GRACIOUS DINING IN BRUSSELS

In Brussels, as in much of Europe, dining out is a leisured, not to say lengthy, affair. At fine restaurants your table is reserved for the evening -- you are not rushed to allow the seating of another party of diners.

Perhaps the reason is that one of the great arts of the Belgians is their cuisine. They say that Belgian food combines French quality and German-size proportions. It is considered so central by the Belgians themselves that, after designating 1981 as The Year of the Cuisine in Belgium, it was decided that such an important subject was deserving of another year of honor, so 1982 is also The Year of the Cuisine in Belgium.

The people who award stars and crossed forks to restaurants dispose of a lot of them here. In 1981, 89 Belgian restaurants were awarded 110 stars by the inspectors for the famous Michelin Guide.

We have decided to highlight only five restaurants of the many excellent ones in Brussels; all of these are fairly expensive, with a dinner costing more than 2,000 Belgian francs (about $50) a person, and as often as much as $100 a person. Those on a limited budget might still consider economizing elsewhere in order to afford one night of the best that Brussels has to offer; it will be the highlight of your trip:

Widely acclaimed as the best restaurant in Brussels is La Villa Lorraine, Avenue du Vivier d'Olie, 75. It is set in a converted mansion across from the Bois de la Cambre, one of the beautiful woodland belts within the city. The furnishings are splendid and luxurious, the carpets are deep, the wallcoverings are silk. Through stained-glass doors you can see a beautiful green-and-white terrace, facing a garden.

Marcel Kreusch, the owner, sets the tone, which combines sophisticated elegance with country charm. There is none of the stiff efficiency and over-service of a restaurant that has achieved the highest rank, knows it, and flaunts it.

The lobster bisque, the roast duck with wild mushrooms, the oven-roasted lobster, the saddle of lamb with spring vegetables, and the Bresse chicken are among the delightful specialty entrees. We were also treated to a hot crab pate covered with a lime juice and butter sauce. Alas, we had no room for Souffle Villa Lorraine, although we were told that this chocolate souffle is the world's best.

Restaurant Bruneau is operated by Jean-Pierre Bruneau in two adjoining fine houses in a pleasant residential area called Ganshoren, located about 20 minutes from the heart of Brussels. You dine in one of two small rooms; the restaurant seats no more than 40 people. The setting is an elegant and tasteful home with charming paintings, rich but subdued. Madame Bruneau is a charming, attractive hostess, helpfully guiding her guests throughout their dinner. Among the entrees we enjoyed were the Coquilles St. Jacques and the escalope of salmon, stuffed with lobster and a chive-cream sauce.

Restaurant Kolmer located at Dreve de Carloo 18 in what was once a small mansion, is in the lovely residential area of Uccle, Fort Jaco, about 20 minutes from the heart of the city.

The Kolmers serve you an elegant meal, which could begin with salmon or caviar and go through such exceptional entrees as baked turbot with a mustard sauce, lobster with a beurre blanc, and loin of lamb with vegetables. Roger Kolmer has been awarded honors for his cuisine.

La Maison du Cygne, Rue Charles Buls 2, is a place you cannot forget. We didn't. We visited when we first came to Brussels to see the great international exposition more than 20 years ago. It is on the second floor of a guild hall building, with a white swan over the front cornice, facing the magnificent Grand Place. The entrance is by elevator (or stairs) to the second floor, where you will find the most elegant wood-paneled restaurant in Brussels. The dining room, decorated in the style of Louis XVI, is adorned with large bouquets of flowers.

During the lunch hour most of the diners seemed to be prosperous business people; at dinner, it is not uncommon to see a general or two, or even royalty. The main room contains a large rotisserie that produces excellent grilled lamb and other meats; the room is divided into three sections, two of which offer views of the beautiful Grand Place. The menu has a wide and satisfying range from a starter of fine salmon pate to such pleasures as a pheasant salad, a combination of smoked pheasant mixed with succulent, tender, and fresh Belgian greens with a raspberry vinegar sauce.

A short stroll from the Place du Grand Sablon is the Restaurant Chez Christopher, 5 Place de la Chapelle. The Grand Sablon is a majestic square, ringed by the old houses of master craftsmen; today this is the major antiques area of Brussels.

Chez Christopher is one of the favorite rendezvous for antiquarians, among others. Its setting is Victorian; the ambience is friendly, and everyone seems to know everyone else. The food, although not as elegantly presented as in the previously described places, is of the best in quality and preparation. Two specialities that should be mentioned are the salad of sweetbreads with herbs and salmon with honey and lime.

While we are on the subject of Belgian food, we can hardly leave out some words on those overwhelmingly tempting emporiums -- the cake, pastry, and chocolate shops of Brussels. They are admittedly the best in the world. Among the delights are pralines, chocolate-covered creams, chocolate-covered fruits, and rich, artistically designed, dark-and-light chocolates. The pastries are equally tantalizing -- some available in the shape of hats, purses, clocks, and buildings. Passersby jam in front of the pastry shop windows just to enjoy a feast with their eyes!

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