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't Zilte in Antwerp - 2 Michelin stars

Rating: 93.
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It would be stating the obvious to say that the Belgians, both in Flanders and in Wallonia, are Burgundian people. Food and drink are very important, even essential, aspects of life here. Historically they are Burgundian too however; in the 15th century, large parts of what is today the Kingdom of Belgium became part of the Duchy of Burgundy. After the death of Charles le Téméraire in 1477, the Burgundian possessions were split among France and the Habsburgs, but with some poetic licence one might say that the Burgundian legacy still remains today, more than five hundred years later.

It is certainly no coincidence that the first two restaurants outside France to be awarded three Michelin stars were in Brussels (Villa Lorraine and Comme Chez Soi) and in the 2013 guide Belgium boasts no fewer than 3 restaurants with three stars, 16 with two stars and 94 with one star. Quite amazing numbers for a country with fewer than 11 million inhabitants. It is noticeable too that the starred establishments (or the Bib Gourmands, for that matter) are not concentrated in the main cities but spread more or less evenly around the country; perhaps this too is a sign of a mature gastronomic culture? Antwerp in particular is not a star-studded city; for many years some six restaurants with one star was all this great port had to show for itself. Perhaps food in Antwerp is more about mussels and chips and De Koninck beer than about fine dining?

It was a great addition to the Antwerp fine dining scene therefore when in May 2011 restaurant 't Zilte opened on the 9th (top) floor of the brand new MAS (Museum aan de Stroom, "Museum on the River") building, erected on the site of the former Hanzehuis. Husband and wife team Viki Geunes (chef) and Vivian Plaquet (maitre d'hotel) brought their two Michelin stars from the town of Mol, where they had opened 't Zilte in the late nineties. Viki Geunes was trained as an industrial engineer but decided that a career in this field was not for him after all. Coming from a "Burgundian" family, he decided to pursue a career in gastronomy instead. He is mainly self-taught and his hard work met with approval from Michelin; the first star was awarded in 2005 and the second star followed in 2007 (2008 guide).

't Zilte in Antwerp is open for lunch and dinner Monday till Friday (no lunch on Monday). The restaurant offers a 'Smaak Tendens' tasting menu and a vegetarian tasting menu (5 courses €115, 7 courses €140, 9 courses €160) and there's a daily changing 3-course lunch menu for €65. I had lunch at 't Zilte with my husband on Thursday 13 June 2013 and we both ordered the 9-course Smaak Tendens menu.

We started our meal with six amuse bouches: (i) Sweet breads (cream and crisps) with runner beans (jelly and chopped) and mustard seeds - (ii) scallop marshmallow with sesame dressing, scallop crisps and a corn crème - (iii) ring-shaped vegetable puree with goat's cheese crème, parsley crumble, smoked eel and grapefruit - (iv) mackerel tartare with a quinoa caviar salad and a citrus foam - (v) lightly smoked lamb tartare with grated romanesco, ricotta, crumbled cauliflower, malt crumble and lemon thyme - (vi) foie gras crèmeux with various carrot textures and passion fruit. Six attractive amuse bouches with elegant and precise flavours. The lamb tartare and the foie gras and carrot amuse were both outstanding and were substantial enough to be regarded as full-fledged dishes.

First course of the tasting menu was Cod, radish, cod brandade, kimchi, red onion, brown shrimps. Dollops of salty cod brandade served with sliced and halved radishes, a green olive jelly, thin slices of lightly salted and smoked fresh cod, a few spoonfuls of kimchi mixed with salmon eggs, cod skin crispies, finely chopped red onions marinated in red wine vinegar and some fresh brown shrimps. The cod brandade was nice and creamy and had a wonderful, smooth texture. Great freshness and texture from the radishes. Lovely sweet saltiness from the brown shrimps and the kimchi delivered the perfect touch of sharpness. A superb dish with a fantastic balance between salty, creamy and fresh flavours.

Second course, Squid, anchovy, courgette (yellow, green and puree), palm heart, green curry. A beautifully presented dish of delicate and tender squid tagliatelle and delicious crispy squid rings, served with a light and creamy curry sauce that had a nice spicy finish. A wonderful variety of textures and clean flavours, the anchovy delivering a lovely touch of salty richness.

Three perfectly cooked, juicy frog's legs were up next. The frog's legs were served with a wild garlic sauce, some burnt onions, spring onions and some lovely crispy onion rings. A sophisticated frog's legs dish with elegant sweet flavours from both the frog's legs and the onions, lifted by the fresh and tangy wild garlic sauce.

