- Associated Press - Thursday, December 2, 2010

ANTWERP, Belgium (AP) — It was an unlikely accolade: the first ever mention for a pita-and-falafel joint in one of Europe’s leading culinary guides.

The GaultMillau, whose influence is on par with Michelin or Zagat, only granted the Finjan restaurant 13 out of 20 points. But the fact it was tapped at all drives home a new phenomenon on the culinary scene: Frugal is fashionable in Europe’s bleak economic times.

The continent’s recession has been cutting into pocketbooks and expense accounts, hitting exorbitant Michelin starred restaurants hard. Europeans are turning to humbler fare to tickle their finicky palates: Call it gourmet grunge.

The growing attraction of homely brasseries and gastropubs is another a sign of how lean wallets are feeding a back-to-basics approach to food.

After spending at Belgian restaurants suffered a 11 percent slump in 2009, it’s estimated to fall a further 3 percent in 2010. But this year, a clear class differentiation also emerges: If the over-€35-a-head restaurant is projected to have 7 percent fewer visitors this year, the cheaper under-€35 class is bouncing back with 4 percent more, said Gert Laurijssen of the Foodstep study group.

There’s even a name for it: “Bistronomy” — Bistrots going for slimmed-down gastronomy, said Jan De Haes, head of the regional HoReCa restaurant federation. “It is a downgrading, for less money customers keep asking for the same kind of quality,” he said.

For some gourmands, the trend offers a welcome counterpoint to the deconstructed, sometimes hocus-pocus, cooking of Ferran Adria’s El Bulli, Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck and others who explore new culinary frontiers with the “molecular gastronomy” that has been all the rage in recent years.

There is no liquid nitrogen or espuma froths at Finjan. Pita sandwiches come in paper napkins. And GaultMillau doesn’t mind.

“The food is simple, pure and succulent and has many pure flavors. That is why we decided that this restaurant can — or must — come into the guide,” said Philippe Limbourg, editor of the Belgian edition of the GaultMillau guide.

Owner Josef Chacham never sought culinary recognition beyond good business but knew he was onto something special when local chefs kept coming back after their shifts for more.

“They understand. For me, that is the proof that we are doing good things,” Chacham said.

Even the best of cooks understand the winds of change — especially as they are often first in line when the captains of industry and other rich patrons get a bit stingier on their budgets.

Geert Van Hecke, one of Belgium’s only two Michelin three-star chefs, remembers the days when he was an understudy at the once famous Villa Lorraine and saw the Rolls Royces roll up for lunch and dinner, every day.

“Luxury restaurants still have clients but not like 35 years ago,” he said.

On top of running his three-star Karmeliet restaurant in the heart of historic Bruges, Van Hecke has also come to rely heavily on his adjacent Refter, which was named 2010 Michelin brasserie of the year.

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