We were invited into an old courtyard right in the centre of medieval Antwerp where Campari will open a new bar on May 5th called: Gaspare La Piazza Dell’Aperitivo. The moment we set foot in it, we fell in love with it. Tucked away from the commercial chaos of the city and her typical traffic infarct this courtyard offers the ultimate sensory experience of a relaxing aperitivo time.
And they take this quite literally, sensory experience, we mean. Professor Doctor Malaika Brengman from Brussels University VUB, was asked to turn the courtyard into a real Italian piazza of pleasure. So every flower, plant, colour, texture, sounds or scent you might experience is especially there to relax and re-energize you, all in Italian style.
Famous bartenders and Campari Ambassadors Jan Van Ongevalle and his daughter Hannah Van Ongevalle from The Pharmacy, Knokke, designed two Campari cocktails especially for Gaspare Bar and apart from that you can of course enjoy what is now definitely this summer’s drink: the Negroni and a refreshing Campari Tonic.
Also aperitivo is nothing without food, so antipasti will be plentiful! There will even be a shop where you can buy everything you need to aperitivo at your own place.
One more thing, when you’re in that courtyard sipping your Negroni, imagine that maybe – just maybe – 400 years ago the famous owner of this place might have sat at a table on that very same spot, discussing art and paintings with some Italian visitors…
Open from May 5th until June 30th, every Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Last year in Ghent, Martini's Caffè Torino was a happy discovery for many visitors. The Italian style aperitivo bar focussed uniquely on Martini's recent re-interpretation of vermouth accompanied by succulent side dishes. In short, a place where you inevitably lost track of all time, aperitivo all night long! This year, 30th of March until the 24th of April, Torino lands in Antwerp transformed into a total Negroni bar with a dozen different style Negronis. Torino's opening night features none other than Naren Young from Dante NYC (voted one of the 50st best bars in the world) behind the bar.
Ever tried Martini’s Rubino and Ambrato vermouth? You should, they’re great. Ever tried a Negroni made with one of them? You should, they’re great! If Negroni is your thing you should definitely visit Caffè Torino – the first Belgian Negroni Bar – this April in Antwerp, here’s why:
Negroni around the world
‘Play with time’ is one of Torino’s mottos and they take this quite literally. They asked 6 famous bartenders to produce their signature Negroni for the menu of Torino. 6 Famous bartenders from 6 different countries…6 different time zones even. Get the gist?
Including Naren Young from New York, you will be able to choose a Negroni from Chili, Bologna, Indonesia, Dubai or Singapore. I can’t wait to try a Negroni Singapori! It sounds delicious. The Negroni, of course, is a very versatile cocktail. So much, actually that we’ve asked ourselves before what really does make a Negroni, a Negroni? At the very least we’re expecting a lot of diversity. Now, apart from these great international Negroni twisters, there’s also part of our Belgian pride, happy to conjure the Count’s favourite libation.
Belgian Negroni of The Future
Since Torino lands in Antwerp, they have asked 4 Belgian bartenders to come up with their interpretation of “the future Negroni”. So each week the menu will feature one Belgian special made by: Charly Lebrun (Bistro Des Anges), Didier Van den Broeck (Dogma), Jurgen Lijcops (Bar Burbure) or Manuel Wouters (SIPS). I’m always very curious about “future” interpretations considering how much so many classics have changed over time. Indeed, as far as my opinion is concerned the current recipe we use today for a Negroni is definitely not the recipe from the 1920’s. So trying to project today’s recipe into the future is definitely not easy. Then again it’s always fun to see the bartender’s creativity gone wild.
There’s food and it’s Italian!
Now this should be self explanatory. It’s food and it’s Italian. If you don’t like Italian food there must be something wrong with you, really, you fell down the stairs and can’t chew properly anymore or something. You took on a hobby of fire eating and torched your tongue or it was removed by terrorists during your annual holiday in Aleppo. Italian food is great and if it only resembles a tiny bit of last year’s food, it will be delicious! Pulpo for the win!! Food is provided for by Francesco & Julia, two well known ‘Italo-Antwerpians‘!
That’s basically the only thing you should remember. It’s the opening hour of the bar, 16:00hrs. The adres is 2 Sint-Antoniusstraat, Antwerp. We’ll be there at the opening night, if you want to meet me, I’ll be the guy with 7 different Negronis and a plate full of pulpo in front of him, tasting and tasting and tasting and tasting… 😉 Yummy!
On a sidenote and for those interested, we notice a possible upcoming Negroni War here. In the red corner you have Gruppo Campari, being the first brand claiming the Negroni as their own and in the blue corner you now have Bacardi-Martini deducing (somehow correctly) that if an amaro can claim a cocktail, so can the vermouth in it! Please people, let personal taste prevail, so do we and nobody stops you from being a diplomat and make your Negroni with Rubino and Campari!
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!
Black smoke, pieces of trees and lots of dead animals smouldering!
It sounds like the beginning of a war movie, but it's actually a brand new BBQ restaurant in Belgium. Situated in the old 'De Koninck' brewery, founders Kasper Stuart and Jord Althuizen couldn't have picked a better spot.
Black Smoke is the name and it's all about beef, beer and brimstone!
Read our review below.
