1st Visit: Lunch Saturday 16th 2017
(19.25/ 20) Elegant and precise cooking with a real sense of place, set in a beautifully calm, light and informal dining room, though slightly let down by an oddly under par service. Food-wise it was one of the best meals we’ve eaten all year (and ever), but still I’m left with the distinct impression we’ve only scratched the surface of what delights can be found here. We can not wait to return.
(Click on the score to see the rating system and why I write these reviews!)
€€€€€ 6 course lunch €195
3 Michelin stars since 2011
OAD Best European Restaurants No. 25
Worlds 50 Best No. 61
Hertog Jan has been high on my restaurant wish list for longer than I care to remember. Widely recognised as one of the better restaurants in Europe, probably at the forefront of innovative fine dining coming out of Belgium, and one of only three 3 star Michelin establishments in the country, this place is ‘worth a special trip’ in the truest sense. But peculiarly enough, despite being just a few hours on the train away from Amsterdam, we never quite managed to get there. That was of course until an old friend from London suggested we meet half way between our home towns for a weekend break. Looking at the map, Bruges seemed the obvious choice, and no sooner had we set the date than I’d jumped on the website and reserved our lunch at the farm-house in Zeldegem, a 20 min taxi ride out of the medieval centre of the old town.
The restaurant, a JV between Gert De Mangeleer and Joachim Boudens, is set in a renovated and expanded farm building with a minimal and modern glass-walled dining room somewhat reminiscent of Azurmendi (less the view). Surrounding the buildings is commercial farmland and a working garden-come-farm for the kitchen itself. Again like the Basque behemoth they also follow a sustainable farm-to-table philosophy and the menu is peppered with produce straight from the grounds. The cuisine is unmistakably of the place too – the sense of terroir runs forcefully through the menu. Of course this part of the world was once also part of The Netherlands – the language is the same, and the food is also very reminiscent of the best that Holland can produce. And so it was that our meal began, a kind of mixed deja vu of the food from De Librije and the setting of Azurmendi… it had quite a lot to live up to.
The amuses came out. First up a crisp biscuit with cream cheese, tomato, radish and herbs and flowers from the garden. Bright, fresh and full of captured sunlight, it was like a last triumph of summer. Even Sophia, who was at the time regally sipping on a non-alcoholic drink of Riesling grape juice from a mini champagne flute, commented on how pretty it was and was subsequently quite easily convinced to eat most of it. This, we later realised was the 6th 3 Michelin starred meal she had been asked to sit through not even yet having reached her 6th year. Since we started going back to restaurants around about her second birthday it’s been slowly getting more and more enjoyable for all of us. We quickly concluded early on in parenthood that no good would come of asking (forcing) her to actually eat much of the food, and instead opted to give her the chance to try a bit here and there, and not cause a fuss if she just wanted to eat bread and not much else. Over the years we packed a restaurant kit of colouring books and games to keep her interested at the table, and in the last possible emergency an iPad was provided. Though she also taught us a lot about our own dining preferences; Even when eating without her we also didn’t much care to sit at a table all day, no matter how amazing the food was. Sophia was the inspiration for the ‘everything in 2 hours’ rule that still informs all of our fine dining trips. But this time, on her 6th visit to a restaurant with the highest possible standard, we really saw her begin to enjoy it. Trying everything, staying put at the table, having a chat with her folks, and with no iPad in sight. To finally begin to be able to really share this joy of five dining with her and to feel it has finally become more of a pleasure and less of a task to get through for her was a joy like no other.
The second of the three appetisers appeared… an extraordinary slice of perfectly ripe avocado covered in tomato powder and served with a vinaigrette of crisp croutons. Creamy and soft with a sharp and sweet umami kick from the powder, plus textural richness from the fried bread, this was one of the better things we’ve eaten all year. To cut through the fruit and see the colour contrast of light green and dark red pop off the plate merely added to the impact.
Lastly, we were treated with a rich purée of potato, topped with mimolette cheese and a powder of coffee and vanilla. The coffee gave the cheese and almost chocolate like background note which worked wonderfully with its inherent sharpness against the decadent potato.
We had opted for the ‘intensive’ menu, priced at €195 and including 3 amuses, 4 starters, a main and a desert. There are both shorter and longer menu versions available. For our first starter we were taken again to the garden and the last vestiges of summer with an amazing medley of tomato served with a bright consommé also of tomato. The range of different varieties of fruit, some skinned, some not, some lightly marinated in citrus, some not, was a revelation. A fabulous dish of sweet and sour all from one plant, and a delightful way to open the meal and refresh the palate after two quite rich amuses.
