Two Musical Weekends

Busy days busy days! Work is mental, the summer is starting so suddenly there are a-thousand-and-one things to do after work, and I’m still trying to go to the gym as often as possible. And I must say, it’s been a good last few weeks.

I’ve been wanting to try some new things, mostly, I’ve been wanting to get back in to culture stuff. Music, theatre, opera, and all that jazz. But Leuven isn’t really the perfect spot to do so.

For Jazz, there is a free concert every Sunday evening in the Stuk Cafe. At 9pm. I’m sorry, but Sunday evening at 9, I’m sat on  the couch in my jammies. There are two cafes that do the occasional concert. The Bebop (which is a really fun place to have a drink and play boardgames with friends too, since it’s generally nice and quiet) and the Blauwe Kater. In both, I’ve never been to a gig. Generally because it just didn’t fit into the calendar, or within our budget. The Stuk cultural centre also organises a fair bit of live music, but I never know any of the bands on and it’s kinda hard to decide to go see something if you have no idea if you’re gonna like it.

For theatre, I gave up on Leuven a long time ago. I spent two years studying theatre in Antwerp when I was still in  secondary school, and the theatre companies there, like Olympique Dramatique, are absolutely amazing. In Brussels, the KVS gives you theatre of the highest quality. The plays give you food to think, and whether they are repertoire or newly written, they are staged marvelously. In Leuven, we don’t get the big companies. Same for opera, because we simply don’t have an opera house. And also, that stuff is pricey!

So when there’s an amateur music company in town that offers cheap tickets for their yearly concert, I happily oblige. First, we went to the university alumni orchestra‘s yearly event. They played three pieces: the opening of Verdi’s Nabucco, then The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto by He Zhanhao and Chen Gang, to finish with the 8th symphony of Dvořák. All very different kind of music, especially the Chinese middle part, but absolutely glorious to listen to. Here and there you could hear it was an amateur orchestra, mostly since some of the copper instruments (I apologise for my lack of decent music terminology, I have always enjoyed music stuff in Belgium so I don’t know the words for all the instruments and such) weren’t on top of it. But I tried not to focus on that and just enjoyed the music. It worked. I didn’t realise how much I miss a good classical concert until I experienced this one. Ah, what a lovely way to spend a Saturday evening.

Last weekend then, we went to a choir thingy. Again, an amateur company. If I would’ve googled the thing properly, I don’t think we would’ve gone. It turned out to be a church choir. But the tickets were cheap and the first half of the concert was great, so a fun evening nevertheless. The choir teamed up with a jazz big band to play Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concert, a collection of jazzy church songs. Unfortunately, the acoustics of the place were a mess, and since we were sat at the side, it just didn’t sound as you would want it. Also, I didn’t particularly like the sound of the choir, and the boyfriend (being an established atheist) wasn’t too fond of all the Praise Gods. But the first half of the concert was just the big band, and that was good fun. Very cheerful. I do wish I could’ve had a little dance 😉

I hope that’s not it for our cultural events of the year. It was truly wonderful to try some new things. So far, we have two more events lined up for summer. At the end of the month we are going to watch Nina Conti perform in Brussels. She is a British comedian / ventriloquist. When the boyfriend told me about her, I have to say I wasn’t particularly fond of the idea, it sounded a bit childish / boring. But after watching a few youtube clips, I couldn’t wait to book our tickets. We’ll be sitting on the third row, I do hope she doesn’t pick us out of the audience! And not to forget, probably my favourite event of the year (nerd alert): we’re going to the Harry Potter exhibition in Brussels this summer 😀

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Our First Summer Night Out!

What to do on a Friday night when summer has finally started… Well, head out of course! We slid into some nice clothes (my first dress-with-bare-legs of the year) and decided to walk into town to try a few new places. I was in a wine mood, so we had a quick google before we went out. In Leuven, it’s always dead easy to go either for a bite, or for a beer. But just a glass of wine (and not just the house wine) can be a challenge. With our newly googled options, we were ready for the night.

