Surprisingly, one of the best meals I had in my December Europe trip was one that was not even on my radar a day before. But perhaps it wasn’t so surprising – for that restaurant, Zet’joe, was the most recent incarnation of a 3 Michelin-star restaurant that had recently closed, De Karmeliet.
Michelin is unreliable these days, having forsaken its perceived veil of objectivity to be sponsored by national tourism offices (e.g. Singapore, Thailand). In Europe however, I still rely heavily on its ratings. (After all, the Roman roads and aqueducts built in Western Europe still functioned despite the Empire’s unsuccessful expansions Northward in later years.) On the morning of my last full day in Bruges, I did my usual search for a Michelin starred restaurant that would represent the region’s cooking. The highest-starred extant restaurant was a two-starred one in a town 10km away, but logistics would be tricky after a heavy dinner. During all this Googling time, I was inwardly kvetching about the timing of Bruges’s 3-star De Karmeliet’s closure. A couple weeks earlier, and we would have been able to make it. But the information on the web was inconsistent. While every news article had listed De Karmeliet as closed in early December, De Karmeliet’s website was still functioning, and stranger still, was redirecting to the websites of two other restaurants. Could it be?
I began to pore more into De Karmeliet’s website. It appeared that the chef had set up two new restaurants, Bistro Refter and Zet’joe. (they are now three, with another called Bon Refter set up in 2017). We called Zet’joe at 9am, got their last table for the day, and the rest is happy history.
After a day in beautiful but freezing Bruges, (and loading up on half a suitcase of chocolate from Bruge’s best chocolatier Spegelaere) we made the 20 minute canal-side walk from our Airbnb apartment to the Eastern part of the old town where Zet’joe was located.
The restaurant had two different tasting menus, but I felt the dinner would be safe and a bit uninspiring. Seabass, scallops, and lamb may be good, but more often than not they are just trope courses where the diner (me) faintly dislikes it because he imagines how he could have made the same at home, and the chef faintly dislikes it because the expectations of the lowest-common denominator diner hews too close to convention to really do something exciting with it.
So I decided to go with a la carte. Much more expensive, but more chances for a memorable meal.
- Parmesan gougeres
- Amuse bouche: green apple with goat cheese
- The sour notes and pungency worked well together to get us hungry
- Langoustine “Royale”, preserved eggplant, goose liver, infusion of seaweed and mushrooms
- My partner had this. From what I tasted, it seemed an elegant mix of grilled langoustine with dashi and foie.
- Brussels chicories, Duke of Berkshire ham, “raclette cheese” and black truffle from Richeranche (4.75/5)
- This dish was described to us as the chef reviving memories of a dish his grandmother used to cook for him.
- Soft foam clouds of what I think was cheese, really lended this dish the character of a reverie. The earthy bitter tastes of chicory went very well with the classic flavors of ham, black truffle, and raclette cheese. The saucing was rich and left my appetite whetted for more
- “Coucou de Malines” – chicken breast, white truffle from Alba, Albufeira sauce, preserved legs (2 courses) (5/5)
- First course (5/5): a succulent, savory roast chicken, showered with very late season Alba truffles, twists of crispy salsify, boiled salsify root, and mushroom mash. Since we were the only ones ordering off the a la carte menu that day (it is about 2-3 times the price of the standard tasting menu), they made the mushroom mash for us, and we got seconds of the mushroom mash.
- The chicken was very well done. I usually don’t order chicken as the piece de resistance for a fine-dining meal, but it was everything you could ask chicken to breast to be – juicy, with crispy skin, succulent. It was paired with a delicious albufeira sauce, an Escoffier-era derivation of veloute. It was just a delight to eat all portions of this dish, which is probably my favorite fine-dining chicken dish ever.
- Second course (4.75/5): The second preparation was the meat from the confit chicken legs, with a chicken consomme, sweet-sour cubes of foie, artichoke and carrots. It was a very good soup dish, and showcased the chef’s versatility well.
- Flavours of chocolate, caramel and orange (5/5)
- I love the combination of chocolate and orange. A well-executed chocolate cake with orange gel and caramel ice cream. The cake was not too cloying/heavy as cakes with too much flour can be, and the intelligent combination of textures (a common theme through the meal, starting with the clouds of cheese in my chicory starter and the salsify crisp in my first course of chicken) suggested the chef has a first-class understanding of the diner’s mind.
- Pineapple, foamed egg white, ice cream of banana and passion fruit, infusion of southernwood and rum
- My partner had this – ile flottante, with a banana-passionfruit sorbet and brunoise of pineapple and passionfruit
After dinner, we spoke to the manager, the chef’s wife. The reason they had closed down De Karmeliet and opened two (now three) restaurants in its stead was not for any waning love of cooking, but because chef Geert van Hecke, 60 years old and feeling the strain on his knees in the big Karmeliet kitchen, wanted a smaller space to cook. “The cooking remains exactly the same”. I don’t doubt that, for the meal was of the highest quality, and I’m hoping to try more of Geert van Hecke’s cooking the next time I’m in Belgium.
a piece from the chef’s art collection
My most ecstatic moment of the meal – two bites in, and realizing how good the chicken dish is. Having some extra mushroom potato mash just beyond the plate, and about to attack the dish with real gusto. I wish I could have this dish every week!