Despite the pre-eminence of French cuisine, Belgians claim that foodies can eat more consistently well in Brussels than in Paris. Belgians are both gourmet and gourmand. When Pierre Wynants, Belgium most celebrated chef, comes out to greet diners in Comme Chez Soi, his questions are as down-to-earth as his cuisine is out of this world: “C’était suffisant?” (Did you get enough to eat?). Not for him the pretentious posturing of his Parisian counterparts. Even for one of Europe’s maitres-cuisiniers, quantity is a prime concern, coming just after quality on the Belgium scale of gastronomic virtues.
Moreover, although this three-star Michelin establishment is in a scruffy area near the Gare du Midi, Wynants is endearingly uninterested in moving or expanding. Nor, unlike his French or British peers, does he wish to commercialise his name, go into catering, executive chef-dom, or create his own brand iof Belgian television dinners. Instead, as a true Bruxellois, this paunchy, modest, master-chef shuns publicity and offers second helping of everything.
For the same reason, the fashion of nouvelle cuisine failed to make a mark on old-style Belgian stomachs. While the temples of gastronomy are not cheap, the mark-up is essentially on wine. At the other end of the scale, a bistrot-style appearance is no guarantee that prices will be lower than in an overtly formal restaurant. Compared with the French, the Bruxellois favour unpretentious settings and less formal service but are prepared to pay for a special occasion, on the understanding that the cost covers top quality ingredients, and not the frills. Not that the city lacks a sense of culinary spectacle: when a restaurant decides to do dramatic, it can surpass the French in Art Nouveau splendour, producing surrealist fantasies in the dining room and seductive flavours on the plate. But the Bruxellois’ heart is really in robust cooking, perfectly fresh ingredients, man-size portions, and more than a pinch of panache. Leave rarefied service, rich sauces and culinary refinement to the Parisian style; leave television chefs, celebrity diners and marketing hype to the Londoners, and let Brussels concentrate on the cooking.
Internationally, Brussels boasts the highest number of Michelin-rated restaurants per head of population. As the world’s best producers of beer, chocolate, mussels and chips, the citizens clearly place comfort-eating before calorie-counting. The Bruxellois also claim to have invented the French fry, despite the fact that the credit has gone to their more gastronomically famous neighbours. And as the world’s largest producers of white asparagus, sprouts and endive, the Bruxellois can belatedly claim some interest in healthy eating. Local tastes embrace silky truffle chocolates, steaks with creamy sauces, tomatoes stuffed with Ostend shrimps, smooth Ardennes paté, and steamy bowls of mussels cooked in white wine and leeks. Burgundian feasts also feature guinea fowl in raspberry beer, rabbit casserole, meaty hot-pots, beer-enriched beef stews known as carbonades, and a chicken or fish stew known as waterzooi. Vegetarians must content themselves with delicious patisserie and fruity beers, or subsist on chips, cheese croquettes and chocolate.