Our first stop was my favourite of the night. We went to Savoye, at the side of the museum. It’s a small street connecting two bigger streets in the walking zone of Leuven, I don’t come there very often. But it was so worth it. It was very peaceful considering that the whole region was probably out for drinks in Leuven with this gorgeous weather (the Belgian’s favourite hobby on summer evenings is “een terrasje doen” or “doing a little terrace / beer garden”). And they had an amazing wine list, all wines you could order by the glass. The prices were reasonable, although I do feel that when you order wine by the glass, usually you get your glass filled quite well. Now, our glass was merely filled according to etiquette as when you have a bottle, to its widest part. But still, a lovely place to sit down for a drink. (They do food as well, I saw some of it pass by, and I definitely want to go back to try.)

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(Photo from wine-searcher.com)

I went for a Sauvignon Blanc from Chile, I usually do, so of course it didn’t dissappoint. The boyfriend felt adventurous and tried an Italian moscato. He allowed me a little sip, and I have to say, not bad! As moscatos go, it was very sweet, but I think it would make a lovely desert wine. Halfway our wine, we got some company from friends who happened to be in town. He went for a Belgian (!) pinot gris, very high in minerals, but quite nice for a hot night. She went for a South-African Chenin Blanc. Not really my favourite grape, I now know.

You see, I’m not a wine specialist. But my parents have raised me with a lot of love for food and drink, and I have always asked them a lot of questions about wine, so I know what to buy for which kind of food and more importantly, which ones I like. And by now, I have to admit, I would not mind becoming a wine snob 😉

Our second stop was a bit of a failure. I went to the Schrijnmakerstraat because google told me there was a nice wine bar to be found there, but instead we found the Paris inspired bistro / bar Les Paresiennes. As cool as the interior may be inside, outside it’s quite average. But worse: the drinks were way overpriced. We went for cocktails, nine euros each. Last time I went for cocktails in Leuven (I do have to admit, it’s been a while) they used to go for six euros each. So seeing the price, I was expecting something impressive. Instead, I got a sad little cosmopolitan with the smallest piece of lime. The boyfriend went for a Pimms and Ginger Ale, supposedly served with fruit but really just a wine glass with a piece of cucumber, lemon, and some old mint. Our company’s cocktails as well were unimpressive and not very high in alcohol. Mine tasted like cranberry and lime juice really.

Off to the next stop! I mentioned I had never been in De Blauwe Kater before (one of the only Jazz cafes in town, but they don’t always have live music) so our company decided to take me there. We swapped from the fancy drinks to our usual beer, and us girls ended with a Newton Apple Beer. It’s a light white beer that tastes so deliciously like apple! A very refreshing drink. The guys went for a Tripel Karmeliet and a Kwak, what a way to end the evening! As for the venue, I can imagine it is really cool when there is music on, but apart from that it’s not too special. The beer garden is located in between a lot of other buildings, so it had the advantage that it was a lot quieter than the rest of town, and it was quite cosy with a few colourful lights here and there, but not the nicest summer place to hang out. Nevertheless, a good way to end the evening!

A Girly Afternoon – High Tea at Nosh in Leuven

Last weekend it was time to try one of those places in town you keep walking by thinking it’s a good idea, but you never manage to make the plans to do so. I went to the café called Nosh to try their High Tea!

I really liked the idea. Nosh is generally one of the only places you can find open in Leuven between lunch and dinner time for something other than pancakes (which I do love, but I was wanting something more special). We had to make a reservation before, which made total sense if you saw all the stuff they gave us.

We were sat at a table a lot bigger than necessary for our company, but it turned out to be a good plan when all the food started showing up. First we were brought, one by one, a glass of cava to start with, then a pepper and cream soup, a piece of quiche and some finger sandwiches. And then it was time for the sweets tray! A feast on the eye just as much as on the tummy! Not to forget the all-you-can-drink offer on the tea.

