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BE Café Marché Jourdan

Hotel restaurants have never had the same aura in Belgium as they do in the UK. Maybe it’s – perversely – because of the international status of Brussels, but many hotels still feel the need to serve a kind of ‘universal’ (read: bland) cuisine that won’t offend anyone. Others, meanwhile, won’t hesitate to charge extortionate prices for ok-nothing-special dishes just because of the location. Then there is the naming pattern. Whereas the likes of Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley and Hélène Darroze at The Connaught are standard fare in Britain, the Belgian psyche wouldn’t buy it – not yet, anyway. Flemish television may have bestowed celebrity status on a new breed of heavily sponsored chefs, but over here it’s still Yves Mattagne du Sea Grill, not Yves Mattagne du Radisson Blu.
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Name-wise, the Sofitel Europe’s restaurant, BE Café Marché Jourdan, hasn’t exactly chosen the easy way. I fear it may remain known as ‘le restaurant du Sofitel’. What chef Marc Pâquet has achieved, however, is nothing less than phenomenal: prise the Eurocrats away from their comfort zone, and feed them Belgian cuisine, using Belgian produce. Eschewing the old mussels-and-chips and waterzooi stereotypes (not that there’s anything wrong with them), Pâquet has decided to reboot Belgian fare – or “give it a modern twist”, to use the de rigueur expression.

To do this, he calls on the services of the finest artisans around – quite literally – namely those from the foodie market on Place Jourdan. The cheeses come from Pierre Houtain’s stall, the bread from maverick baker Yves Guns and so on.

My dining companions and I all had the same lunch. For starters, an updated version of that most ubiquitous of European staples: mushrooms on toast (below). The combination of sourdough bread with local wild fungi, in a creamy parsley sauce, was superb, if not groundbreaking, but the addition of slithers of smoked duck breast was particularly inspired.

Next, we had fillets of sea bass, which came with sautéed ceps, a Hoegaarden sauce and… Chinese artichokes. This incongruous tuber – looking remarkably like a cricket bail – is one of those ‘forgotten’ vegetables: a crying shame, given Pâquet’s expert treatment of it.

The cheese cart proudly boasted Belgian varieties, the only exception, a French comté matured here. By then I had eaten enough, but the dessert trolley was too hard to resist, and the crème brûlée – expertly brûlée au Bunsen – was a delight.

Such is Pâquet’s dedication to the Belgian terroir that the wine list includes Belgian wines. The Aldeneyck pinot noir (from Limburg) is a gem – it suited every course to perfection, from wild mushroom to goat’s cheese.

Of course, as you would expect from a hotel, all this noble food comes at a price. Except that, here, the price is more than reasonable. The two-course set menu will set you back €29 (three courses for €39) – yes, at the Sofitel! The most expensive à la carte item – a rib of beef – costs €29. And (almost) everything is locally sourced, and for the most part organic, and lovingly cooked by someone who clearly cares about Belgium’s gastronomic treasures. What’s not to like?

I will go back to Marc Pâquet at Sofitel.

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1 Place Jourdan, 1040 Brussels; tel 02 235 51 24; www.bebrussels.be