When the Welsh went to Belgium. Sorry, Camden

I went to a hen do the other day, but thankfully it was only the warm up evening of a whole weekend when some loud but awesome Welsh women came to London.  I only had to eat two gummy dicks all night and essentially my involvement  in the shenanigans was limited to a relativity straight-down-the-line jaunt up to Camden Tahn.  I even managed to avoid the cock-shaped straws.

I was given a little brief on this freakin’ rainy Friday night: to find a nice place to get food.  Now Camden isn’t my forte when it comes to gastronomic knowledge of London neighbourhoods (though I am aware of a takeaway up there which serves rat), but I was aware that there is a Belgo up on Chalk Farm Road, and that seemed, in light of few rat-free options, a good place to go.  It is a chain, but I have heard unanimously great things.

I have also worked for their parent company, Tragus, in a couple of their brands, the first being Bella Pasta in Cheltenham (now Bella Italia), where I spent Sunday afternoons with a guy called Ian throwing ice cubes into spitting-hot pans of oil and fashioning flame throwers out of spray-can pan-coating and cardboard tubes.   I then moved to Strada, another of their Italian chains.  I was at university in Guildford at the time and transferring to Belgo, which was (and still is) a London based operation, a bit smarter than Strada, was considered career progression within Tragus.  The suits attempted to redeploy me to the Kingsway (Holborn) Belgo when Strada burned to the ground (nothing to do with me, ice nor flamethrowers) but as I was studying I couldn’t really go.  London would have to wait for a few more years.

Belgo is Belgian; a moules, frites (and steak and burger and anything else the masses eat) restaurant, where you dine in nondescript but quirky rooms, served by burly waiters dressed as monks.  The restaurant at Covent Garden is subterranean, where you dine on close tables in what look like converted tube tunnels.  The room at Belgo Noord (the Camden one, and the first Belgo, est. 1992) is, as you may expect, a little more edgy, a modern twist on a Belgian eating hall.

Funny food words from Medieval times are engraved into the walls, whimsical shit like ‘Donkeythistle’, ‘Gag’ and ‘Pissala’.  Oh, and ‘Ironmaw’.  I get it, and I love randomness in any shape or form, but it seems a little bit… crap.  If Belgo wanted to go totally baroque all they needed to do was engrave a few requests from Jim’ll Paint It, such as this one, which had me coughing up a lung all morning on Friday;

“Dear Jim,

Please paint me Paul Daniels, who is dressed in Debbie McGee’s stage clothing, morosely barbecuing a large solitary sausage and two brown balls whilst llamas in mariachi costumes serenade him. This is taking place on board the Star Ship Voyager, the replicator of which is malfunctioning and spewing out an unreasonable quantity of Flumps. Wizbit should also be present, attempting to hang himself but failing on account of his triangular shape. The sausage should bear a resemblance to David Dickinson”.

Back to Belgo.  The bogs resemble prison cells, and as they are individually appointed, are unisex.  If you’re pissed, like we were after a vat of prosecco and numerous green and gold shots, the toilets are a challenge.  The area is like a hall of mirrors.

Why do I always dwell on the toilets?  Thought I’d let you know and all that.  The food and drink was a little more straightforward.  The menu is disparate but concentrated enough to catch the eye, and there are little flecks of imagination amongst the usual blurb.  There is a whole section devoted to mussels.  Red meat is emphasised, yay!

We pretty much all dived into meat, see as a) half the mussel section was off the menu (I kid you not) and b) it turns out Welshies are as into their meat as much as me (insert sheep joke here).  A mixture of steak and burger was unanimously well received.  The sirloin streaks are pretty good for under £twenty and come complete, and cooked well.  My burger, a Sports Relief tie-in called The Big Show was loaded with pulled beef, bacon and Emmental was a drunk’s dream, a glorious car crash of piled-high meat and cheese, and not too much salad to detract.  However, the highlight of the meal were ramekins of crispy flecks of deep fried onion that was served with the burgers.  Much like the hundreds and thousands with cream, this was kid-like excitement, where you would take your burger, dip it in mayo, dip that in the onion, and graze.  And sob with happiness, wallowing in a drunken, prosecco-cut stodge trip that is so so wrong, and so so so so right.

Reflecting on the food the day after, when my mind was a little clearer, I can say that for what you pay, you cannot complain, and it was all genuinely good.  But the menu on paper, and on plate, does no more than fill the quality gap between Wetherspoons and TGI Fridays.  I would need to return to try the mussels as I have been told they’re incroyable.

As you might expect, Belgo boasts a pretty extensive beer menu, ranging from Belgian stalwarts such as indeterminable Chimay or Floris variants and through to Belgo ‘own-brands’ including one on draught, “perfect for a session” as the menu taunts.  For those that like to stray off the obvious, there are plenty more to choose from (though I was saddened to see that La Trappe Trappistenbier Dubbel was not on offer, as this particular treacle-like seven-percenter almost blinded me at Porterhouse a year or so back and I was more than a little ready for Round Two).  If beer is not your thing, then you could order a load of ‘Schnapps shot sticks’, wine or prosecco, all priced to piss you up.  Make no mistake, if you drink, you WILL get drunk here.  Or drunker, I guess.

We left after a few desserts.  The ‘build your own’ waffle section is like giving a monkey a typewriter.  Sure, one day it’ll rewrite Shakespeare, but more immediately, it becomes amused in its own antics, and f**k around, making a lot of noise.  Similarly, I got very excitable that I could construct a dessert akin to ‘chocolate done eighteen ways, choco-waffles, chocolate ice-cream, double chocolate ice-cream and chocolate sauce, and ignored the good I could do with such a range of ingredients to choose from, such as fruit and low-cal cream.  I’ll never (want to) learn.

It was late when we arrived at Camden, and much later when we left Belgo Noord, so we decided to retire rather than push on.  Getting everyone home was a mission, but at least I got a ride on my first new London bus.  As the N15 trundled me home, leaving me on the top-deck surrounded by drunks and preachers, I reflected on my evening at Belgo.  It ain’t no destination restaurant.  Just a good, cheap, fun and honest place to line your stomach (and liver) before hitting the town.  Or watching some naked arses and attending champagne boat parties, as the Welshies were doing the following evening.  You see, when it comes to having a good time, Camden – and London – don’t know nothing about nothing.

Starters £five to £six, steaks @ £seventeen to £twenty-five, burgers @ £ten, mussel pots £thirteen, desserts £six, beers, £four and up, PROSECCO £twenty-two.  Keep it coming, garçon.

Square Meal Belgo Noord on Urbanspoon

© Mike Dalley, February 2014

© Mike Dalley, February 2014

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