The tea menu really took my fancy, and apparently they are extending it soon to 20 different kinds of teas, so I’ll definitely be back. I first had a green tea mix with some extra herbs, then I had a herbal tea with mint and elderberries. My friend, more into the sweet kind of teas, started with a strawberry and lime infusion, which was surprisingly fresh while at the same time still sweet, and finished with a rooibos and caramel tea. I do like rooibos, but the caramel was definitely to sweet for me. I can imagine that for proper tea specialists (if such a thing exists) it might be a bit weird that we were switching teas between our snacking, but it was just so much fun to try out all the different flavours.

The whole experience was perfect for a girlfriend afternoon, it wasn’t too loud so we could have a proper chat, we were surrounded by nice little bits and bobs totally finishing off the cosy decor, and between every story we told we could fill our bellies with cute little yummy thingies. The sweet tray held little marzipan cakes, gingerbread, scones, tiny biscuit cakes, vanilla rice, a sort of raspberry bavarois cake, and lots more.

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The only downside of the place is the price. I would never go in there for a normal coffee or tea stop. The teas go for 3 euros, bagels are easily 7 euros, and the English breakfast goes for 16 euros! I guess the location plays a part in the pricing, as it’s located right in the centre, very close to the two main squares in town. But for me as a local, I can think of other places in town where all of this is a lot cheaper. However, for the High Tea it is different. It is 25 euro a person, and even though it is a bit much for an afternoon snack, you do get a lot of value for your money. Consider the tea being all-you-can-drink, the glass of bubbly, and all the little treats. And also, the fact that this really is a unique experience in Leuven.

So if you’re in want for a fun girlie afternoon in Leuven, and you don’t mind eating a crazy amount of food in front of these girlfriends, this is definitely your thing! The table next to us was a nice crowd of ladies in their early 30s, but they seemed to be very concerned with being judged by each other and didn’t eat even half of the food! What a waste! We all know it, girls, we really can eat that much. And we would. If no one was watching. So make sure that when you do come here, you enjoy it to the fullest! And if you don’t, I’ll come have your leftovers, thankyouverymuch.

 

The Perfect Lunch Celebration – Kyoto Sushi in Leuven

The boyfriend found a job! Woopteedoooooow! As soon as he got the call, we wanted to go celebrate. Turns out though, that spontaneous celebrations are hard to plan for. So we decided on lunch in town on the last day of my easter holiday. We went to Kyoto Sushi in Leuven.

I’d been to Kyoto Sushi many times before, for the sushi. Both for take away as to eat in. And every time I am more than delighted with the food. The sushi is absolutely delicious and they have all sorts of fun stuff to eat! From salmon to tuna and crab, avocado and creme cheese, crispy stuff and things that melt in your mouth in all sorts of genius combinations. All being prepared right there and then for you to watch behind the bar. I am definitely a big fan.

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Now, the restaurant isn’t located in the centre, and it doesn’t look very inviting, probably because the flooring gives it a slight cafeteria look. I think they mostly do well on their take-aways. But the few times I went their to eat, I was always happy with the super friendly service (maybe a bit slow, but I really don’t mind if you get a thousand smiles in return) and the beautiful ways they served their food, like on your typical sushi boat and all sorts of cute little plates and bowls.

The boyfriend isn’t much of a sushi eater, but last time I was here I saw one of the waiters carrying in a massive plate of noodles. Now, the boyfriend sure loves a good stir-fry or curry, so I’ve been wanting to take him here for a while now. And let me just say, it was everything we wanted it to be!

For starters, we ordered Gyoza-chicken and Gyoza-shrimp, which turned out to be some of the most delicious dumplings I’d ever had, served with a yummy sauce (something sweet-chilli like) and some salad. For mains, I went for the salmon teppanyaki with noodles, the boyfriend went for his favourite: sweet-and-sour chicken stir-fry with rice. You should’ve seen his face when he detected this on the menu. Like a little kid on Christmas morning!

My teppanyaki was served on two plates: one plate came with a delicious mountain of noodles, full of veggies and some egg, and the other plate came with the grilled salmon, baked so crispy, swimming in a pond of delicious teriyaki sauce. Also served with salad. For me, the salad wasn’t really necessary. It seemed to be a rather Belgian side to this delicious Japanese dish. Also, the food wasn’t served the traditional teppanyaki style, that is, on a burning hot sizzling dish where the food cooks while it is being brought to your table. But who am I to complain if it was all so tasty!

