26 Rue de l'Epee, 1000 Brussels (00 32 2 513 43 11)
View and clientele
Tucked away on a cobbled side-street in the shadow of Brussels' monstrous Palais de Justice, Philippe van Cappellen's tiny restaurant overlooks a dingy block of flats. But the rundown surroundings somehow add to the charm for local gourmets and the more discriminating members of the city's international set, who can get stuck into some some seriously accomplished food without the fuss and formality this usually involves.
Design and service
Understated but playful. Scraps of coloured glass stud the ceiling and the vanilla walls are decorated with witty 19th-century prints (on loan from a local gallery, and changed when the owner tires of them). Service and cooking are provided by Van Cappellen, who was tipped for greatness after stints at Brussels' Michelin three-star Bruneau, and Biblos in St Tropez, but turned his back on the culinary rat race to open a more intimate, one-man venture. Softly spoken and endearingly bashful, he's far more accommodating than your everyday waiter: ready to chat about anything, but happy to leave you alone if you prefer. 9/10
Consummate courting venue: candle-lit, refined but not too flash and with a host so friendly your partner will think you're a favourite guest. 9/10
Any. There are only four.
Resolutely unsnobby. But if you weren't discerning, you wouldn't be here. 6/10
A fusspot's nightmare, but a dream for anyone who likes surprises. When you book, you are committed to the fixed three-course menu, which Van Cappellen will have dreamt up just hours before you arrive. You never know what you are going to get, although he'll tailor a menu for vegetarians or those with other dietary requirements if you let him know your needs when you book. The food is French with an Italian influence and the dishes are medium-sized. "Many people feel heavy and they're incapable of doing anything else for the rest of the evening," the chef observes. 10/10
There's a fine selection of French and Italian wines, democratically arranged according to price, but your best bet is to plump for Van Cappellen's personal selection. He'll refill your glass discreetly, so it's a good deal if you drink fast, and you can trust him to chose wines that will blend harmoniously with your meal. 8/10
No matter what the cost of the ingredients, the price of the fixed menu always remains the same: it's 1,200 BF (pounds 20) or 1,700 BF (pounds 28), including wine. Given the quality, it's ridiculously good value. 9/10
Oh yeah, and the food
Absolutely wonderful. Van Cappellen was in Italian mode when we went, so we kicked off with a rocket, parmesan and anchovy appetiser, followed by fluffy home-made gnocchi with chanterelles.
The main course was meltingly tender calf loin, braised in milk and served with a light tomato, aubergine and mozzarella gratin. We wound up with "peach soup": slices of fruit marinated in fresh mint. Sit back and let the host make all the decisions. All you have to do is book. 9/10
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