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In the early nineties the Belgian capital boasted no fewer than 3 restaurants with three Michelin-stars. They were Bruneau, Romeyer and Comme Chez Soi. Furthermore, Brussels was the home of 4 two-star restaurants and 18 one-star restaurants. Things have changed much since then: chefs retired or moved on to other ventures, and sometimes the restaurants simply closed. The numbers dwindled and in the 2010 Michelin guide, Brussels was down to 2 restaurants with two stars and 14 with one star (no three star restaurants). In recent years, things have been looking up a bit and in the 2014 Michelin guide Brussels counts 4 two-star restaurants and 14 establishments with one star.
One of the standard bearers during these two decades of change was and is Comme Chez Soi, one of Brussels' most celebrated fine dining restaurants. Comme Chez Soi (opened in 1926 by Georges Cuvelier, father-in law of Louis Wynants) has been in the Wynants family for decades and it held three Michelin stars from 1979 till 2006, when Pierre Wynants passed on the reigns of the kitchen to his son-in-law Lionel Rigolet. Rigolet and Pierre Wynants' daughter Laurence are the fourth generation to run the restaurant, which currently holds 2 Michelin stars.
Comme Chez Soi is open for lunch and dinner Monday till Saturday (no lunch on Tuesdays and Wednesdays). The restaurant offers a 4-course tasting menu for €94 (not available for dinner on Fridays and Saturdays), a 5-course tasting menu for €146, a 6-course tasting menu for €195 and an a la carte menu. At lunch there is a 3-course set lunch menu for €55. I had dinner with my husband at Comme Chez Soi on Thursday 21 August 2014 and we both had the 4-course tasting menu.
To start there were two canapés: a crisp tuile filled with a Belgian grey shrimp and a delicious 'mille feuille' of Bresaola, basil, cream cheese and Piment d'Espelette. These were followed by three more canapés (left to right): a tartare of brunoise-chopped, marinated vegetables like carrot and celery, a ginger and gamba sandwich and a shellfish escabeche topped with a vodka and lemon espuma and a sprinkling of Piment d'Espelette. Three lovely canapés, although the espuma on the escabeche was a little bit on the sharp side.
My first course was smoked salmon with a filling of poached salmon, finely chopped and crunchy cauliflower and hazelnuts, accompanied by three elegant pieces of soft salmon topped with a sharp piccalilli puree, and served on a soft jellied ceylon tea, delicately flavoured with lemongrass. The jelly was garnished with crunchy puffed quinoa, a crouton and a few dots of wasabi mayonnaise, the latter enhancing the flavours of the jelly nicely. There was a lot going on on the plate, but somehow the flavours worked.
Less convincing was the second course. Tender mackerel on top of some thinly sliced fennel, white cabbage and chopped red chilli, served with a creamy Kriek beer and orange sauce and some succulent snails. The rim of the plate was decorated with two dots of yuzu gel, thinly sliced red chilli and and fish cracker with some a herb puree and a snail. Both the mackerel and the snails were perfectly cooked, but the combination of the two didn't work for me. The citrus elements balanced the richness in this dish nicely, however the sauce had been flavoured quite heavily with orange, rendering the Kriek beer flavours almost invisible.
The main course was a generous portion of beautifully cooked, pink and moist veal, complemented by a deliciously creamy sauce, flavoured with cumin and turmeric. Also on the plate was turnip, smoked eel and celery puree, potatoes and some stir-fried vegetables (such as courgette, cauliflower, mushrooms, mangetout and red onions) seasoned with Provençal herbs and garnished with strips of smoked eel. A wonderful dish with delicious, hearty flavours, but the Provençal herbs were every so slightly overpowering.
Dessert was a crisp chocolate tuile cylinder filled with marinated cherries, a cherry and cinnamon espuma and a almond milk espuma, accompanied by a strawberry sorbet and dots of strawberry puree. A very pleasing, elegant dessert that mae perfect use of two summer fruits and the chocolate and cinnamon delivered a nice touch of comfort.
I was fortunate enough to have three meals at Comme Chez Soi during the Pierre Wynants era, for the first time in 2003. My last visit was in 2005 and I hadn't been back to the restaurant since. Almost ten years later, Comme Chez Soi is still a very classy restaurant where many things have remained untouched. The Art Noveau decor of the restaurant is still stunning, in the kitchen the chefs still wear toques and the wine cellar still holds a very impressive collection of around 27,000 bottles, including some of the rarest and most expensive of treasures.
The cooking has obviously changed to some extent, but I did not get the impression that it has evolved significantly. Lionel Rigolet clearly is an experienced, accomplished chef but this meal was delightful rather than flawless and some of dishes lacked refinement and elegance. The quality of the ingredients is excellent and they are prepared with great care: both the mackerel and the veal were cooked to perfection and the vegetable brunoise was as fine as I have ever seen it. However, the food at Comme Chez Soi is more about continuing the tradition of the restaurant than about innovation and as such it bears above all the signature of an iconic heritage that is its strongpoint and its struggle.