July 4, 2018

Europe 2018 day 5: the hellfires of Ghent

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After checking into Hotel Harmony, we decided to spend what little time we had before dinner strolling around the center of Ghent.  There were several historic churches and belfries that definitely deserved a look.

We started around the square in front of the Stadhuis and took a look at Sint-Niklaaskerk, which was a fairly big church.

Then we passed by the Belfort which is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Belfries of Belgium and France.  Like many other historical sites we have visited in Belgium over the last few days, there seemed to be restoration work being done.

A few steps away was Sint-Baafskathedraal, which is also quite large and impressive with its tall tower.

Before long, it was time for our dinner appointment at Chambre Séparée.  I had received several recommendations from friends to visit this restaurant, and it seemed that this place from Chef Kobe Desramaults is a rising star.

As impossible as it would seem, THIS was the place where I ran into my old friend Little Meg.  What are the chances of running into one of your friends - who is also coming from the other side of the world - at the same restaurant with a booking at the same time?  Simply surreal.

Although I wasn't very hungry - and Hello Kitty was still full from lunch - we braced ourselves for the onslaught of 20 courses coming our way.  But first we had to take a seat outdoors as the restaurant wasn't ready for us yet.

Cucumber water - with verbena and asparagus.  It was scorching outside and this was what they served us.  I was thirsty as hell, and wondered why it was that restaurants in Belgium only give you just 2 sips of these herb-infused water when it was obvious that you could have downed 2 bottles of liquids to re-hydrate yourself from the heat.  I felt the same way at L'Air du Temps a few days ago...

When we were finally asked to move inside, we found ourselves seated at a C-shaped counter facing the open kitchen.

What caught my eye immediately was the presence of the open charcoal grills - plus a wood-fired oven.  Throughout the evening we would watch the fires burn as various ingredients were cooked over the flames.

Grey shrimp, peas - this was pretty nice.  Apparently almost all of the crevettes grises that are caught are cooked immediately on the fishing boats once caught, but these have been kept alive via a special arrangement.

Given I had already enjoyed a nice bottle of wine at lunch, and as I was getting a little tired, I chose not to drink any more alcohol during dinner.  Instead I asked for a juice pairing.

Sloe berry, cherry blossom, and lemon - this almost tasted like hawthorn.

Kohlrabi, rose petals - I was a little freaked out when this was put in front of me, because they actually looked like human fingers that had been cut off with coagulated blood on them... The cylinders of kohlrabi had been wrapped with rose petals, then the ends dipped in cherry powder.  Well, these basically tasted like pickles...

Mackerel, rhubarb, nasturtium - diced cubes of mackerel with rhubarb sauce wrapped in nasturtium.  Nothing special.

Vichyssoise young leek, lavender - I love vichyssoise when the weather is warm, and this was very nice with the leek oil.  The lavender added a whole new dimension to it.

Brioche for the vichyssoise.

White tea, parsnip, and fennel - nose was a little pungent, with weird fermentation notes and smelled like acidic pickles, but on the palate it was actually OK.  Not too acidic, a little fizzy, but it does taste like pickled radish...

Cauliflower, fish roe, caviar - the cauliflower had been roasted over the open flame, dressed in sour cream with turbot roe, goat cheese, and Belgian oscietra caviar.  Pretty fermented flavors here, almost like bottarga.

Yellow courgette, tagète, langoustine - inside the courgette custard made with white bean miso was raw langoustine, finished with marigold dressing.  The custard was rich and creamy, but got the bitterness of citrus zest somehow.  Not a great dish.

The next juice was made with figs, matcha, and sap of some African tree whose name I couldn't catch.  A little acidity here with matcha flavors, almost a little savory.  Thankfully no real licorice flavor from the tree sap.

Broad bean, coriander, quail egg - the smoked quail egg turned out not to be very smoky.  The cucumber and celery broth was interesting as it had some sweetness on top of savory notes.

Swimmercrabs - the crabs didn't have much meat on them, but they've been roasted at high temperature to concentrate their flavors.  Then they were crushed in a press to squeeze out the juices.

