Belgium is broadly split into two vast swathes: the Flemish north and the French south, whilst Brussels occupies the middle of the Flemish-French Venn diagram. Bruges in the north is a perennial tourist (and personal) favourite, but as a Francophile it shames me to say I hadn’t really explored the French south until recently. I’m not sure why as the Ardennes region is full of natural wonder. Once a theatre for conflict in the 20th century wars, it’s now a tranquil place of rivers, castles and wildlife. Walk through a field and you’ll see the occasional donkey going about its business, untroubled by trickle-down economics and inept leaders who shouldn’t have access to the nuclear codes.
While in the country to see friends in Brussels, I thought I’d go on a random adventure to Dinant (about an hour away by train). This Wallonian town is undoubtedly picturesque but within an hour or so I wondered I if I had gone on this trip by mistake. Beer pilgrims can get their Leffe fix whilst jazz lovers pay homage to Adolphe Sax but beyond these two attractions there isn’t much else (the saxophone museum takes no more than 15 minutes to tick off, and I went round it twice). As for decent restaurants they are few and far between.
But one should not write off a place so easily. In a town of tourist traps, hidden gems like Le Confessionnal can be overlooked: and what better way to absolve sins and confront mortality than a blow-out of French comfort food?
Come for benediction and stay for the crème brûlée
Located in an old country house opposite Leffe abbey and about 10 minutes away from the main drag, the inside is essentially the love child of Otto’s and Quality Chop House. The owners have a penchant for knick-knacks and other random curios from flea markets – anywhere else this would be clutter, but here it adds a certain rustic whimsy. After all, the best restaurants should be like someone’s living room. There are religious undertones in the artwork, gingham tablecloths and curled butter served under little silver cloches. Come for benediction and stay for the crème brûlée, all with a slightly incongruous backdrop of 80s pop music.
On this visit, the blackboard menu in almost illegible handwriting took no prisoners. Chef Philippe Gérard prepares traditional, gutsy food using Ardennes produce, such as roasted bone marrow on toast (13€), boeuf bourguignon (29€), roasted shoulder of lamb with confit garlic (27€) and veal kidneys “à la Liégeoise” (24€) based on the traditional Belgian recipe. Peddling the classics is all very well and good but they have to be perfect at about £25 for a main course – based on this surprisingly epic meal, I’m pleased to say they were worth it.
But first, aperitifs. Alongside a curtain-raising glass of Champagne the delightful maître d’ delivered a simple radish with dips. No dainty Michelin tartlets on a bed of grains to amuse your bouche, just a radish, naked as the day it was born.
Then, with a pichet of crisp white Burgundy, salmon doused in a zingy combination of lemon juice, oil, capers and onions. Like the radish before it, there was nowhere to hide with a dish like this and every element needed to work. This was a refreshing start to proceedings with a dressing so sharp it could probably clean toilets.
Next up, ‘poularde’ (poorly translated as ‘fattened chicken’) with a vin jaune sauce and morels “comme dans le Jura.” This legendary dish needs no introduction and is now a favourite at Noble Rot Soho with good reason: because it’s incredible. I feared I was setting myself up for disappointment but here, in this cosy, gently-lit restaurant in Dinant, this wondrous dish was particularly delicious, loaded with cream and served with kudos-worthy pommes soufflés on the side. I always struggle to think of an idea when people ask what I would eat for my ‘death row meal’ but this would be a strong candidate.
And as for that crème brûlée, this was textbook: perfectly executed and the burnt sugar coating passed my spoon tapping test.
Perhaps the wine list is a little old fashioned with its leaning towards all things Burgundy and Loire valley; similarly, there could be more choice of aperitifs. But it’s somewhat churlish to complain when you’re given a free tray of different rums to choose from for digestifs, all in their own mini decanters. Indeed, service was at all times friendly and generous.
My wallet 80 or so Euros lighter, my stomach somewhat heavier, I walked off the poularde along the river Meuse, wondering how one of the best meals of the year had been in this bizarre corner of south Belgium. It was just that wonderful confluence of great food, service, ambience and, above all, randomness. Travel might seem a bit exotic at the moment whilst sterling is as weak as a daddy long-legs after a night on the tiles, but if you’re ever in the Ardennes, or even just Brussels, this restaurant is worth a stop – every gluttonous minute of it.
Rue Rémy Himmer 4
by J A Smith