At every level Brussels offers a choice of wonderful food at attractive, even ridiculously low, prices. A sign in the window of Le Bamb Vert, a Chinese restaurant, is offering its menu du jour at BF250. Under pounds 3. Or scaling the loftier peaks of haute cuisine, you can sit down to a set lunch at Pierre Wynants's Comme Chez Soi, Belgium's oldest and finest three- star restaurant, for as little as pounds 24 (excluding wine and coffee); for pounds 55 you would enjoy a feast to remember forever.
The hub of Brussels, the magnet for thousands of visitors, is the cobbled square of La Grand Place (Groot market). This is a theatrical backdrop of encrusted medieval facades and in it, and round about, are hundreds of bars, brasseries and restaurants. Step into the pleasingly lit depths of any one, and you confront the glory that is Belgium - its beers.
About 650 beers are brewed in Belgium. Stella Artois, the biggest-selling and most widely advertised, is the least of it. The scope is vast, for as well as pilsners there are white beers, golden beers, dark beers (such as Chimay), wheat beers (such as Gueuze), cloudy beers (known as saison), high-strength beers known as wine beers, and of course, those renowned varieties brewed by Trappist monks.
The centre of Brussels is seasoned with the smell of good food: the sizzling oil from pommes frites, the aromas of sweet pastries. As befits a city which has been the capital of Europe for 20 years, the food of many countries is well represented and well-cooked here and not only in ethnic restaurants, but in the many others whose menus offer good paella, pizza and pasta as well as the native bowls of steaming moules.
A very elegant example of comfortably mixing food cultures (French, Italian and Belgian) is La Truffe Noire. Among Belgium's top 10 restaurants, it is owned by an Italian, Luigi Ciciriello. A remarkable man, now 45, he left his native Brindisi to go to waiting school at 17, and worked his way up to maitre d' in top Brussels restaurants before launching his own, of which a particular feature is the truffle (he buys 750kg a year, around pounds 300,000's worth). He says he knows of no people with a passion for food like the Belgians.
"The Italians love food and they eat well at home. Belgians also eat well at home, but they love eating out. It's a social thing and a way of life. Nowhere in the world is there such a high standard of restaurant cooking as in Brussels," he says.
M Ciciriello is more than a champion for the cooking of his adopted country. He stepped forward and published, in English, the work of Belgium's greatest chef, Pierre Wynants of the aforementioned Comme Chez Soi (Belgian Creative Cuisine by Pierre Wynants, pounds 39.99 published in France by Truffe Noir. It can be ordered through Books for Cooks on 0171 221 1992).
M Wynants is perhaps totemic in the way he seems to pull together many of the threads of this city. It is famous for its comic strips (such as Asterix and Tin Tin, and the neatly bearded M Wynants resembles a character from the latter). The city has a massively good transport system; trams, subways, and a ring road that can deliver you almost anywhere in the centre within 15 minutes. But M Wynants takes le biscuit, for his restaurant in Place Rouppe which is but a 10-minute stroll from the Eurostar terminal at Gare Midi.
There's more. Belgium is famous for some unusual art movements. Rene Magritte's Surrealism is well shown in the city's Musee d'Art Moderne and architect Victor Horta's Art Nouveau buildings are plentiful. Pierre Wynants and his wife Marie-Therese studiously created their restaurant in Horta's style.
But most significantly M Wynants personifies the new Belgium. It is a comparatively young country (a territory ruled by the French, the Spanish and Austrians over the centuries) which became, by some treaty, an uneasy alliance of feudin' and fightin' Flems (Dutch) and Walloons (French). It's easy to imagine the French influence providing the gastronomic touches, the Dutch the heavy peasant fare. This would be very wrong, says the sternly smiling M Wynants, who represents the fusion of the two cultures, his father being Flemish, and his mother French Walloon.
But first he wants to say that the food of Belgium is the best in the world, the very, very best. "But it has only emerged since the Fifties. Both the Walloons and the Flemish ate well, but it was heavy food, suitable for people who laboured in the fields. After the war many, Belgians started to visit France and the French came to Belgium, and this was a big influence."
Belgium has always had good ingre- dients, some unique, he says. All winter there's the white endive, a Belgian invention; the shoot blanches as it grows in the dark. As early as March, Belgians are picking hop shoots (jets de houblon) to serve in a creamy sauce (tiny shoots are snapped off at the top, two inches long, then boiled for seven minutes).
In May and June the Malines asparagus are ready; large, white, slightly bitter. In June, Belgians celebrate the arrival of the first matjes fillets (herrings freshly salted in barrels) served with vinaigrette, green beans, tomato and onions. Game and wild mushrooms are basics, as are little grey shrimps (crevettes) with intense flavour but a chore to pick over. Eels with green sauce is a national dish, so are various kinds of waterzooi, a stew which derives its flavour from vegetables and not, as some people think, the amount of butter stirred in.
