July 3, 2018

Europe 2018 day 4: 3-star farmhouse

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We got up bright an early to take the train from Antwerp to Bruges.  Like other days in our itinerary in Belgium, we are only staying one night here.  And for this one night, we chose Hotel Van Cleef and got ourselves a canal view room.  As we browsed through TripAdvisor, Hello Kitty and I were amazed to find that out of more than 500 reviews for this hotel, not a single person gave it a "one star", and only one person gave it "two stars".  For that reason alone, we were curious to check it out.

It was immediately apparent to us after we arrived at the hotel.  While it was too early to check in, the receptionist gave us a tour of the hotel premises, offered us a voucher for a free tour of the historic center of the town - which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its entirety - and offered us coffee and breakfast on the hotel's patio facing the canal.

After The Dining Austrian arrived, hotel owner Frederik called us a taxi to take us to lunch at Hertog Jan.  Similar to my trip to Spain and Portugal back in 2006, this entire trip was structured around a meal at one restaurant... because I wanted to come before they closed at the end of this year.

I had arranged to be here on a day chef-owner Gert de Mangeleer would be in town, and he very kindly set us up at a corner table by the window.  I am finally here at the farmhouse, overlooking the garden!

We had traveled a long way to be here, and there was never any doubt that we would be doing "the full monty" when it came to choosing the menu.

We started with an aperitif, and I chose this very special Champagne...

André Clouet Un Jour de 1911 - beautiful, yeasty nose.  Love the balance and the depth of flavors here.  Only 1,911 bottles are made each year, from a blend of different vintages.

Avocado, tomato powder, and Hertog Jan olive oil - a dish I know well from Gert's visit to Hong Kong 2 years ago.  The presentation was slightly different today, but the dish was still an illustration of simplicity and purity.  The thin slice of avocado was coated with a powder made from more than 100 different cultivars of tomatoes - all grown on the premises.  A sprinkle of salt, and a drizzle of olive oil from olives harvested right here.

Our bread came with two types of butter - a "plain" version as well as one made with cumin.  Guess which little jar got emptied out pretty quickly?

Salmon roe, marinated cucumber, Champagne sauce with dill oil - salmon roe is, of course, something I'm always happy to have.  To pair it with long strips of marinated cucumber was wonderful, as the latter's texture provided some crunch despite having gotten a little flaccid from the marinade.  The chilled cucumber was really refreshing, and you've got the acidity in the sauce to balance out its own richness.

Seigneur de Vidaigne : crispy bacon - the pork from the region was made into a fatty and salty rillettes, with slices of pork fat and pickles inside, topped with crumble.

Foam of potato topped with coffee, vanilla oil, and Mimolette cheese - another amazing dish I remembered from 2 years ago.  The fluffy potato foam was rich and creamy, yet the sweet fragrances of vanilla and coffee pulled the dish in a different direction.  The shavings of Mimolette were a little more savory than I remembered, but the combination and the simultaneous stimulation of different parts of the palate continued to be so interesting.

Meringue of passion fruit filled with goose liver, bergamot, and Coca-Cola - my third time having this, and still fun to eat.  Disappeared in a 'poof!'

Royal Belgian caviar: crispy potato with seaweed powder plankton - what's not to like when there's caviar on the menu?

With crispy waffle chips on the side, seasoned with plankton powder, perhaps?

We were told it was imperative to combine all the elements together in one bite.  Slurp.

I was excited to see a bottle of wine listed at a seemingly impossible price, and as it turned out, it was indeed impossible. The list had described at a Meursault Perrières from Coche-Dury, but in the end it was just the regular village wine. However, it was still a very reasonable price.

2008 Coche-Dury Meursault - nice and toasty as expected, a little grassy, almost a bit coffee.  Good acidity here with a bit of ripeness.  After 1 hour, finally turned beautiful without a hint of grass.

Tomato, African marigold - as there are more than 100 different cultivars of tomatoes grown here, they get to pick and choose the ones which have ripened for service on the day.  This came with sour cream, chives, cucumber flowers, and gooseberries - as well as a tomato broth.

If I had to pick a dish that defines summer, this would be it.  The produce is simply amazing, and the flavors are so concentrated.

Mackerel: lightly smoked mackerel tartare, fermented red cabbage and goat cheese cream  - wrapped inside what I assumed to be a ring of kohlrabi was a layer of fermented red cabbage, raw mackerel and diced chives, and topped with smoked goat cheese garnished with flowers.  Finished with red cabbage vinegar.

I loved the combination of goat cheese and raw mackerel.  The fermented red cabbage brought some more acidity to the mix.

North sea bass, herbs from the garden, radish, kaffir lime - the strip of seabass was wrapped around the collection of young radishes and herbs, with some pickled onion and a surprising dose of heat from chili powder... which actually stayed on the palate for a while.  Interesting acidity from the vinegar made with kaffir lime.

Vegetables, herbs and flowers: walk through our garden inspired by Michel Bras - the house gargouillou with orange carrot, yellow carrot, breakfast radish, purple radish, fennel, yellow sugar snap peas, pickled red radish, buttered chard, deep-fried onion ring, cucumber with flower, cauliflower, pickled artichoke, pickled daylily, turnip, pickled baby radish, yellow beetroot, baby leeks, zucchini flower, romanesco, fennel fronds, oyster leaf, red capsicum, and red capsicum purée.

Beautiful.  Delicious.

Guinea fowl, herbs from the garden, morels - with ramson oil and green herb sauce.  The guinea fowl was wrapped in fennel and sage, on a bed of peas, and garnished with fresh as well as blistered dill.  Pretty decent.

The sommelier suggested we take a glass of red with our next course:

2015 Braida Barbera d'Asti Montebruna - very minty, exotic spices, potpourri, very sweet and ripe.

We decided to try out a few of their cheese selectionSternschnuppe from Germany was pretty mild, with a hint of bitterness in the rind.  Keiems Bloempje was salty, tasting almost like Comté but with ammonia near the rind, and turned incredibly bitter after drinking some mineral water.  Trami d'Alsace has its rind washed in Marc de Gewurztraminer, and was really strong and pungent, salty with some ammonia.  And (Beenstrich?) was in between Comté and Mimolette.

Passion fruit, chocolate, spices - the sheet of passion fruit kinda stuck to my teeth, and came with chocolate crunch, milky caramel, chocolate, and gooseberries.

Flowers from the garden, lemon cream, roses - on top of the biscuit base were lemon cream, blueberries, rose petals, flowers, some pretty strong herbs, and mint.  Very, very pretty.

This pie from Dendermonde was similar to spiced pumpkin pie.

Madeleine

Spiced stick

Canelé

Speculoos

Cuberdon - this violet, cone-shaped candy comes from Ghent and has a hard shell with viscous center.

Can't remember what flavored water this was at the end...

This was a beautiful meal, and every bit of my expectation was met. Although Gert was busy in meetings all day, he did come to chat with us for a little after our meal, and discussed his plans for future projects such as turning the current location to an ultra-exclusive chef's table which only opens for one table per week.


He also gave me permission to fly my drone over the restaurant and the surrounding garden, so we walked around the garden and had my DJI Mavic Pro follow Hello Kitty around in tracking mode. I'm so glad I finally got to come and film around here. Many thanks to Gert, Joachim, and the team for making this visit truly special.

P.S.: the rendering of videos by Instagram is ABSOLUTELY SHIT.  A better version of the video can be found here on YouTube.

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