Don’t call it a ‘family grill’ or they’ll smoke you! Hell, they smoke anything there! Whether it’s got hooves, wings or tentacles it ends up in the smoker, left there to smoulder for hours and hours until it melts on your tongue and whilst you are enjoying this most ultimate carnivorous ecstasy, they’ll put craft beer after craft beer under your nose. I’m in heaven, sheer beef bliss!
The Pyromantic Duo
As we said, they didn’t want a family grill, they wanted the true American BBQ experience with a Belgian twist. So they grabbed the proverbial beef by the horns and embarked upon a road trip to the States of no less than 4500 miles, visiting more than 42 of America’s best BBQ joints. Who are ‘they’, you say? Kasper Stuart is a well known rock ‘n’ roll horeca (short for hotel-restaurant and café) guru based in Antwerp who created an insane number of successful bars and restaurants in the city. Amongst them, The Dirty Rabbit, where Dries Botty is behind the stick. Next to Kasper stands the Sultan of Low and Slow, the Csar of Charcoal, the Emperor of Grill, the Grand Vizier of Smoke, the World Champion of BBQ’ing: Jord Althuizen. We thank this man’s pyromantic passion to his girlfriend, who happens to be American and took him to a small mountain village where he experienced his first American BBQ.
A grill too far
After 42 BBQ joints, you’ve probably seen one grill too many, I asked Kasper.
’42? After 10 I was craving for a salad!’ ‘I don’t know where he puts it, but Jord can eat like ten times his own body weight or something while I was running marathons trying to burn some calories!’
What impressed you back there?
‘Lots of things. The food and everything, but maybe more the people there and how passionate they are about bbq’ing!’ ‘You know there are places where people stand cueing the line from 06:00 AM to make sure they have a seat at 11:00!’
‘It was an epic ride. People were very friendly and openhearted, everywhere we went we could take a look at the kitchen, the grills and the smokers. Never a problem. And they’re very enthusiastic, we literally got stuffed with smoked meat.’
So after the trip Kasper and Jord took everything they learned back to Belgium and started to put together his dream team . The team is experienced and know one another very well. In the kitchen – aka the pit – stand the pitmasters: Vadim Vesters and Matthias Jacobs. They have two different styles of cooking: low & slow in the smokers and hot & fast on a custom Argentinian Parrilla grill. And the pit spews forth the loveliest dishes!
We started the day with grilled octopus served with fire roasted bell pepper hummus, Argentinian chimichurri en roasted quinoa. So you see it’s not always meat too and it tasted delicious.
Followed immediately by a bruschetta with Saint-Maurin goat cheese smoked on cherrywood with a micro salad and orange-apple-parsley dressing. A vegetarian dish and very tasty indeed. So it’s definitely not meat only, it’s meat focussed and even the vegetarian dishes are thought through. You know, it’s not just a portobello…
Next was the BBQ Bonanza. A large platter filled with, well…everything! Half a smoked chicken, full slab Memphis dry rub style ribs, a whole beer sausage, a royal serving of pulled pork and brisket. I had never heard of brisket before, in our language it’s called ‘puntborst’, and was very curious to taste it. Apparently it’s a kind of chest muscle of the cow and when standing almost the entire weight of the cow is weighing on this muscle. So it’s a very tough muscle, but with a particular taste. To dominate the brisket into tenderness the pit masters put in the smoker for no less than 18hrs! As I said before: sheer beef bliss!
The dessert was called The Heart Stopper. It’s an eclair filled with bourbon-creme suisse, glazed with dulce de leche and bacon-pecan nuts crumble.
We recommend Black Smoke as a must visit for anybody and rate it a whopping 4 skulls! Info on: www.blacksmoke.be
And with this final comment we leave you to your grill:
It’s almost a year now that you can visit a new exquisite cocktail bar near Antwerp’s Cathedral. Head bartender and owner is Didier Van den Broeck who became third at Diageo World Class Belgium 2014. This guy is a hurricane, he manages two or three different conversations and making five individual cocktails all at the same time and you know what? They’re fabulous.
Seriously, the first thing, stepping into this bar, turned a smile on my face. I love the wooden bar ,the wooden backbar, the floor, the seats, the layout, the lighting, the music… everything. We were welcomed and sat down at the bar. A glass of water and a handwritten menu was offered at once. I was really tired that day and actually I already knew what I was going to drink before I entered Dogma. Old Fashioned, please! …Damn good! Geertrui had an amazing Manhattan, one in my top three ever tasted as a matter of fact. Deliciously complex, yet not unbalanced.
We were on a tight schedule, but decided ‘to hell with it’ and stayed for another hour. It’s that kinda place you know, you just can’t leave immediately. Everything in this bar breathes love for the craft, especially the bartender of course. Didier was almost a professional cyclist (Dogma is named after a certain kind of sport cycle), but injury forced him to take another track. He ended up in the diamond trade business, yet his heart longed for the art of bar tending and cocktail making. So he took the big jump and started his own bar. Alone, at the start of it, and we take our hats off for that. Serving craft cocktails for 60 people all by yourself is a serious physical and mental challenge. But Didier “Mad Dog” Van den Broeck pulled it off.
The more we talked, the more enthusiastic he became and it’s really a sight to see this man working his drinks. Stuff almost starts to levitate around him. There’s a really contagious positive vibe in this bar and The Cocktail Nation marks it off as one of his personal favourites. A must visit for any cocktail aficionado.