The boyfriend was quite happy with his sweet-and-sour too, although it was a bit thin on the sauce. In his words: more sweet than sour. But nevertheless it made for a tasty meal! And a big one at that. No more space for dessert, but we wobbled home perfectly satisfied.

A Weekend Away to Home

Our weekends are out of this world lately. I’m starting to find that perfect balance where the weekends are so more than lovely that I can handle the weeks a lot better. This weekend, we had a weekend away in my childhood home.

My parents are currently on holiday (the bastards went to South-Africa and didn’t take me along!) so my brother and I each got a weekend to go water the flowers. And then I thought, rather than cycling 9kms there to water some plants and then cycle back, why not make a weekend out of it?

My childhood home is located 9kms away from the city, in between 2 villages. To most people, I can imagine that sounds as if I actually grew up in the city. But with Belgium being so tiny, I can assure you I didn’t. Our street connects two big forests, Heverleebos and Meerdaelwoud, where I created some of my my fondest childhood memories.

The latter forest is one of the oldest ones in Flanders (the northern part of Belgium), also having our oldest deer colony. Heverleebos shares a lot of its history with Meerdaelwoud, however, it used to belong to the local Dukes or Counts, being their hunting grounds. Up to this day, the lay-out of the forest brings these days back to mind, with its wide lanes for the carriages lined by massive old trees that were once planted by these Lords.

Unfortunately, some of these Lords picked the wrong side of history. During the first World War, the forest belonged to the house of Arenberg, who were loyal to the Germans at the time. After the war, the government seized their property. Which is why the forest is still around now. Their castle now belongs to the university, the hunting grounds are a public forest.

So going back to my childhood home for the weekend, definitely counts as a getaway. We arrived Saturday morning, and installed ourselves in the chairs by the window looking out into the garden. Temperature-wise, spring hasn’t arrived just yet, but the flowers seem to disagree. We made ourselves a nice coffee with my parents’ super fancy coffee machine, and just let the stress drift away. No computers to tempt us, hardly any service on my mobile. Just what I needed.

In the afternoon, we went for a little walk. It took us less long than I’d anticipated. I remembered that walk as taking forever, but that’s probably because back in the day, my little legs really did take forever to get round. Back home, we enjoyed a nice sauna session and then it was back to the book. (I’m currently reading Tracks by Robyn Davidson, I’ll tell you all about it when I’ve finished it.)

To finish off our day, we cycled to the local pizza place: Il Daino. By far the best pizza in Belgium. I went for my usual: the Li Vorno: a pizza with a super thinly sliced kind of bacon, fresh tomatoes and gorgonzola. Omnomnom.

The next morning, I borrowed the parents’ car to drive down to the bakery in the next village. We made ourselves a lovely Belgian breakfast: bread rolls, cheese, bacon and eggs, and chocolate buns for my sweet tooth. To then go hiking again. Unfortunately, there are a lot of roadworks going on in the street, and cars are being redirected through the forest. A lot of the roads are now paved with gravel to make the driving easier, and the magnificent forest views are broken up completely by these grey-blue gravel veins running through the trees. So we did away with our mapped-out hike and just tried to stick to the nice unpaved paths. Not what we expected, but it definitely hit the spot.

And what better way to finish the weekend than with a massive batch of homemade pancakes?!

Next weekend, we are traveling to England to visit the boyfriend’s family and friends. So that’ll be a good one too. And the weekend after that, we celebrate our two-year anniversary! Oh my, I can’t wait for it to be weekend again!

The Burger Review: Ellis vs. Huis der Burgers

The last two years, burger restaurants have been popping up all over the place in Leuven (Belgium). I’ve never really been a burger fanatic, can’t remember the last time I had a MacDonalds without being slightly drunk on my way back from a party way after midnight. But these places don’t just sell your average burger. They call ‘m Gourmet Burgers. High quality ingredients, your meat baked medium or even rare if that’s how you like it, and the proper restaurant experience.  By now, two burger restaurants are amongst my favourite places to eat out in town. So: time for a comparison review!

