My Instagram feed probably gave it away but I was in Belgium last week for work. Sadly, the excitement of the novelty of Belgian food has now worn off for me – it was probably the endless chips, dairy and mayo that did it. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with chips, dairy and mayo but when encountering some combo of the three at almost every meal….well, yeah, I needed a break.

On our last night in Leuven, we were, to our relief, brought to an Italian restaurant. I think I’d been expecting an average Italian restaurant, perhaps catering for the cheap-and-cheerful student population, but what I was not expecting was a brilliant Slow Food restaurant. And that’s exactly what Ristorante Rossi is.

We had all been booked in for their €35 3-course menu; there’s also a 5-course menu, an a la carte option, and occasional themed menus that reflect one particular region in Italy. The restaurant itself is quite small and quaintly decorated with vintage Italian signs and red and white checked tablecloths. On that Thursday night, the place was packed (Leuven, being a university town, has a busier Thursday night than Friday night. On Fridays, the majority of the students go home.) and buzzing, and the food on the surrounding tables looked excellent.

Anyway, first was an amuse of vitello tonnato on crostini. I love that classic combination of creamy tuna sauce with mild and tender veal.

Vittello Tonnato Crostini

Next was a giant pea and cheese arancino sat on a bed of pea puree, drizzled with pesto. This generously-sized ball of fried risotto (about the size of my fist) went down easily and I may have also helped myself to my friend’s unfinished portion. I clearly had no idea of the size of the next few dishes to come.

Pea Arancino with Pea Puree and Pesto

The pasta course was spinach and ricotta ravioli in a fresh tomato sauce with mint. This was fabulous (such an unexpected combination) and I could have gorged on this for my entire meal. But good thing I didn’t. I was again offered my friend’s extra ravioli but I just couldn’t manage anymore, especially when I saw the fish that was to come!

Spinach and Ricotta Ravioli with Tomato Sauce and Mint

Our main course was that fish I saw – I’m not entirely sure of the species but it was a white fish that flaked easily and had been cooked with a delicious crispy skin. This was served with a celeriac puree, a creamy gravy, green beans and to my utter surprise, seared foie gras! And that little blob of dark green in front? A pesto of parsley and pistachio, from what I could gather – gorgeous stuff.

Fish with Foie Gras and Celeriac Puree

Dessert wasn’t included in the menu and I opted to share a massive serving of tiramisu (€6,50). This was gorgeous, with lots of coffee and quite light, just as I like it. Look at those distinct layers!

Tiramisu

I forgot to get a photo of the little squares of chocolate cake that came with coffees and the bill – the two layers had been sandwiched together with cream and Nutella! Dreamy!

It’s not the cheapest restaurant in Leuven (not sure if the students from the main university go there!) – our meal (with drinks and desserts) worked out to €50 per head. I definitely recommend it and definitely also recommend making a booking before you go.

Ristorante Rossi
Standonckstraat,2
3000 Leuven
Belgium

It sounds like it’s not just London that’s had a number of excellent ramen places open up recently. I’ve already tried one ramen place in Vancouver but when I heard of a ramen place direct from Japan, I jumped at the chance to try it. Hokkaido Ramen Santouka is at the western end of Robson, surrounded by both old and new Asian places. You’ll know the end of Robson I mean if you’re familiar with the city!

My brother visited the place when he was back earlier this year and recommended the place and made suggestions on what to have. On his recommendation (and he got this recommendation from his friend), I ordered the cream soda float.

Wow, it was green. Like super green. It was good if a bit too sweet. It was perhaps more suitable as a dessert than a drink! I’m also convinced that my kidneys are now green.

Cream Soda Float

I went for the Toroniku Shio Ramen and this was how it was served, with its toppings separate from the noodles and broth.

Toroniku Shio Ramen

The bowl was full of their shio ramen, their signature ramen using just their tonkotsu broth seasoned with salt. The broth is beautifully creamy (though perhaps not as creamy as Ippudo) and delicious.

Shio Ramen

The toppings on the side were not the usual they serve on the ramen – the toroniku cha shu was made using pork cheek. This was excellent – I loved the texture and flavour of the pork cheek – and that pickled plum in the corner? It was crisp and provided a refreshing zing between bites of ramen and cha shu.

Toroniku Cha-Shu

My father ordered his usual – the kara-miso ramen, whose soup base is a miso tonkotsu with some spice within. His ramen was topped with the usual toppings, including the usual pork belly based cha shu. It’s good!

Kara-Miso Ramen

And we had to have the classic ramen accompaniment – gyoza. These were excellent specimens, full of porky filling.

Gyoza

With an order of tea, the total came to $40 CAD, not including tip. The main downside is the queue to get in; I think we queued for about 30 minutes in the cold and wet to get a couple of seats at the counter. Luckily I was on holiday so had plenty of time on my hands – I’m not so sure I’d be as keen after a day at work. But maybe I would for great ramen!

Hokkaido Ramen Santouka
1690 Robson St
Vancouver, BC V6G 1C7
Canada

Hokkaido Ramen Santouka on Urbanspoon

We were in Nagoya for a work conference and for each day of the main conference, we would each pick up a bento box and juice/tea box for lunch. Now these were clearly mass produced bento boxes (they would have required about 1000 bento boxes per day) but the quality and variety of the food in each box was astounding.

On the first day, we received this beauty. It was a bit rice heavy but the fried fish, prawn (I got a second because my colleague couldn’t eat hers) and little hamburger were lovely. Everything was delicious.