Which brings us to moules frites (mussels and crispy chips with mayonnaise), the most famous of all Belgian dishes. Frites are known to the Americans as French fries but are no such thing, explodes M Wynants. On a trip to America he delivered a short paper on the subject, explaining how Belgium adopted the potato as early as 1680, two centuries before the French. Indeed, the Belgians were in this respect like the Irish, depending on potatoes to feed both human and animal. And in French recipe books there is no reference to the correct, Belgian technique for cooking them, that is, by frying them twice.
Comme Chez Soi was started in 1926 by the parents-in-law of his father, Louis, a butcher, as a little place where you might get home cooking, hence the name. Louis, ambitious for success, posted off the young Pierre on a punishing five-year round of apprenticeships during which he didn't get a single day's holiday.
It took him to England (to Cleethorpes, in fact, where he struggled to learn English) and more usefully to Paris, where he worked in the kitchens of Le Grand Velour under the fabled Raymond Oliver and at Le Tour d'Argent.
With his son in the kitchen, Louis took the first hurdle of a Michelin star in 1953, adding another in 1966. After his father's death, Pierre went on to get his third in 1979. The restaurant epitomises the Michelin ethic: inspired, consistent food; fine decor; faultless service; and an im- peccable wine cellar.
It would be easier to get into Colditz than this cellar where thousands upon thousands of pounds' worth of clarets are stored in the pounds 700-a-bottle range. As a brilliant addition he has extracted 5cl each time he opens a rare Sauternes, to build up a unique collection of miniature bottles from 1830 to 1981 (not every year is represented). I'm also able to spy the cellarman making up a couple of dozen bottles, the week's ration, of the house cocktail, a recipe unchanged for 20 years. It's 20cl gin, 10cl Cointreau, 12cl cassis (blackcurrant liqueur), made up to a litre with an acidic young Luxembourg white wine. It is served with ice.
The restaurant is tall, not wide, mirrored, decorated in Art Nouveau style, with a tall bow window and filled with a towering flower arrangement. An American lady who has arrived with her 17-year-old son says she was brought here when she was 17, and remarks with awe that nothing has changed.
Little, probably, has changed on the menu and M Wynants offers some of the house specialities that have made his name. There is an exquisitely light ham mousse, remarkable for the depth of its taste; his famous sole with grey shrimps in a riesling sauce, almost unbearably intense in flavour; a sliced breast of guinea fowl with a sauce that begs you to use up every last bit with the perfect crisp rolls offered.
The dessert is a new dish on the menu (maybe the influence of his new partner, son-in-law Lionel, who has worked with Joel Robuchon and Paul Haeberlin, Gaston Lenotre and Fredy Girardet). It's a joyously fresh pineapple sorbet, covered with a soup of strawberries and peeled orange, topped with a vanilla creme brulee, grilled till it browns. Europhoria begins to set in.
A strong black coffee, a little stroll to the Gare Midi and, letting the train take the 270km-an-hour strain, I'm home long, long before bedtime.
THE PERFECT BELGIAN CHOCOLATE MOUSSE
400g/14oz bitter or plain chocolate
15g/12oz freshly ground coffee
500ml/34 pint double cream
35g/1oz icing sugar
4 egg whites (large)
Bring six dessertspoonfuls of water to the boil. Add the coffee, lower the heat and allow to infuse for 10 minutes. Strain through a strainer or paper filter.
Put the coffee in a medium-sized sauce-pan, add the chocolate and only just melt it, over a low heat. Stir and take off the heat.
Beat the cream with a whisk in a bowl until you obtain a very light mousse. It is most important not to beat the cream too much. It should remain fluid or the mousse will be too hard. Mix it gently but thoroughly with the coffe and chocolate.
Beat the egg whites in another bowl, starting slowly and beating faster as you go. When the whites start to form a nice froth, sprinkle on the icing sugar while you continue to beat harder and harder. When the whites form a compact mousse, fold it gently into the coffe, chocolate and cream mixture, using a spatula.
Put it into a large, bowl or in little individual bowls. Put in the refrigerator and allow to rest for three hours. If you eat it the following day it will be even better.
! Comme Chez Soi, 23 Place Rouppe, 00 322 512 29 21, open Tuesday to Saturday. La Truffe Noir, Boulevard de la Crombe, 00 322 640 4422, closed Sundays. For rail bookings to Brussels call Rail Europe on 0990 300 003.
! Next week Michael Bateman visits BarcelonaReuse content