On to the fourth course. Red mullet, green chorizo, peas, avocado, coriander. An excellent piece of moist and very flavoursome red mullet with a nice crispy skin, served with a delicious pure pea cream, fresh peas, sour cream, avocado puree, an elegant coriander and soy jus and a beautifully made avocado cylinder filled with pea crème and finely chopped green chorizo. A glorious dish with great sweet and rich flavours, balanced out perfectly by the freshness of the sour cream and the sharpness in the avocado cream. Well-judged use of coriander too.

Fifth course: Crab, eel, fennel, artichoke, elderflower. A piece of meaty and moist barbecued eel, topped with crab and served with braised artichoke, a pure and intense artichoke crème, beurre noisette foam and elderflower vinaigrette. Lovely earthy, rich flavours from the artichoke and the beurre noisette delivered a nice touch of warmth. Also on the plate was some delicious grilled fennel and a very flavoursome smoked eel crème.  A wonderful dish with a variety of textures and full-bodied flavours and a perfect balance between richness, freshness and bitters.

Sixth course was lobster, girolles, tomato sambal, pak choi, Lebanese bread. Lovely succulent lobster accompanied by some meaty and buttery girolles, a delicious sweet and spicy tomato sambal and tomato crumbs. The girolles delivered a nice flavour contrast to the lobster and the tomato sambal provided just the right amount of freshness and heat. With the lobster came three small wraps with a lobster tartare, fresh tomato salsa and greek yoghurt filling. A very well-executed dish with exciting flavours. The wraps however, lovely though they were on their own, didn't add much to the dish.

Langoustine, rabbit, plum, Pertuis asparagus and hemp seeds followed. Delicately sweet langoustine served with a tender piece of rabbit loin and meltingly delicious rabbit rillettes wrapped in asparagus. Lovely sweet plum puree and nice crunch from the hemp seeds. Even better was the absolutely sublime rabbit jus. The subtle game flavours from the rabbit married beautifully with the sweetness of the langoustine. This was an exquisite dish. Rabbit and plums is a classic combination of course and rabbit and langoustines are known to work well together too, but to combine these three ingredients so successfully requires imagination, skill and attention to detail.

Eighth course: Veal, celeriac, goat's cheese, bone marrow, parsley. Fantastic pink and tender veal topped with a lovely mixture of bone marrow, parsley and shallot and served with a rich, well-reduced jus, celeriac puree, baby turnips and some braised celeriac. Terrific but incredibly rich flavours. The goat's cheese did deliver some freshness but not enough to balance the richness.

The final two courses of the tasting menu were two desserts. The first dessert: Pineapple, jasmin, muscovado, cloves. Fresh pineapple marinated in warm spices and chilli, accompanied by Italian meringue, a muscovado biscuit and garnished with fresh lemon verbena leaves. A delightful dessert with well-judged use of spices. Lovely textures too, although the muscovado biscuit had a surprisingly soft texture; not sure whether this was intentional.

This was followed by Amarena cherries, 'hangop' (strained yoghurt), hibiscus and dark chocolate. Lovely rich and sticky amarena cherries served with a refreshing and tart raspberry sorbet, thin rhubarb triangles, fresh and creamy 'hangop', and some delicious chocolate crumbs and grated chocolate. A lovely combination of sweet, sour and tart flavours.

Two final bites: chocolate - apricot - caramel (left ) and rose - almond - raspberry (right).

With our coffees we were offered an impressive selection of homemade sweet delicacies, such as rum babas, peanut crème sandwiches, tea cakes and raspberry cakes.

This was a very convincing meal from a chef who rarely misses a beat. The cuisine at 't Zilte is sophisticated, modern and innovative. The cooking is precise and the dishes are interesting and exciting; the chef successfully incorporates foreign, eclectic ingredients to create a tension that really elevates the dishes. This is clever cooking that displays technical assurance, but it does not aim to dazzle the diner with molecular techniques.

Viki Geunes creates intelligent and well-conceived food. His dishes are visually very attractive, the presentation is artistic and colourful and represents the vibrant, playful and clean flavours very well. Sometimes the plates can be quite busy, but the flavours are always balanced. Service was attentive but perhaps slightly formal. Since there are very few tall buildings in Antwerp, it would be difficult to talk about this restaurant as performing at a high level and to claim that no pun was intended. That is exactly what I am going to do however: 't Zilte delivers cuisine at a very high level that challenges the intellect and satisfies the senses.

Posted 07-08-2013


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