Up until now we had shared the same (vegetarian) meal, but now it was time to diverge as I moved to the first of two fish courses. To start I enjoyed a very pretty flower-topped dish of mackerel, a fish beloved of this part of the world, served with a vinaigrette of red cabbage and yuzu, with a touch of smoked goats cheese. This was again fresh and light but at the same time rich with the natural oil of the fish and an incredible roundness from the sauce and smoked cheese.
This was quickly followed by one of my favourite dishes of the meal, an interpretation of the Flemish classic paling in ‘et groen, or eel in greens, which had been modernised via an Asian-style lacquering of the fish, and extraordinary array of different herb preparations, a slightly stringy leak, and a sauce of fermented black garlic. This was a wonderful looking dish which surprised in its precision, clever textural contrast and depth of flavour.
Nadya meanwhile had been given an eel-free version of the same dish, followed first by a very delicious concoction of ceps and peas and latterly by an extraordinarily beautiful courgette dish served with a purée of aubergine and a lava sauce. I later learned that this courgette preparation would normally accompany a lamb main, but she said it worked perfectly well as a standalone veggie number.
At this point we were invited to visit the kitchen where we were introduced to the sections and given as fabulous little bite of Chou pastry foie gras and passion fruit.
For my last starter I received a ‘dim sum’ of pumpkin ravioli with perfectly poached Breton langoustine served with a passion fruit creme echoing the citrus from the kitchen bite. This was a very clever dish – the pasta absilutely faultless and paper thin gave way in the mouth to a firm sweet bite of crustacia, lifted by the astringent citris of the fruit and rounded out by the earthy pumkin
Suddenly out of the corner of my eye a black object hit the window next to us, leaving a terrible smudged feather on the glass. A swift had flown straight into the pane and fallen dazed into the fish pond surrounding. As the poor bird struggled to work out what on earth was happening Nadya called over a fully nonplussed waiter to alert him to the creature’s distress. About 5 mins later the maitre d’ Joachim Boudens came past to ask what the problem was and to his credit went immediately outside to fish the sorry animal out of the pond. Sophia was summoned to help and bread was rather ceremonially given to the sorry animal as now most of the dining room turned to watch the spectacle going on outside on the lawn. The bird was admittedly unlikely to have survived its head first encounter with the restaurant but it was surely the right thing to at least pretend to help it for the sake of a worried 5 year old. For that, top marks for common sense from Joachim.
In general service was good, helpful and courteous if really very slow for a restaurant of this standard. On two occasions we asked for another glass of something, (champagne for me, and the grape juice for Sophia), and on both occasions it took a good 10 mins for anyone to reappear with a bottle. The pace of the meal was also unbearably tedious. 40 mins in we had had one amuse. (I had forgotten to ask them to stick to two hour rule having thought I had seen this pace stated next to the menu selection). Two and a half hours having sat down we were not even in the middle of the starters. At this point, still starving and losing my patience I asked them to hurry up and to their credit they did just that, serving the rest of the dishes in double time. We’ll know better to be more explicit upfront next time.
Moving to mains I was given a truly memorable dish of what was described as a long braised bit of wagyu but which tasted and looked distinctly pink for a braise. Either way the texture of the fatty meat and charred outside with that spongy umami from the mushroom carpaccio was delicious, being raised to a whole new level by the reappearance of the sharp tomato powder and wonderfully deep showing of a stroganoff cream. Nadya meanwhile experienced another Michel Bras inspired walk round the garden with a magic medly of faultless veg complete with the most perfect little tempura onion ring I’ve ever seen – the batter so light it was almost translucent.
And so we moved finally towards dessert, some three hours after first arrived, and for all my impatience it hadn’t actually seemed that long at all. We were given a pair of the same amuses we had started with, again with the beautiful array of herbs and flowers, this time switched into a semi-sweet and fabulously light desert with berries. This was followed up to Sophia’s delight first with a choclate tower filled with raspberry and rose cream and then with a rolling wagon of saccharine sweetness; A trolley resplendent with a dessert selection so pristine, so absurdly perfect it seemed a crime to disturb it with a request.
I opted for the classics, a madeleine, an oddly neon green pistachio macaron, and a deeply caramelised but feather light canalé.
If my expectations had been sky-high following both the huge reputation of the place and immediate similarities with two of the great restaurants in Europe, I was not disappointed. This was one of the better meals I have ever experienced. Fresh, light but satisfying, extraordinarily beautiful and truly with a sense of place. When we left I looked at the full a la carte menu in a glass case near the front door; We hadn’t ever begun to scratch the surface of the variety of deliciousness available with this first visit. And just like our last meals at Azurmendi and De Librije, our first thought upon leaving was ‘when are we going back?’.
8210 Zedelgem (Brugge)
+32 50 67 34 46