Bijou, a diamond in the rough? No, it's definitely well cut and polished! A hidden jewel then? No, not really hidden, just rather modest. This bar created by cocktailian veteran, Ben Belmans and the bearded ginger sultan of drinks, Dieter Van Roy is a sparkling stone amongst pebbles! Even so that - not entirely unexpected - it won a Venuez Hospitality Award for Best Belgian Cocktailbar, within one year of its own existence.
As a young dad I can assure you that a babyless evening out feels like a million holidays. So after finishing off several bottles of milk we dropped our beloved baby daughter into the care of her grandmother, promising not to be late again to pick her up, etc, etc…
We set course for Antwerp and putting the pedal to the metal we arrived there without major traffic incidents (apparently that only happens when we have to take the baby to the doctor). Upon arrival in the big city, the adrenaline started to kick in, not a word was spoken, tension filled the cockpit, four eyes locked on both sides of the road, the 1000 yard stare, like a soldier in a trench. We were trying to find a parking spot and as we all know finding a parking spot in Antwerp is “damnation without relief”. It all comes down to luck, so we came prepared: I had put three horseshoes in the glove compartment, two rabbit’s feet on the rearview mirror, we were chewing four-leaf clover whilst throwing salt over our shoulder and before departure I had kicked a goblin in the nut sack, just to be sure.
And lo! A parking spot! After checking GPS, no more than 10 yards from the Bar itself, how lucky can you get (on a Saturday night in the City)? In gratitude I slaughtered a black hen, singing blessings to the entire Babylonian pantheon.
We were on a tight schedule: less than two hours for the bar and then off to the restaurant where we had booked a table (booking tables on a Saturday in Antwerp is “damnation without much hope for relief”). My wife inquired on the proximity and exact location of the bar, I decidedly pointed my finger at two lamps, a billboard and a glass door with a logo, “there it is”. As I said it’s not hidden, but very modest. You could just walk past it and never know you’ve passed the doorstep of Bijou. It kind of fits the personality of the bar, I think. Bijou is like the mysterious femme fatale, seductive but taciturn or the tall, dark stranger burning a match to light your cigarette.
We entered and made our way to the bar through a corridor lined with seats and tables, empty now, all occupied within three hours from my visit. I always try to visit bars early in the evening, you know within one or two hours after opening. It’s a special atmosphere, like greeting somebody at the breakfast table or watching a person waking up. You can discover a lot of the bar’s personality at that moment and it’s much easier to have a chat with the bartender.
At the far end of the corridor was the bar. The rather dark room bathed in a golden light, as if a fireplace was burning. And with the cold outside that was a welcome sight. We were welcomed with smiles and polite gestures towards a table. Our coats were taken and we were offered a glass of water. Then there was the menu and with it came a large circular card.
The menu is filled with classics and a few personal inventions like the Lazy Red Cheeks – which actually has become a classic a long while ago – and the Geraldine amongst others. What struck me immediately is that there is a large list of bottle-aged cocktails. Now we all know the small hype a while ago to barrel age everything, which was nice for some cocktails, but in many cases unnecessary or even uncalled for. I remember some very nice barrel-aged Negronis. But bottle-aged is rather uncommon and in these quantities unseen before. One also wonders: how does it taste, what difference does it make?
We decided to ask the bearded drinks wizard who joined us at the table. He answered us that besides the taste, there were several other reasons to go for bottle ageing. Taste wise the cocktail becomes very smooth and has a rounder, more intense taste. Apart from that, it is bottled months ago so you can serve cocktails extremely quick. That’s why there’s two huge freezers besides the backbar. They’re filled with glasses that already have iceballs in them, so basically you just take out a glass, open a bottle of cocktail, pour in the requested quantity, give it a little stir, garnish on top et voila! And finally, in the not too distant future, they think of selling the bottled cocktails commercially.
Sounds like a plan to me. Now we were curious about the taste of course. There was Cuban music playing and since Castro had passed away recently my wife decided to go for the El Presidente. I chose the Geraldine, from the description this looked amazing: Pierre Ferrand Cognac, Sherry, Amaro Montenegro and other ingredients. Perfect for me. The drinks arrived in no time, really immediately. And frankly, they’re excellent! Super smooth, like silk almost. Great and enduring rich taste.
I had to ask Dieter: ” don’t you really become quite bored when you pour everything from one bottle?”
“No, not really. We’re not limited to our menu and can make custom cocktails for our guests too, depending on their likes and taste. So in the quieter moments you can see me shaking and stirring quite often.”
“So, it’s actually the best of both worlds. When it’s busy you can serve extremely fast and when it’s quiet you can freewheel all that you want?”
“What’s with the circular menu card?”
“It’s actually our range of exclusive spirits and wines. As you can see they are sold by the centilitre. This way you can taste a very exclusive whisky, bourbon or rum for example, without burning a hole in your wallet.”
“Or instead of a regular sized one, you can go for several smaller samples.”
There’s also a separate ‘fumoir’ where you can enjoy the finest cigars and they do serve a delicious platter of finger food!
As a final remark about Ben Belmans and Dieter Van Roy’s Bijou Bar – and it summarises everything actually: we didn’t want to leave! It’s cosy, comfortable and timeless, plus the drinks are near to perfection and so is the hospitality!
Four and a half skulls out of five, well done Bijou! Cheers!