To start off, let me say I don’t have a favourite. And it’s not even that some things are less good in one of them than in the other. It’s more like it’s good in both of them, but just even better in the other. I’m talking about Ellis Burgers, a chain with restaurants in Brussels, Antwerp, and other cities in Belgium and the Netherlands; and the last one we’ve tried: Het Huis der Burgers (The House of Burgers). Both of them are located right in the centre and also, good for us because we often go eat out when everything is still closed: they are open before 6pm!

Let’s talk restaurant experience first. Ellis has its typical set-up, the same in any city you visit one. Quite modern, wooden interior with dark finish, and the lighting is very modern and just finishes the picture perfectly. The waiters are friendly and efficient, and you feel taken care of very well. Huis der Burgers is actually rather similar, modern set-up, amazing staff. It is slightly bigger and often you see bigger groups in there, everyone happy and satisfied even though the menu is limited to burgers and salads. The people who come here are not your average ‘on-myway-home-from-work-grabbing-a-quick-bite’. People dress up to come here, it counts as a night out.

Drinkwise, they both have a limited selection of beers, which in a city like Leuven could easily be expanded. But they also both do homemade lemonades which I am always a fan of. And when you ask a glass of wine in Huis der Burgers, you definitely get value for your money. Very decent red wine for a very decent price, in a particularly decent serving size.

But really I want to tell you about the food. Oh the food. (Just the thought of it is is making me hungry. I’m just gonna grab a quick snack and then continue.)

The best thing about Ellis is by far its mayonnaise. I know this might sound silly, but if you are Belgian you know what I mean. If you are foreign and you think you don’t like mayonnaise, I can tell you you are wrong. I would even dare promise you, you will like Ellis‘s mayo! It’s homemade! The chips are excellent as well, in case you were wondering.

The burger I usually go for is the standard bacon and cheese one. For me, those are still the best ingredients to put on a burger. The burger itself is baked medium-rare unless you specify otherwise. But even for someone like me who doesn’t like my food bloody, the meat is just such good quality it really works. They do have some other interesting burgers but I have to admit, I like my usual so much I haven’t really tried anything else, except for this one special I wish they would bring back. A lamb burger with sheep cheese and grilled peppers. Oh my, paradise! Next time I might just go for the Blue Cheese Madness, or maybe the Bollywood Delight, with chicken, yoghurt-mint sauce and mango chutney.

They also do salads and some typical but tasty sounding appetisers (I am thinking nachos and onion rings, amongst others), but they must really sound very tasty since they always happen to be out when we decide to order some. Quantity wise, let’s just say you don’t need to order starters. Which is also why we have never made it do the dessert.

Now, in Het Huis der Burgers, they have some truly genius combinations as well. The first time I went for what I would call an Italian burger, but they originally call The Soprano. It is basically your standard bacon and cheese burger with only Italian ingredients: rucola for lettuce, pancetta for bacon, provolone for cheese, and a basil mayo together with some more veggies to top it off. A-ma-zing! Last time, I tried one of their specials. The Portobello Burger. Yup, with portobello mushrooms. I was a bit sceptical because often these big mushrooms get a bit chewy, but they were amazingly juicy and just melted on your tong. Again, the meat was cooked to perfection, and it was topped off with some goat cheese and salad of course. Perfect mix of flavours, cooked just the way I like it.

Sadly, Huis der Burgers doesn’t do their own mayo. The mayo you get is your usual one, which in  Belgium is still very nice, but let’s just say Ellis has spoiled us. The chips are cooked Belgian style, so no bad words about those, but one thing I really like in this place is that they give you a side salad. Now, I am not much of a salad eater, but this one is quite nice really! It’s more than just some lettuce and it comes with a nice yoghurt dressing. It’s such a nice fresh change to mix things up in between the burgers and the chips, and of course it makes you feel less guilty after. You definitely get your veggie serve in this place! In Ellis, all you get is a massive pickle, I think mostly to decorate your plate. But then you could order a side salad or coleslaw if you really wanted to.

