It was more than two years ago when I first ate at Belgo, the London mini-chain of restaurants specializing in Belgian beer and what could at least superficially be identified as Belgian food. I went to the flagship Covent Garden branch, and I was enamored. The atmosphere was boisterous but not too loud, with the warm, chattery feel of a good pub or even a night market. The mussels came in a big bucket, shiny and impressive enough to hold a bottle of champagne, steaming with an herbal, winey fragrance; they were cooked just right, plump and juicy and full of marine flavor, not listless and rubbery as they too often are. The fries were also nice, brittle and crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside, served with a smooth, tangy mayo, and I especially enjoyed a hearty starter salad of shredded duck, duck eggs, bacon, apples, and black pudding. The beer list, though somewhat predictable, was populated with enough Belgian classics to make me smile (the inclusion of Orval alone is practically sufficient to make a beer menu stand out).
It was two days ago when I finally returned to Belgo, and this time the only thing I truly enjoyed was the Rochefort 8 and the Delirium Nocturnum (served in proper glassware – nice). Maybe it’s because I went to a different branch. Maybe it was a mistake to order anything but the mussels. Maybe my tastes have changed. Or maybe the restaurant has simply gone downhill (I’ve read this is the case). It’s probably some combination of all of these factors. But it was an unjustifiably terrible meal, the kind that filled me with remorse as I looked back on it the morning after.
A “seasonal starter” of butternut squash and cumin soup tasted more of carrots than squash, and not even subtly of cumin, and the pumpkin seeds used as a garnish had been roasted either incompetently or not at all, leaving them chewy instead of crunchy. It had been poorly blended and strained, so there were little bits of tough bay leaf and celery fiber scattered throughout; but then again, these little tidbits of texture were all that prevented the soup from being actual baby food, so maybe they were in there on purpose. A disappointment, but I still had hope for the mains. This proved foolish. The rotisserie chicken with leek and mustard sauce was itself tender and moist, but it looked and tasted like it had been accidentally tipped into a vat of pure heavy cream. The obligatory fries were the highlight of the meal (except for the beer), but even they were a bit sad, inconsistently crispy and marred by staleness. To add insult to injury, even the mayo was gross, unusually gellified and firm.
It’s rare for me not to finish a plate of food at a restaurant. I don’t have a lot of money, so it seems like a waste. But even so, I felt no inclination to finish my bowl of beef carbonade à la flamande, and I gave up halfway through. According to the menu, the beef was stewed in gueuze, a kind of wild Belgian beer with a strong, tart, farmy sourdough character, but none of this flavor came through in the dish. The beef itself was dry and flaky, having lost most of its moisture in a braise that was either too short, too long, or too hot, and the dish was topped with some mushy onions and a trio of brown but essentially uncooked apple slices. The most exciting element of the dish were the whole prunes dotted here and there, which added much-needed elements of acidity and richness.
What’s really vexing about this dish is that it was my first time to try carbonade, and I was excited about it. As I understand it, it is both a classic Belgian dish and a classic beer-based recipe, which are fairly rare among London restaurants. It was disappointing not just because it was bad, but because I was looking forward to tasting something new, unique, and authentic. It failed on all counts to meet my expectations.
Of course, for all I know, the dish was authentic. Maybe those weird apples and that stringy beef are exactly how you’d get it in Brussels (maybe it isn’t even eaten in Brussels). I have always thought that authenticity is overrated, unimportant, and often meaningless, except for in the sense that certain dishes that are made according to the standards of their original form often taste better. For example, I find it endlessly and irrationally irksome to be served a bowl of ramen garnished with snow peas. This seems to be common practice in ramen shops outside Japan, but I hate it, and it’s not because it necessarily tastes bad – it just seems wrong and out of place. It’s like a big green flag announcing that the ramen won’t be as good as what I had back in Kyushu.
But to even discuss the authenticity of ramen, or carbonade, is problematic. Ramen, after all, could be considered an inauthentic spinoff from the noodle soups of Canton or Shanghai, a sort of Japanized Chinese food. Besides, ramen itself is diverse and complex; it has been said that no two bowls of ramen are alike, so who’s to say that snow peas aren’t a legitimate topping? When I was doing research at the Shinyokohama Ramen Museum, the curator told me that one reason ramen has become so popular is because the Japanese have felt free to experiment with it and change it over time; it isn’t made within the confines of a Japanese tradition (as soba and udon are), so variation and creative license are hallmarks of ramen culture rather than exceptions to it.
Flippant riffing on authenticity and tradition can be a wonderful thing. It has given us Hakata ramen, the California roll, the black IPA, and Paco Roncero’s “21st Century Tortilla,” to name a few. But it seems to me that to be successfully inauthentic, there must be good ideas or reasons behind fixing what ain’t broke. Introducing new ingredients to a dish or changing how they’re cooked only works if it’s a purposeful improvement – otherwise it will just seem lazy, inept, or ignorant. Adding snow peas to ramen may seem like a minor fault, but it does nothing to enhance the dish and thereby only seems unfamiliar and intrusive. By contrast, adding tomatoes and garlic bread to ramen may seem bizarre, unnecessary, and certainly inauthentic, but more than one Kyushu ramen shop is doing it, and it’s remarkably delicious. That’s because it’s premeditated and practiced; tossing tomatoes witlessly into any old bowl of noodles would not likely yield such successful results.
The carbonade issue is probably less a question of authenticity and more a question of culinary skill. But what if Belgo’s version is not only “correct” in terms of its ingredients and method, but also tastes just how it does in typical Flemish homes and restaurants? In that case, then I might conclude that I simply don’t like carbonade. But of course this is silly. One could hardly argue that McDonald’s makes “inauthentic” American cheeseburgers – in fact they probably set the standard, if such a thing exists – but I would beg you to reconsider if you told me you didn’t like cheeseburgers, having only tasted McDonald’s perfectly accurate and popular rendition of them. There are great burgers to be had, even though the majority of them are bad or boring; I imagine the same may be true of carbonade. It is certainly true of ramen, pizza, and beer, and you would be a hopeless fool to spurn any of those.
I suppose that when dealing with foods that are expected to match a sort of culturally recognized Platonic ideal (i.e. “traditional” foods), I would hope that restaurateurs do try to reproduce that ideal to the best of their ability, and only deviate from it in attempts to improve upon it, or to create an entirely new dish based on it. But as diners we should equally understand that good food and authentic food aren’t the same thing. Regardless of whether or not Belgo’s carbonade is authentic, I wouldn’t say I dislike carbonade based on my experience with that dish, and I probably wouldn’t say I dislike carbonade even if I went to Bruges, ate it there, and once again didn’t like it. We should reserve judgment on any given food not until we’ve had the real deal, but until we’ve had a good version of the real deal. Never give up on food until you absolutely have to.