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De Karmeliet in Bruges - 3 Michelin stars

Rating: 92.
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Outstanding (93-95)
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Belgium currently counts 3 three-star restaurants: De Karmeliet in Bruges, Hof Van Cleve in Kruishoutem and Hertog Jan in Zedelgem (near Bruges). De Karmeliet has held this honour since 1996, making it the longest running three-star restaurant in Belgium at present. Chef-patron is Geert Van Hecke (b. 1956), who started the restaurant, with his wife Mireille, in 1983 on the corner of the Jeruzalemstraat and the Carmersstraat in Bruges. De Karmetliet was awarded its first Michelin star in 1985, a second star followed in 1989, around the same time the restaurant moved to its current premises on the Langestraat. After attending catering college in Koksijde (West Flanders), Geert Van Hecke started his career at Le Sanglier des Ardennes in Durbuy (Belgian Ardennes) and later on he worked at the then three-starred Villa Lorraine in Brussels and Dodin-Bouffant in Paris. His formative years were spent however in the kitchens of legendary chef Alain Chapel in Mionnay. Also working in Chapel's kitchens at the time was Michel Roux jr.

De Karmeliet ('the Carmelite') is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday till Saturday. The restaurant offers an a la carte menu and three multiple-course tasting menus, there's the 8-course 'Brugge die scone' menu for €210, the 3-course 'Het vlakke land' menu for €85 (not available on Saturdays) and a seasonal 4-course menu for €145. I had dinner with my husband at De Karmeliet on Thursday 22 August 2014 and we both ordered the 'Brugge die scone' (Brugge the beautiful) menu.

With our aperitifs we were served some delicious homemade paprika-flavoured crisps with freshly grated matured Gouda cheese. Some more nibbles followed. A crisp tartlet flavoured with Italian herbs and topped with a juicy tomato and black olives; some honey-roasted almonds with Italian herbs; a grey shrimp bisque with cauliflower mousseline, a spoon with herring (maatje), beetroot, cucumber and Granny Smith apple; and some burrata with a Coeur de Boeuf tomato sorbet, basil pesto and a fresh cherry tomato (no photograph). A lovely start of the meal, the shrimp bisque and herring being particularly lovely.

The first course of the tasting menu was Oosterschelde (Eastern Scheldt) lobster, served with Coeur de boeuf tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, grilled squid, a courgette flower, a red pepper sauce and some tomato salsa seasoned with basil and shallot. A light and elegant dish with fresh and clean flavours. Both the lobster and squid were nice and tender and they paired well with tomatoes, that brought both sweetness and acidity to the dish. Nice bittersweet flavours from the creamy red pepper sauce - a nice extra flavour dimension.

This was followed by slow-cooked red mullet, complemented by a superb Pinot Noir beurre blanc sauce, a light fennel crème, a crunchy fennel salad, some 'al dente' red Camargue rice, a few Bouchot mussels, and a transparent algae crisp. A brilliant dish with a beautiful synergy between the delicate sea-salty flavours of the red mullet and the mussels, and the fennel highlighted the flavours of the red mullet wonderfully. The sauce was of exceptional quality, deep layers of flavour and fantastic mild caramel notes.

The meal continued with marinated 'Label Rouge' salmon coated with Tandoori spices , accompanied by green asparagus, Grenaille potatoes, a soft quail's egg coated with ham crumbs, Iberico ham, and a few dots of Tandoori-yoghurt sauce. Combining salmon with Tandoori usually works nicely when the salmon is cooked, but it doesn't really work with fresh, marinated salmon. The Tandoori spices and sauce didn't bring anything to this dish and were a distraction from the otherwise lovely ingredients.

Fourth course was a delicious juicy langoustine, served with soft aubergine, seared goose liver, a langoustine broth 'infused' with algae and lemongrass, and garnished with some dried seaweed strips. A substantially delightful dish with a nice series of textures and flavour contrasts. Lovely soft and sweet aubergine and the goose liver had a nice fatty texture. The broth was flavoursome, but the algae and especially the lemongrass were nondescript.

Next up was a hefty and crowded dish of duck from the Dombes area in France. Skillfully cooked, intensely flavoured duck, served with some soft and pillowy potato gnocchi, halved cherries, grilled melon, sugar snap peas, a large quenelle of crushed fresh peas, a carrot crème flavoured with curry spices, and a Krieken (sour cherry) sauce. The carrot-curry crème married wonderfully with the duck, as did the sauce, which had a nice caramelised sweetness to it. Also on the plate was a mixture of braised neck meat, pistachios and coarsely crushed black peppercorns, wrapped in a thin sheet of carrot, the peppercorns unfortunately being a quite dominant flavour. Overall this was a good dish, but I didn't find it refined enough.

After my husband and I had shared some cheese, the meal continued with desserts and other sweet delicacies. First there was an elegant dessert of vanilla ice cream, a light melon espuma, melon balls, a yoghurt crème, pistachio sponge cake, raspberry coulis, fresh raspberries and some crumble. A well-executed but slightly straightforward dessert. Next we were served a variety of cakes and sweets, including a lovely passionfruit marshmallow with crunchy chocolate pearls in it. Last to arrive was a pleasing dessert of white chocolate bavarois, accompanied by milk chocolate crème, poached pear, pear puree, caramel ice cream and some almond cake.

Unsurprisingly, Geert Van Hecke is revered as one the godfathers of modern Belgian haute cuisine and De Karmeliet is certainly one of the longest-established fine dining destination restaurants in Belgium. I had visited De Karmeliet in 2002 and 2007 and I was curious to see how the live experience anno 2014 measured up to my (fond) memories. Overall it was an excellent meal, but it did not knock my socks off. There were some misfires, sometimes in the execution, sometimes in the flavours. Even though the cooking was technically very good in general, some of the dishes lacked finesse. I did not find the creativity, excitement and inspired cooking I was looking for from a Grand Chef. On the contrary, I found the cuisine at De Karmeliet rather staid and sometimes even tired, and even the high quality of the ingredients and the charming service could not make up for that.

Posted 28-09-2014


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