So to summarise: if you’re in want of some unhealthy food that might just not be as unhealthy as you had originally planned for, Ellis Burgers and Huis der Burgers are the places to be! They transform classical fast food into high quality meals in the perfect setting for a nice night out. I, for one, can’t wait to go again!

A Brunch Like No Other

Do you know those traditions you have with certain friends? The ones you don’t see often, but when you do, you always end up doing the same thing? Meeting up to bake biscuits, or going to that pizza place in town, or going on a crazy shopping spree. Every time. Well, I have this friend with whom I like to go out for brunch on a Sunday. Once, maybe twice a year we see each other. And then we brunch.

Only problem: in Leuven, almost everything is closed on Sunday. Our options are very limited. So the last few years, we have been going to Bar Louis, on the Leuven Grote Markt. The interior is extravagant and even luscious. Shiny objects making the light shoot all directions, leather couches filled with fluffy shiny pillows, etc. It is definitely not my style, but for some reason it really works. You feel very fancy while sipping your coffee, that’s for sure. The food is very nice as well. But there are two massive downsides. First of all, their waiting system is far from effective. Certain bartenders can only take orders / serve food, and other will then take care of the payment. As such, if you would like to pay some time soon after finishing your drinks or food, you are best off asking for the bill the first time already when ordering. A second time when getting your food. And after that every five minutes. Other downside: when that bill does come, it will make you sad. I guess half of the price you pay for the location, since you’re sitting on the beautiful market square. Apart from that, the food (and service) really aren’t worth all that money.

So I went on a little google spree to see where else we could go for a Sunday Brunch. And what I found, was perfect. This Sunday, me and my brunch friend went to Bar Stan. It isn’t located in the centre of town, but since Leuven is not big at all, that is far from a problem. If anything, it is easier to reach and find parking. For me, it was just a 10 minute cycle from home, like almost everything else in Leuven.

We booked a table for 10.30h, and thank goodness we did. The small cafe had definitely overcome it’s not very obvious location and developed a large and loyal clientele. We were sat down at an old school bench on wobbly old chairs exactly like the ones at my old primary school. Definitely very different from the Bar Louis, going from super fancy to very approachable and wonderfully nostalgic. The vibe was what I would call medium hipster. There were definitely a few hipster families there (you know, those moms and dads with their kids in designer but locally produced clothes, probably a four-year-old sun wearing a bowtie, having a bicycle parked outside with a big tub in front to drive the kids around, and quite likely some small odd looking but very expensive pet waiting for them at home, a pitbull with a little coat on, or maybe even a big tortoise in the garden). But thank goodness there were also awfully normal people there, not pretending to be “different” and “alternative” while being exactly the same like any other hipster. Now before my post turns into an anti-hipster rant, let me tell you about the food.

The Sunday brunch was advertised as a brunch buffet, and what buffet it was! There was crispy bacon (exactly the way bacon should be, not soggy and chewy and not that crispy that it breaks into a thousand small bacon pieces when you put your fork in it) and scrambled eggs. Hmm, you might say. That is not much for a warm breakfast buffet. What about other types of eggs, mushrooms, tomatoes, sausages, maybe some pancakes. True, this Brunch was definitely not trying to be an English or American breakfast. Which I kinda liked, because those breakfasts I can make myself quite easily. Instead, it offered a whole range of cold foods. There was a couscous with cherry tomatoes and coriander. Smoked salmon with a yoghurt sauce on the side. Spanish hame with sun dried tomatoes. Egg salad. Tuna salad. A whole range of different cheeses. White bread, brown bread, bread with pumpkin seeds and bread with raisins. Yoghurt, granola, and all sorts of fruit. Filter coffee (filter coffee!!!!) and fresh orange juice included, plus a whole range of teas and interesting sounding juices to choose from.

I went for seconds, and thirds, and yes, even fourths. Every single thing I tried was more than delicious. There was a nice and relaxed Sunday atmosphere. And I had a lovely chat with my brunch friend. Sunday Brunch at Bar Stan: successful. We will be back in, say, half a year!