Once in a cup, the juice was whisked with aged whipped cream and finished with pine oil.  Such intensity and purity of crab flavors.  Awesome.

We were shown a sea bass line-caught off the Belgian coast of the North Sea.

Sea bass, clams - the sea bass was served together with some clams, which were sweet and packed a lot of flavors without being overpowering.  Unfortunately the last clam I ate had some sand inside.

Water kefir, pineapple sage, peppermint - like juice from pickled radish.

Turbot, ramson capers - the turbot was grilled, then dressed with a sauce made with snapper heads, ramson capers, herbs, and leek flowers.  The leek flowers seemed to have been pickled and definitely delivered some kick, and I wondered whether there was mustard in the sauce... which was very rich and creamy, but not too heavy thanks to some acidity.  Very nice.

Lobster from Oosterschelde, sorrel mash - served with some butter sauce mixed with the goodies from the lobster heads.  Served with mashed potatoes flavored with sorrel.  Pretty decent.

Carrots, yellow beets, pumpkin seeds - kinda OK.

Sweetbread, gooseberry, tahini - Kobe was just hanging out with my friend The Hungry Tourist in Israel last week, and was apparently inspired to create this dish as he brought back some tahini.  This was alright, but probably a little more substantial in portion than I would have preferred.

Lamb, aubergine, shiso, mint - the leg of lamb came with the skin on, which turned out to be a little chewy and a little smoky.  I could certainly taste the mint on top.  The eggplant caviar on the side was OK.

Holstein tartare, miso, rapeseed - the tart combined rapeseeds, beef tartare, egg yolk, beet miso, and garnished with mustard seeds that definitely showed their kick.  This was the only course I disliked as it was bitter on the palate.  Unbelievable as it may sound, I actually had to rinse my palate with some beetroot juice, and anyone who knows me well enough would know how much it takes for me to do something like that.

Elderflower, camomile, pine - very refreshing.  The pine wasn't overpowering, and we've got some acidity and fizziness.

Sourdough, "Bernister" - with rhubarb compote.  Rich and heavy, powerful flavors, very ripe.  Great pairing with the juice.

Gooseberry, tarragon - some green gooseberry granité on top of tarragon crème, garnished with a red gooseberry.  Plenty of acidity from the granité, and it worked better with the crème.

Fermented cherries, blackberries, and nasturtium roots - definitely got that fermented taste.

Raspberry, ricotta - the raspberries were marinated in woodruff sugar, and came with savory ricotta sorbet along with some chiffonade of herbs inside.

Cherry pit crème brûlée, cherry sorbet - this was definitely my favorite dessert.  Great crunchy brûlée along with acidity to balance.

Thyme ice cream, Belgian biscuit - the thyme flavors were really strong.

Mignardises - millefeuille made with meadowsweet and coffee glaze.

This was a very, very long meal... and with the exception of the tourist trap food we had on Sunday, probably my least favorite meal in Belgium.  Certainly the most disappointing.  Now why was that?

First of all, the environment was unbearable.  The temperature was about 30°C outside when we started, and the restaurant had no air conditioning.  The front door was left open to regulate the temperature, and that was necessary because we were facing an open kitchen with multiple open flames that could have been bonfires.  I was sweating throughout the entire dinner, and ever so thankful that I wasn't seated nearest to the grill.  This factor alone made for a very unpleasant dining experience.

The way I felt about this meal was similar to how I felt about my dinner at Saison a few years ago.  Out of the 20 courses tonight there was only 1 that I disliked, but at the same time there were so few of them where I felt any sort of satisfaction, magic, or happiness.  In that sense perhaps it is correctly placed as a 1-star, but I had been led to believe that this place had a lot more potential.

So I guess when my expectations had been (perhaps unjustifiably) lifted to a high level, the disappointment in not having them met was inevitably magnified.  For what it's worth, my friend shared my opinion.  Just not enough magic here.

Perhaps we're just too fucking jaded.

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