Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Eat well and sleep well in Antwerp

Twenty-six years ago Didier Garnich and his wife opened a 6-table restaurant in a tiny 16th century building just off the Grote Markt in Antwerp, Belgium. Didier cooked, Marie-Roos handled the door, and eventually they earned an international reputation and a Michelin star. Over the years the restaurant has seen many small evolutions: expansion of the kitchen into the other half of the ground level, doubling their floor space; chef’s burnout, after too many years of cooking from an extensive menu every day; rethinking the concept and returning the star to Michelin; renaming the restaurant Gin-Fish and renovation into a theatrical counter environment; offering of a single menu every day, whatever seafood looks good at the market that morning, 36 seats, chef’s choice, with (€65) or without wine (€60); Michelin reissuing the star; and in early February 2007 the opening of a chic new inn of 11 rooms.
Didier’s culinary hand has only gotten surer throughout the incarnations. A recent afternoon drop-in found the chef at work on a turbot stock for the next night’s dinner, while a sous-chef cut up succulent lobsters for the evening appetizer. Didier showed off a platter of fresh sole, bunches of the first asparagus of the season, pungent black truffles meant to garland petite cauliflowers, and a mysterious undersea vegetable called crambé maritime bound for the sauté pan. A tray of tiny caprese, mozzarella and tomato medallians, waited patiently in the refrigerator. There was a cheesecake and fruit compote ready for dessert, and a rich chocolate ice cream thick with the powdery taste of real cocoa planned as accompaniment. It’s a pleasure to watch Didier as he assembles the dishes before your eyes, then leans across the counter to place them in front of you, a gleam in his eye. The experience combines outstanding food with the chef’s great personality: he is a true exponent of the famous Belgian hospitality.
A few doors down the lane the restaurant’s sister Matelote Hotel offers spacious rooms in minimalist style with stark grey walls, recessed lighting, comfy beds with puffy duvets, and superior contemporary bathrooms at a very reasonable price point, starting around €140 a night. Free wi-fi in all rooms, 30 television channels, and a programmable in-room sound system complete the package. Peter, Matelote’s engaging innkeeper, offered a warm welcome and drinks in the vaulted lounge where the renovation has preserved a vintage ceiling, an echo of the structure’s historic past. The hotel can help with reservations for the restaurant’s two nightly seatings. Both the restaurant and inn are fully booked weeks in advance, so reservations are an absolute necessity: word has already gotten out about the presence of such a luxurious combination, and the cognoscenti are descending. The restaurant is closed Sunday and Monday, so plan your stay accordingly.
Antwerp is a city rich with treasures- the opulent renaissance-era guild buildings of the Grote Markt, the Rubens museum, incredible fashion shops, the diamond market, a fine museum of art, and proximity to Bruges, Brussels, and Amsterdam. You may already have designs on any of these inducements, but rest assured Gin-Fish and Matelote are reasons enough to visit. You could have no finer base of operations for your Flemish getaway.

Haarstraat 9
Matelote Hotel
Haarstraat 11a
B 2000 Antwerpen
+32 (0)3 201 88 00