Belgians have a long and richly deserved reputation for enjoying the best in food and wine. Members of their gastronomic societies have devised a special neck clip to keep their napkins in just the right place throughout their tastings; their country's dentists are reported to have in their cellars the world's largest concentration of Pomerol; and at the heart of the Saturday antique market in the Place du Grand Sablon is an oyster stand for the peckish even though the square is seemingly entirely composed of cafes, bars, chocolate shops and patisseries.
Their passion for top quality chocolate is ubiquitous and seemingly unrestrained. As I was walking back to the Eurostar terminal carrying a bag from Pierre Marcolini I was stopped by a complete stranger who congratulated me on my purchase. 'The best chocolates in the world,' he added and I now agree with him.
Belgian dentists are also moving into restaurants. One practictioner started the chic Le Petit Boxeur close to the Bourse while a romance between a female dentist and her male patient, a chef, led them to team up and open the surreally named La Clef des Champs (The Key to The Fields) in the unmissable Sablon district. Those who wonder where the surrealist painters' imaginations were stirred should also call in for a drink nearby at la Fleur en Papier Dor, a genuine, unreconstructed tavern at 55 Rue des Alexiens.
Anyone wondering where the future of casual restaurants lies should head instead for Comocomo in the rapidly changing St Gerey neighbourhood (which mean literally, How do I eat? answer; use your fingers). This, the Spanish owners unashamedly explained, is their version of Wagamama and Yo Sushi! combined but serving Basque pintxos, tapas. Diners sit at long communal tables (Wagamama style) but each of these has its own conveyor belt (à la Yo-Sushi!) rather than one communal belt. An even bigger commercial difference is that by concentrating on Basque 'tapas' the menu can incorporate more hot dishes and several cheese and dessert variations which fall outside the Chinese and Japanese diets. Twenty five years younger and I would be looking to open Comocomo's next branch in London's Soho or New York's SoHo.
The real purpose of my trip was to visit somewhere seemingly timeless and to fill a major lacuna in my professional career, to eat at Brussels' renowned Comme Chez Soi.
My long term curiosity was piqued by a more mundane consideration, the relatively low set menu price of 64 euros which Comme Chez Soi offers at both lunch and dinner every day. With their only diversion to offer a range of fresh-chilled meals to the Delhaize supermarket chain, the Wynants family who have run the restaurant for 75 years continue to practice the strongest marketing card of all by offering a menu price accessible to most if not all.
The main dining room is narrow with tables close to one another along both walls. This may not make it ideal for romance or business (the private rooms upstairs or the tables directly off the kitchen are obvious alternatives) but it makes it ideal for watching and savouring what everyone else is eating particularly as the nearby kitchen means that those ridiculous cloches are not required. The aroma from the salad of langoustines the Portuguese couple next to us were enjoying as the first of their six course 152 euro menu was sensational.
Marie-Therèse Wynants runs everything with an energy and obvious passion that belies her age although she now shares this role with Laurence, her daughter. When she is not in the restaurant taking orders, whispering instructions to her waiters or advising a woman on the best way of removing a food stain from her blouse, she sits at a table in the kitchen by a window quietly surveying her empire. Equally sensibly, her husband Pierre shares the kitchen with Lionel Rigolet, and under their joint direction the kitchen hits all the right notes - and some new ones, too.
Three different 'amuse bouches' followed by a cube of pink tuna on a circle of tabouleh provided the soft introduction. Then came a vibrant pea soup enriched with medallions of oxtail and Chimay beer; fillets of eel in a silky mushroom sauce enlivened with a purée of peppers from Espelette in the Basque country; a sauté of cockerel given a mild Indian tinge with turmeric and and an apple chutney; and their sensational, up market interpretation of iles flottantes, floating islands. All for 64 euros including taxes and service - although in Belgium, unlike France, you are expected to leave something on top.
Unique to Comme Chez Soi's kitchen's approach is a phrase which the waiter asked after we finished each course, "Would you like some more? " In each case our hungry smiles of appreciation were greeted by his immediate return with tureens or cast iron dishes, ladles at the ready. But while these second helpings exemplified the kitchen's generosity our overall enjoyment of the meal was unfortunatealy marred by a similar lack of generosity with the wine.
We asked initially for a glass of crisp, white wine as an aperitif but were served a heavy, dull glass of Côtes du Rhône. When the sommelier arrived he listened to our complaint but simply told us that this was the only wine served by the glass. His reputation was not enhanced by the state of the wine list which included many entries simply crossed or blanked out including the entire listing of three Belgian wines. Instead, and not seemingly to his great pleasure, we chose a 2000 Primerberg rielsing from Luxemburg that for 39 euros gave us a great deal of pleasure.
As we left, we expresssed our thanks and responded to Laurence's query as to how we had enjoyed our meal by saying that it had only been spoilt by the house wine. " I agree entirely I don't like it." she responded to our surprise. "But unfortunately we bought rather a lot of it and until it is finished we cannot move on to another."
This comment revealed a crucial, double edged factor in the Wynant's successful, long running management of Comme Chez Soi. Their innate, careful husbandry continues to allow the kitchen to produce a terrific 64 euro menu. But this same frugality seems to prevent them from putting their out of date wine list into a more user fiendly format and re-deploying their inappropriate house wine in the kitchen. I am sure that there are scores of fellow countrymen only too willing to show them how this can be done.
Le Petit Boxeur, Borgval 3, 1000 Brussels, 02.511.40.00
La Clef des Champs, Rue de Rollebeekstraat 23, 1000 Brussels,
Comocomo, Antoine Dansaert 19, 02.503.03.30, www.comocomo.com
Comme Chez Soi, Place Rouppe Plein 23 1000 Brussels,