Catherine Feore visits a little bit of The Philippines in the heart of Brussels
Before I visited The Philippines I knew little about its culinary traditions. With over 7000 islands, different ethnic groups and many outside influences from Chinese traders, Spanish conquistadores, to name but two, it presents a veritable, as well as a literal, melting pot. There is an element of fusion, but Filipino cuisine and the traditions of the different islands and ingredients are wholly distinctive – and more importantly, delicious!
There are a few things that make a great restaurant. Top quality authentic food, the freshest of fresh ingredients and that extra touch of magic that is difficult to put your finger on but can usually be attributed to the passion of the owners. Humphrey’s has all of this in spades.
“Filipino cuisine is wholly distinctive”
There is only one place in Brussels where you can enjoy truly authentic Filipino food and that is Humphrey’s. Nestled in the heart of the city and just around the corner from the Cartoon Museum, you will receive a warm welcome from Glen Ramaekers and his team.
Glen and his wife Julie De Block both bring their expertise to your table. Glen grew up in Belgium and completed his culinary training in the Hotelschool Ter Duinen, honing his skills at several Michelin starred restaurants such as The Seagrill (Belgium), Scholteshof (Belgium), La Pyramide (France) and Moulin de Mougins (France). He is equally passionate about wine and spirits as he is about food, making it to the finals of the Best Sommelier of Belgium finals in 2003 and as an ambassador for Don Papa Rum.
“The vegetables used in the restaurant are largely home grown and 100% natural”
Julie shares Glen’s love for great food and is responsible for Humphrey’s vegetable garden near Mechelen, where she is assisted by her father in making sure that the restaurant can have organic, seasonal vegetables. The vegetables used in the restaurant are largely home grown and 100% natural. There is also a garden terrace where Julie grows edible flowers and herbs that are used in the kitchen to add delicious flavours to Glen’s dishes.
I caught up with Glen to talk about how the restaurant has developed. It hasn’t been easy! Humphrey’s had barely opened its doors when the terrorist attack of 2016 hit Brussels and business was slow to take off, but they took their show on the road and did a lot of catering at events. Finally, in 2019 they had a great year and were looking forward to concentrating on the restaurant, when Covid broke out. Glen also had Covid with complications and was hospitalized and almost died, and during this time he also lost his father, two uncles and a very good friend. To say that the last few years have been tumultuous is putting it mildly. He remembers being in the hospital in those early days of Covid: “In the hospital I was having hallucinations, by the second or third day I was looking outside and there were about 20 ambulances waiting to get in, but the hospital was already full, there was no Dafalgan, they had run out. I had bleeding in the lungs, a bacterial infection. The staff were pushed to their limits, it was crazy.”
When Glen left the hospital there were further complications and surgery was needed, but he had to wait as he was taking blood thinners. Over this period he lost 16 stone. I’m glad to report that he is back to full health. These circumstances make it all the more remarkable that somehow they managed to keep the restaurant going, teaming up with Brussels chef Alex Joseph (formerly of Rouge Tomate, now the Head Chef at The Hoxton) and Dennis Broeckx (L’Epicerie du Cirque in Antwerp) for what they dubbed the ‘3 Amigos Box’ – a box of culinary delights to ease the dreariness of the confinement.
After Covid they had to rethink everything. They cut their covers from 45 to 26 to give more space and worked with Brussels-based Filipino artist Racso Jugarap (www.racsoj.com) who added a wire sculpture of the Filipino Balete tree, which has a central role in national folklore. They also decided to be totally focused on their fixed menu of authentic Filipino dishes.
“They also decided to be totally focused on their fixed menu of authentic Filipino dishes”
The menu starts with chips and dips, based on what is in the garden. The dips make use of Filipino ingredients like coconut vinegar and are often flavoured with a sort of dried fish salt – all sourced from families they know in the Philippines. Then there are Croquettes à la Mama which are made by a Spanish cook, which touches on the Spanish influence in Filipino food, but which is matched with a little mango salsa. The third course is dim sum with soy and homemade vinegars, which give a salty sour flavour. Sisig is served using either pork or tuna head; once roasted, the meat is then separated and it is stir fried with chilli, ginger and garlic, limequats or kumquat juice, which are close to the taste of the Philippines’s calamansi fruit.
“The Bicol Express is named after one of the islands, it uses a distinctive nut called the Pili nut which is buttery, smooth and light”
The Bicol Express is named after one of the islands, it uses a distinctive nut called the Pili nut which is buttery, smooth and light; this is cooked with the fresh crustacean available. This is followed by what Glen describes as “an inside out” adobo. Adobo is a dish that can be found everywhere in the Philippines, and is chicken marinated in rice vinegar, soy, garlic, lime and ginger. Glen’s version adds a little bit of homemade cidre vinegar, and rather than frying he steams the chicken. There are some fascinating desserts.
This menu changes according to the availability of ingredients and you can be assured that the dishes will always be full of tantalizing and intriguing flavours. At a mere €69 it is also outstanding value.