After flying in to Brussels last month, we spent three nights in nearby Ghent, the vegetarian captial of Europe. It was smaller than Brussels, unsurprisingly, and was exactly what I want from a European city – ideal for wandering around, full of picturesque waterways and lined with tall, attractive houses. And with a medieval castle right in the middle of it too! We couldn’t have been happier. The food didn’t disappoint either.
On Good Friday we went to Komkommertijd for the all-you-can-eat buffet. We were a little worried that we wouldn’t be able to get a table – Happy Cow reviews all advise booking in advance, but although the staff replied to my emails, they refused to take my booking, insisting it could only be done via phone. When I did shrug off the expense and try to call, I just got the answering machine. So we turned up for opening time, and it’s just as well we did: it’s not exactly a small restaurant, but almost every table was reserved. We were allowed in as long as we agreed to vacate within 90 minutes, and the restaurant around us filled up very quickly. In warmer weather, I would be happy to get the cheaper takeaway box option and go and eat by the canal or in a park, but in early April it was positively Manchester-like, so staying inside was best.
But it’s not surprising that it’s so popular: there is plenty of food and the buffet is regularly replenished. It’s also very vegetable-based, which is always a winner. It might sound obvious to say that a 100% vegan place uses lots of vegetables, but it was just lovely to see that, besides a large pot of rice and some cake, every dish allowed the vegetables to shine, rather than opting for mock meats or other kinds of protein.
The dishes were written up on the food table in Flemish, so I can’t swear what they all were. We kicked off with a small dish of soup, which I thought was probably leek and potato – it was perhaps the most disappointing element of the buffet, a touch bland. Not to worry though, the main courses were awaiting!
There were some small and crispy spring rolls, along with some aubergine pakoras that were not replenished after they ran out – instead, they were replaced by the melt in the mouth roasted aubergine on the second plate (I’d advise sitting close to the buffet if you can wrangle it – it’s good for keeping an eye on which new dishes are brought out). Besides that, the root vegetable dishes were the winners, just beautifully cooked and full of flavour. There was some mustardy veg, which had a bit too much mustard for my tastes, a tasty rosemary-flavoured potato gratin, and a spicy carrot, pesto and cashew dish. From the cold salad bar we also enjoyed the potato salad and a buttery broccoli dish.
And of course, we had some cake to finish – it’s included in the buffet price, so presumably you could help yourself to numerous slices (though we didn’t see anyone doing so, and if you’ve done your eating properly you won’t have room). This was a coconut cake with a fantastic texture and taste.
Our only complaint about Komkommertijd was the drinks policy – they refused us any tap water, saying we had to order a drink from the menu first. I strongly feel that restaurants should push tap water rather than water in ridiculous plastic bottles (especially a vegan restaurant which should be slightly more concerned with the environment).
On Saturday morning we visited the castle, and lunched at Avalon, which is just opposite it and is generally hailed as the fanciest vegan place in town. The service was wonderful, despite the fact that it was completely full (this time we had successfully booked), and there was even an English menu. Mr HH ordered a vegetable pie, which you can just about see in here surrounded by all the other wonderful bits and bobs, including a scoop of polenta and some crispy potato slices on top. The pie itself was full of tofu and carrots and had an excellent crust.
I had the bourginon seitan stew, which was really rich and succulent. It came with roasties, cabbage, a sweet roasted onion, beetroot salad and a kind of mayonnaise. Every component was good, and it was such an inviting plate.
We split two puddings, starting with this orange cake. I loved the sponge – it was quite delicately flavoured and moist. However, the sauce on the side was too sweet and strongly flavoured with orange, and I largely avoided it.
Dessert number two was more of an overall success: a cherry and almond pudding, somewhere between a yoghurt and a mousse. It had a lovely natural cherry flavour to it and was really good.
Along with these we ordered some ayurvedic tea, which we usually love. However, it was so full of citrus flavours that it took us by surprise – it was far too zingy! Fortunately, it was accompanied by a small pot of chocolate mousse which was rich and helped our taste buds to recover. I definitely recommend Avalon if you don’t mind paying a little more for a holiday treat: we loved it.
