Celebration dining

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The holiday period over Christmas and New Year is often a reason – or an excuse – to eat out somewhere special. Food critic John Hellon recommends a few of his favourite downtown Brussels restaurants for the festive season

Think of the city of Brussels and what first comes to mind is its magnificent Grand Place with its gothic town hall and gilded baroque town houses. On the first floor of one of the houses commanding a splendid view of the square is the dining room of La Maison du Cygne. Lying unseen in the cellar are no less than 20,000 bottles of fine wines. A sophisticated cuisine includes specialties like a terrine of foie gras, grilled sole with Sancerreflavoured butter, roast pigeon with broad beans grown on salt flats. This is a fine restaurant, though there have been occasional reports of excessively slow service. And a meal there does not come cheap. A fixed price menu costs €90. La Maison du Cygne is closed on Sundays and on Saturdays at lunchtime. 2 Rue Charles Buls (Grand Place), T.02 511 82 44.

To enjoy a fine view of the Grand Place without going to great expense – perhaps if you have children with you – get a table near a window at the upstairs dining room of ‘T Kelderke on the south side of the square. Open every day till late, 15 Grand Place, T.02 513 73 44.

The picturesque old quarter known as the Ilot Sacré is, with a few honourable exceptions, best avoided by gourmets. One of the exceptions is Aux Armes de Bruxelles, dating from 1921 and, until recently, run by successive generations of the same family. Happily, the new owners have preserved its custom of serving traditional Belgian fare at tables covered in impeccably starched white napery. It’s a place to enjoy mussels or shrimp rissoles – croquettes aux crevettes – and waterzooi, a uniquely Belgian chicken stew, or beef stewed in Gueuze, a traditional Belgian beer. Closed on Mondays, 13 Rue des Bouchers, T.02 511 55 50.

A few minutes walk away, La Place de la Monnaie provides a fine perspective for the eponymous opera house. On the northeast of the square on the Rue des Princes you’ll find one of the city’s longest established and finest Italian restaurants, Roma. Freshly-made pasta and fish are specialties. Closed on Sundays, Mondays and at lunchtime on Saturdays, 12-14 Rue des Princes, T.02 219 01 94.

Once extremely conservative in its taste, the city has undergone a relatively recent flowering of more exotic fare. One early example, situated near the Grand Place and dating from the mid seventies is Al Barmaki, an excellent Lebanese establishment – the wide variety of meze is outstanding. Open only in the evening, 67 Rue des Eperonniers, T.02 513 08 34.

A yet more exotic establishment is the Japanese Samurai, a little restaurant on several floors, tucked away in a shabby shopping gallery near the Bourse, the Brussels stock exchange. Though the dishes come from the classic repertoire, you may be in for some delicious surprises. As well as the familiar sushi and sashimi, for example, you can enjoy fried scallops and pieces of soy paste in a salty bouillon made from dried tuna and sprinkled with finely chopped radish. Lobster is served in a lobster bouillon with asparagus tips, mange-tout peas, carrots and other mange-tout vegetables, all cooked al dente. Fare of this impeccable quality does not come cheap and you should count around €70 for a full meal with a moderate amount of sake. 28 Rue du Fossé aux Loups, T.02 217 56 39.

While Brussels lies well inland, you could be forgiven for imagining it was a seaport. Just two blocks north-west of the Place de Brouckère, focal point of the central boulevards, lie the church and square of Ste. Catherine and the now purely decorative erstwhile fishing harbour, its untroubled water merely inches deep. On the square you’ll find La Belle Maraîchère, a bustling fish restaurant, one of the many in the neighbourhood and among the best. Run by generations of the Devreker family for almost 40 years, the specialties include lobster and an outstanding fish stew. Closed on Wednesdays and Thursdays, 11 Place Ste. Catherine, T.02 512 97 59.