a vibrancy that makes it one of the most popular cities in the world to live. It is also what provides it with a fantastic and diverse cuisine. On my previous visit to Antwerp I focused on its wonderful cultural and beer scene, on this occasion my focus was most definitely gastronomic.
Antwerp’s long association with the jewellery industry and its large Orthodox Jewish community is well documented. This is reflected in the Kosher bakeries such as Goossens and Kleinblatt, however local foodie Luc Hoornaert decided to start his multicultural food tour of Antwerp in the city’s smaller Chinatown district.
Dim Sum in Chinatown
Dim sum is a traditional Chinese breakfast so where better to start our morning food tour than at Fong Mei which specialises in the bite size treat. Hoornaert explains how all the dim sum are prepared fresh on the premises as we wait for our morsels to arrive while drinking the refreshing jasmine tea.
As a child I used to love eating dim sum in London’s Chinatown and repeat the experience whenever I can, although no longer eating meat can be a bit of a dampener, as many dishes contain pork. The dim sum at Fong Mei tasted as authentic as any I had experienced either in London or Asia – where I lived for a decade –, and the staff were more than willing to prepare some special vegetarian dishes for me, although the har gow prawn dumplings and the bao steamed custard buns were, as always, the tastiest.
English Sunday Lunch
By now the food tour had started to resemble a trip down memory lane, as our next stop was at the Sail and Anchor. Established by chef Michael Yates and Marijke Van Haecke this contemporary English restaurant has brought the traditional British Sunday roast to Antwerp.
Yates, who hails from Blackburn, has created an English gastro-pub menu sourced with the finest ingredients. Although we were only here to sample the food, so nobody could dig into the roast, we did taste some excellent whitebait that was served with cider and a wonderful Galway oyster (main image) that was accompanied by a brilliant fish soup, which was my highlight of the whole food tour.
An Indian in Antwerp
As if our tour had not resembled a wander through the streets of London enough, we concluded it by eating some Indian nibbles in Aahaar Delux restaurant. According to Hoornaert, Antwerp has a sizeable Jain community, largely drawn here by the diamond business. Aahaar Delux feeds both that community as well as passing tourists and food journos.
Although Jainism prohibits the use of any root vegetables and dairy in its cuisine, Aahaar takes a slightly more relaxed attitude in its menu, with non-Jain vegetarian food on the menu accompanying the strictly Jain dishes, which are clearly marked.
We were offered a dosa that was followed by some poori. The dosa has been one of my favourite Indian dishes ever since I discovered it while travelling through India in the 90s. So many memories came flooding back to me as I tasted the crisp pancake with its heavy potato filling. The poori lacked the sickly sweet flavour that often overwhelms and provided an excellent conclusion to our multicultural food tour of Antwerp.
Continue Mark Bibby Jackson’s trip to Flanders, by reading about when he visited Mechelen: a Medieval Flemish Gem.
Antwerp’s Nascent Dining Scene
I had arrived in Antwerp the previous evening to attend The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards. After our food tour I attended a talk – and tasting – on food trends at Stokers, a vibrant community, cultural and culinary space developed from an old military hospital in the city’s ‘t Groen Kwartier.
At a global gathering of the best chefs and restaurateurs around the world it seemed a little strange to hear talk of cultural appropriation in food, and the importance of the local in food. But, perhaps given the multicultural, melting pot nature of the city, Antwerp is the best place for such discussions. After all environmental campaigners travel from around the world to Glasgow for COP 26.
Apparently 40% of European tourists feel that local cuisine is an important factor when considering where to travel. Fortunately, for me I was to discover the finest of local cuisine in Antwerp over the next couple of days as I dined in some truly world class – although not 50 best – restaurants in the city – Nage, Veranda and Graanmarkt 13.
Antwerp has plans to become a major culinary destination, a city where you will taste more than you expect. Judging by the quality of food in these places, it has certainly taken considerable steps in the right direction. Graanmarkt 13 was particularly excellent, with the langoustine and mussels excelling, although I did find my journey through the natural wines of Nage and Veranda most interesting.
At Stoker’s I had participated in a fervent conversation on the origins of the expression French fries with members of Visit Flanders and Visit Antwerp tourism departments. We concluded that the ‘French’ part of the name for the Belgian dish most probably stemmed from American soldiers not quite knowing which country they were entrenched during the first world war. This was followed by a bullet car ride through the streets of Antwerp that Steve McQueen would have appreciated. So, the following day, in between fine dining extravagances I decided to try some Flanders Fries.
However, this being the 50 Best, we weren’t satisfied with trying any old fries, but those created by Dutch master chef Sergio Herman in his up-market yet simple chip shop, Frites Atelier. Perhaps the hype surrounding the place rather exceeded the quality of the chip, which didn’t quite justify the price tag, so on my next visit I will probably stick to Frituur No. 1, at 1 Hoogstraat.
A Chocolate Tour Through Antwerp
Apart from frites and beer, Antwerp is, just like the rest of the country, renowned for its chocolate. So, naturally on our final day we went on a chocolate tour of Antwerp led by Carolien Krijnen.
One of the most famous chocolate brands in Antwerp is DelRey, which was established in Antwerp in 1949. We were fortunate enough to be taken back stage to see how husband and wife Bernard Proot and Anne Seutin and their team make their creations, including their popular Antwerp diamonds.
The DelRey team can produce 10,000 pieces per day with all chocolates created in house. They can develop chocolates to order, even providing bespoke designs for clients. However, Seutin confessed to me that her favourite is dark chocolate with marzipan, as I discovered upon our departure when she slipped a special package into my doggy-bag. They certainly tasted like chocolates fit for a king.
Our next stop was at Neuhaus chocolate shop. Neuhaus dates back to 1857, with Jean Neuhaus Jnr being the founder of the Belgian praline in 1912. We tasted a delightful caprice, which was named after Bridget Bardot in 1958.
After visiting Pierre Marcolini’s chocolate shop, our tour concluded at Mary. In 1919 Mary Delluc opened her first shop in Brussels. It soon became an Art Deco-style tea salon popular among lovers of chocolate bonbons. The Antwerp shop is opposite Goossens bakery and next to Frites Atelier, making this a great place for a one-stop exploration of the various culinary attractions of Antwerp.
They say the smell of chocolate makes you happy, I certainly emerged content after three days of eating my way through Antwerp, a wonderful host destination for The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards.
If you are thinking about going to Flanders, then why not time your visit for the wonderful Antwerp Christmas Market?
Antwerp Food Photo Diary
Brussels to Antwerp Train
Although you cannot take the Eurostar direct to Antwerp, travelling from London to Antwerp by train is simplicity itself. First take the Eurostar from London St Pancras to Brussels Zuid (Bruxelles Midi), and from there take the first train to Antwerp Central. Make sure you book a ticket to ‘all stations Belgium’ and you will not have to buy an onwards ticket in Brussels.
For more information on Antwerp
All photos: Mark Bibby Jackson.