As luck would have it, for Easter weekend there was an animal liberation stand set up in one of the squares of Ghent with some baked goods. I trotted up hopefully to enquire if the food was vegan: it all was! We treated ourselves to a couple of these teeny tiny waffle bites for 1 euro each (pretty small compared to the one euro waffles that were everywhere in Belgium, but I’m happy to support the animal-loving community). They were sweet and vanilla flavoured, and an unexpected treat.
As we rambled around the town I saw some vegan graffiti too, which I hadn’t expected.
Komkommertijd’s big rival in the vegan buffet stakes is Lekker Gec, which is just opposite the train station. It had a much better drinks policy, but I also happily forked out for a hot chocolate (as in Brussels, it was made with cocoa solids and I had the pleasure of stirring it in myself), which was very tasty. There was even a choice of milks, and I went for rice (they do serve dairy milk and ice cream, so make sure you specify).
Alas, the buffet here was pay-by-weight, so there were no seconds this time. It wasn’t quite as tasty as Komkommertijd either, but still pretty darned good. The vegetable pakora were sublime: the batter was so good, and the vegetables beautifully tender. There was couscous for the grain, and a salad and soup bar that we didn’t sample, then a few hot dishes which were again very vegetable-centred. The root vegetables on the left looked tasty but were a little bland; the cauliflower at the front looked fiery but was actually in a pasta sauce; the cabbage, almond and sweetcorn concoction was delicious, as were the lentils, tofu and parsnips at the back. Once again, really filling and seemingly healthy.
Cakes were an additional 3.50 each: there were three different kinds displayed, but only a total of 6 slices left when we arrived at 6pm, and no signs of them being stocked up. The cheesecake at the front had a lovely biscuit base, was not too tofu-like and had a pleasant blueberry flavour. The banana coconut cake in the background tasted very strongly of banana but was not as moist as expected – it made me wonder if there was banana extract in it, rather than the fruit itself. The top was dusted with crunchy toasted coconut, which was just sublime!
We’d been worried that it would be hard to find somewhere to eat on Easter Sunday, but fortunately we managed to book a lunch table back at Komkommertijd (booked in person – apparently that is also acceptable). This time there was a green vegetable soup which we sprinkled with potato crisps from the hot buffet – they added some much-needed seasoning.
The dishes were all vegetable based again, with the same spring rolls, some pesto parsnips, curried kohlrabi, more parsnips with chickpeas, really nice pasta and broccoli salads and some delicious yet oily aubergine and pepper antipasti.
And this time it was marble cake for dessert, with a lovely chocolate topping.
If we hadn’t been visiting over Easter weekend, we would have had the opportunity to visit a few more of the meat-free restaurants in town. We’d also been hoping to pop into one of the few places that doesn’t use beef fat for their fries, but we were too full of vegetables (and, let’s face it, cake) to venture along.
As for what to do in Ghent, it’s definitely worth paying to enter the castle. It’s a pretty grand building, and offers lovely views of the city. It’s also a great place just to wander around and look at the canals and architecture. In contrast with the historical grandeur is Graffiti Street, which I found less impressive than the street art in Berlin, but still nice to see.
We also saw some art at SMAK, which my fellow had raved about after his previous trip to Belgium. Alas, the ground floor was closed but we still had to pay full price for just a couple of exhibitions. I’m not exactly clued up on art, but I like things that are pretty or give me something to start a conversation about, and the Larry Sultan exhibition did just that. Added bonus: we got there at opening time and had the whole place to ourselves!
And of course, Ghent is only a short train ride from Bruges, which is small and charming. We were fortunate enough to visit on a day that the sun actually made an appearance, and the good weather added to its charm. However, it was so full of people that we couldn’t appreciate it quite as much as we would have liked.
I really enjoyed Ghent – it’s not a place I feel compelled to return to soon, but it was a lovely place to wander around. It was more intimate and charming than Brussels as well, and a true delight on the food front!