Our 72 Year Old Waiter

Monsieur preparing our steaks

Monsieur preparing our steaks

At Restaurant Vincent in the centre of Brussels, if you don’t know what to expect, it’s certainly nothing like what you would expect. If I had only three words in my elevator pitch, I’d probably describe it as a “historic steak house”. But I’m not sure that would capture the nostalgic tile frescoes on the wall depicting nautical crusades, the converted rowboat-tables that ensure a close-knit diner à 10, or the clanging-kitchen-meets-starched-white-linen paradox.

Not roast ducks

Not roast ducks

I wasn’t wearing my glasses when we peered through the window, so I initially thought we had landed outside a Chinese restaurant as all manners of steaks and joints were dangling on meat hooks in full sacrificial glory. By 19:45, the dining room was packed with all sorts (i.e. not just Eurocrats or tourists).

Filet with green pepper sauce

Filet with green pepper sauce

Our waiter was genteel, brisk, and refreshingly disinterested in any sort of sales pitch. He was also as old as the establishment looked. (It turns out that Vincent is actually 100 years old). I think I have finally experienced the epitome of perfect restaurant service. Monsieur was respectful, efficient, and discrete. He never once interrupted our conversation and he always caught our eye despite the bustling demands of shoulder-to-shoulder famished diners. At 72, it was his 29th year working here, which means he started at 43. Apparently he takes it easier now, but I wondered what it is like co-working with a team of waiters all at least a generation younger than him. Uniquely, the waiters are also part-chefs as steaks at Vincent are flambéed en salle – which means you get to stare at your dinner sizzling if you’re seated nearby. Kinda like a pared-down, Belgian version of teppanyaki.

Rowing to nowhere fast

Rowing to nowhere fast

It’s a tough job. At €32 a steak in the midst of fierce competition and an international clientele priding themselves on culinary sophistication, Vincent needs to make sure they stay par excellence. With only 2 seatings per evening, a rather noisy environment, and a coziness not conducive to confidential business meetings, it can surely only cater to social diners. At 72, I would feel the pressure to perform: to anticipate needs, to move fast, to react quickly, and to perhaps even speak English. All this in a time when my eyesight and hearing are failing, my joints are aching, my feet long for orthotics or just an ottoman, arthritis gets friendlier, and my aptitude for foreign languages diminishing. I would spend my spare time babysitting the grandkids, when not shuttling back and forth doctors’ appointments. I’d like to see some more of the world but I’d still be worried about the uncertain futures and careers of my children in this increasingly competitive world. I’d have more patience having learnt that rushing gets nowhere, but I’d have less for the young impertinents. I’d know the younger staff think I’m slow sometimes (though I’m really not), but many respect me because I know all the tricks. Meanwhile, I need to sort out the steaks, the fire hazards, the fries, the sauces, the wine, and the languishing pair of foreigners oblivious to the need to vacate their table because their time is up! In the meantime, as long as the glasses are full, the food is good, and the clients are happy, another evening ends in another professional triumph.

Bravo Monsieur.

Ketchup or Icing Sugar for Breakfast?

Ducks, the best friends of every toddler

Ducks, the best friends of every toddler

One of the clearest gourmet divides between the continent and the Anglo-American world, is the need for ketchup. I can’t have ketchup without fries, the same way butter with bread just makes the union all the more holy. No one is interested in ketchup around here. Its all about mayonnaise. If you pester your servers for some, you’ll get a miniscule amount and pay at least 50 cents for a serving. I guess I’m resigned to this now and have contemplated never leaving home without ketchup sachets. Only the fear of having to mop up a gooey mess in my handbag prevents me from such folly.

Shake it, baby

Shake it, baby

We were in Center Parcs Erperheide recently. (This is a forest getaway consisting of “cottages” in the midst of lush foliage, lakes and plenty of man-made structures to amuse kids of all ages.) In March, there wasn’t much verdure to speak of but the cold nullified any longing for it as it focused our attentions on the indoor entertainment.

The highlight of any place for me is often the buffet joint. It was interesting to see every table kitted out with a vat of icing sugar (poedersuiker) but not a ketchup bottle in sight. I had to cajole the staff into bringing me some, upon which one dish was whipped out with great ceremony. (The next day I remembered to ask for two dishes.) We didn’t touch the sugar as I am particularly susceptible to scaremongering articles about child obesity, diabetes, sugar addiction, hyperactivity, dodgy teeth, etc. Our neighbours however, were shaking that bottle like there was no tomorrow. Part of why kids around here are supposed to be the happiest in the world?

No winter in Europe for me

No winter in Europe for me

Anyway, this place was a cultural jolt in more than one way. Never mind the ketchup thing as I’ve totally scaled my expectations way down and am over-the-top friendly to staff throughout the continent just to finagle this. What really shocked me was the sight of smokers throughout the park. This is a place where hordes of babies and young children roam like hens in a coop, yet cigarettes are brandished freely right outside Baluba (an amusement centre) and “smoking areas”. I mean, smoking areas!

Don't you try to fleece me

Don’t you try to fleece me

Petit-Homme enjoyed himself to the max. He was howling with delight at the baby swimming class (best €5 euros I’ve ever spent in my life) and spun himself giddy on the carousel (most short-lived €20 euros I’ve seen to date!) despite tumbling once under the treacherous hooves of his spirited stallion.

Overall, an experience which taught me yet again, that what makes you happy, is what makes your kids happy. (So don’t get them hooked on ketchup if you intend to stay in Europe for the long haul. But too late for us as Petit-Homme eats ketchup even with dim sum.)

Broken Glass With Your Dessert Anyone?

Dangerous Ice Cream at Oker, Den Haag

Dangerous Ice Cream at Oker, Den Haag

Unlike some desserts that come with pre-warnings like “Death by Chocolate”, my ice-cream bowl the other night was seemingly innocuous. Oker on Denneweg in The Hague is one of those atmospheric restaurants that lull you into a false sense of security. The fact that it was packed on a Tuesday night would have been sufficient grounds to believe that no customer had recently perished on its watch.

After two platters of oysters that were reasonably pleasing despite only one lemon wedge and about a tablespoonful of vinaigrette to go round, I had no reason to believe the subsequent dishes would prove exciting.

Well, I was wrong. My ice-cream tasted normal until about halfway through when my spoon started scraping against unexpectedly sharp walls, corroded into several petals of sunken edges. I touched the sides of my double-bottomed bowl that now had jagged carvings hanging on for dear life to dripping, molten vanilla. Without a doubt, the bowl was “broken” (but at least artistically so).

Turns out, as our waitress attested, they had placed the ice cream in a bowl that had come straight from a toasty dishwasher. Heat + cold = customer with possible stomach lacerations. Anyway, it’s happened here before, I’m told. Oh, in that case, no biggie.

I declined another brush with my maker, sweet as though the trip may have been and we got the bill. No charge for the ice-cream.

Is it too “American” of me to have thought the apology should have extended to bit more than a mere refund for something I couldn’t eat anyway, and that could have caused me grevious bodily harm?