Day 1 Bento

Our second bento was in the most beautiful box that I even managed to keep and bring back to London (after emptying out the food covered dividers!). Again there were three lots of rice but this was improved by having one of the rices cooked together with carrots and mushrooms. The sweet included in the top right corner was a curiosity – two large beans cooked in syrup! In the top left, there was an excellent braised tofu bundle filled with vegetables. Of all the bentos we had at that conference, I liked this one the best.

Day 2 Bento

The bentos handed out on the third and last day had one of its rices in the form of a Nagoya speciality – tenmusu, an onigiri with a prawn tempura in it.  This last box was a bit fried-heavy (the tenmusu, the prawn, pork in the middle and karaage in the top left corner) but just look at the designs printed on the food dividers!

Day 3 Bento

We even got a taste of ekiben, the railway bentos that can only be purchased at train stations or at special ekiben fairs. After our time in Nagoya, we took the shinkansen to Tokyo and while I bought this katsu-sando (most convenient for a train journey where you’ve not got a tray because your suitcase is in the way)….

Tonkatsu Sandwiches

….my colleague purchased this chicken yakitori ekiben that’s one of the specialities of Nagoya. He said it was brilliant.

Alessandro's Ekiben

I only wish there had been more time and more stomach space for me to try more bentos on this trip!

I didn’t expect to be in Barcelona on our last trip, thinking we’d be in the village up until it was time to fly out. It was Blai’s mother who suggested a night in the city and who am I to turn down a visit to Barcelona?!

It was a friend in Barcelona who originally introduced me to Forn Mistral, a bakery with two locations near Universitat metro station in central Barcelona. There’s one bakery on Ronda de Sant Antoni and another nearby with a large cafe attached where I’d previously tried a delicious toasted flauta with sobrassada and cheese…

Flauta with Sobressada and Cheese

…and a slice of an excellent Galician tuna empanada, both coupled with a big milky coffee.

Galician Tuna Empanada Slice

Their main specialities though are their croissants and their Mallorcan ensaïmades and it was this past trip when I finally got it together and bought one of their ensaïmades. These large round flaky lardy pastries come in a number of different sizes, from bite-sized canape to giant wagon wheel. They’re also available plain, filled with the traditional cabell d’àngel (a candied pumpkin filling), marzipan, chocolate or sobrassada (the last three are new fillings to me!).

Not one to do things by halves, I ended up buying a medium-sized specimen (it was quite large!) filled with cabell d’àngel and between Blai and myself, we carried it all the way home to London!

From Forn Mistral

Opened

Ensaimada

Yes, it was as good as it looks! Thin layers of flaky lardy pastry, the sweet stringy jam in the middle…..we demolished this in two days (only because we controlled ourselves – it could have gone in one!). Next time, I reckon we could get 2, one on top of the other, into the same box!

Do stop by if you’re in the city though – those toasted sandwiches really are gorgeous.

Forn Mistral
Ronda de Sant Antoni, 96
El Raval, Barcelona, 08001

and

Carrer de Torres i Amat 7 (for the cafe)

Carcassonne is only about 45 minutes away by train from Toulouse, thus making it a perfect day out. It’s famous for its impressive walled city and castle, restored in the 19th century by Viollet-le-Duc. It’s also famous for being a board game, which is probably how most people are familiar with the name! The town itself is made up of two parts – the walled city/castle on one side of the river Aude and the lower city (la ville basse) on the other side – and altogether it’s small enough to explore in one day.

From the train station, It’s a bit of a walk to the walled town but not a difficult one. As we were there on a Tuesday, we encountered their weekly market in Place Carnot and it was fun walking around the small square and seeing what was in season. It took great effort not to walk away with a melon or a head of pink garlic. But we weren’t there for the market – onwards we went.

Melons were in season

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It was only from the old bridge crossing L’Aude that we got our first view of the walled city and it was impressive.

A First Sighting of the Old Town

Crowded!

It’s absolutely lovely walking through the walled town, even though it’s quite crowded (just like the Middle Ages perhaps?). Our tummies, though, demanded lunch not long after we entered it. We avoided the super touristy al fresco eateries near the main entrance of the old town and headed further in to find Comte Roger, a restaurant with a fine lunch prix fixe (€21 for two courses) and a shaded terrace.

My Salade de melon et jambon du Pays, vinaigrette balsamique was just the ticket for that warm day.

Salade de melon et jambon du Pays, vinaigrette balsamique

Blai’s Terrine maison de merlan frais, haricots verts, pois chiches et coulis de poivrons rouges was not to be sniffed at either – the terrine of whiting was very light and pleasant.

Terrine maison de merlan frais,  haricots verts, pois chiches et coulis de poivrons rouges

We both opted for something light – Blanc de seiche cuit plancha, brandade de morue et tapenade d’olives noires. This was a tumble of thinly sliced grilled cuttlefish on a little hill of brandade de morue, that delicious paste of salt cod and olive oil.

Blanc de seiche cuit plancha, brandade de morue et tapenade d’olives noires

The other option for the main course was cassoulet and it looked remarkably good. Dessert options weren’t terribly exciting, however, so we decided to skip dessert and head straight for the castle after lunch.

Comte Roger
14, rue Saint-Louis
11000 Carcassonne
France

The rest of the day was spent wandering around the main castle. It was certainly worth the entrance fee and walking along the walls of the town (included in the ticket) was an experience I won’t soon forget. (Then again, I do love a good castle.)

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Yes, Carcassonne is also worth the visit even though it’s significantly more touristy than Toulouse. Time for me to dig up my board game!

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