Until recently, I had never been to Belgium. In fact, I had never given it a thought when it came to European city breaks but having just returned from a four night trip to Brussels and Leuven, thanks to the good people at Visit Flanders, I know that this will not be my only trip to the Kingdom of Belgium.
We were staying in the picturesque city of Leuven, which is approx. 20 miles from the Belgian capital, Brussels. Leuven is a small city with a population of less than 100000 but it still manages to house the global headquarters of the worlds largest brewery group, Anheuser-Busch InBev, and the worlds oldest Catholic university, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. In fact, to help us get a birds eye view of the city, Visit Flanders had arranged for us to climb the bell tower of the University Library. The climb up the spiral staircase was very tiring but the view from the top was stunning!
As part of our trip, Visit Flanders also organised meals for both evenings at two of the best restaurants in Leuven. First up was dinner at Zarza where chef Bram Verbeken would be serving up a tasting menu with a selection of matched beers.
When we arrived at the restaurant we were one of the first groups to arrive however by the time our champagne arrived, Zarza was filling up nicely. In fact, by the time our first canapé arrived, the restaurant was almost full. Not bad for a Tuesday evening!
The first canapé was nothing more than a couple of crispy filo pastry tubes filled with black pudding. The little crispy rolls were served with a sweet apple sauce and arrived at the table inside the scooped out shell of a small apple. We've had black pudding served to us in so many ways yet this simple presentation was a first and we both loved the simplicity of the dish.
The next canapé to arrive was a duo consisting of rich liver pâté with cubed apple, and a cauliflower panna cotta with crispy chorizo and paprika crumb. At this early stage of the evening, we knew that we were going to have a great meal. The pâté was delicious and well balanced with the fresh crisp apple whist the clever cauliflower panna cotta was a wonderfully created appetiser. The creamy panna cotta was well flavoured with cauliflower, the crispy chorizo added much needed texture whilst the smoky paprika crumb rounded the dish perfectly.
Like the majority of the other diners, we were eating from Zarza's Zita Menu which was being served with matching beer. Our starter of smoked salmon and beetroot was served with an oak aged pale ale from Petrus. This beer had light citrus notes and a slightly sour taste with vanilla oakiness. I'm not mad about sour beers but this worked with the rich salmon. The next beer up was Kasteel Tripel, a high fermentation beer that packed a hefty 11% ABV that had sweet apricot and apple nose with a sharp grapefruit taste that worked well with the strong Roebuck dish that it was matched with.
Our favourite beer of the night was the Chimay Blonde, a white Trappist beer that tips the scales at 8% ABV. With notes of cloves and citrus, this beer had a deceptive sweetness with banana flavours working away in the background. This was served alongside a few classic raw beef dishes and worked really well.
Last up on the night was a beer based cocktail with Blanche de Namur acting as the star of the show. This was blended with orange pulp and orange liquor and served alongside a wonderful mandarin inspired dessert.
The starter of smoked salmon, beetroot, radish and yogurt sorbet was one of the best I've had this year. Beetroot and salmon are a great match and when paired with dill, pickled veg and the crunchy melba toast, it was amazing. The addition of the sharp frozen yogurt helped cleanse the palate and pushed this starter to another level. The perfect combination of texture and taste.
The second course was Roebuck deer, pickled shallots, pomegranate jelly, and pâté filled pink meringues. This was another joyful plate of food. The rich Roebuck was cooked to perfection, crispy on the outside whilst pink in the middle. The Roebuck had a slightly sweeter taste than venison that I have eaten previously but the pickled shallots and pomegranate seeds and jelly cut through the well cooked meat. The surprise package on the plate was a trio of pink meringues that were stuffed with a smooth pâté that added a nice crunchy texture to the plate but more importantly, the iron rich liver pâté helped balance the sweet and sharp. As mentioned previously, the matched Kasteel was high in alcohol content and full bodied enough to work with the strong flavours on the plate.
After such a rich course, we were presented with a refreshing grapefruit sorbet dusted with smoked paprika. It was a odd combination but it done the job required and set us up nicely for the main event.
The main course was a meal in itself. We were first served a plate of well seasoned vegetables including carrot, mashed potato, squash, cauliflower, radish and even a solitary Brussels sprout. We were advised that our meat would follow and it wasn't long before our table was cluttered with a number of small plates of beef at various stages of cooking.
Every part of the main course was delicious from the well seasoned steak tartare served with a plump caper, to the tender strips of steak that had been cooked sous vide (this is the second time we've had beef cooked this way in recent times). We were also served a croquette of pulled pork that simply melted in the mouth but the star of the show was a dish that was new to us both. It's difficult to explain but image a tender piece of thinly sliced beef wrapped around a coleslaw of cabbage, walnuts and blue cheese. This was served chilled and covered in grated Parmigiano Reggiano. In the past a dish like this would have had us both running for the hills but the balance of flavour and texture was fantastic, especially when eaten alongside the sweet Chimay Blonde.
Needless to say, the dessert was outstanding too. The beautifully constructed 'elements of mandarin' was a visual delight and packed with fresh citrus fruit flavour. The creamy parfait, sharp sorbet, zingy jelly, subtly flavoured whipped cream and fresh mandarin segments were joined on the plate with brandy snap and candied hazelnuts giving the dessert just the right amount of crunchy texture. What a great way to round of a fantastic night of fine dining!
The Zita menu costs €70 per person including the matched beers and based on the beautifully presented food that was served across the evening, I would certainly recommend it as great value for money. I would like to take this time to thank the team at Visit Flanders for arranging dinner for us at such a fine restaurant and also thank Chef Bram, his kitchen brigade and the front of house staff for making sure that we enjoyed our first night in Leuven.
We both agree that we would go back to Zarza in a heartbeat. Keep up to date with news from Zarza on Facebook.