Hertog Jan: The End

At the start of this year I read online that what I consider to be the best restaurant in Belgium, and even one of the best in the world, was closing down. The partners who run Hertog Jan announced that they would close their doors at the end of 2018. Their reasoning is one I’ve heard before in this industry, along the lines of “We’ve reached the top and achieved all we set out to achieve, so now it’s time to try something new”.

Having eaten there twice before, we snapped up the opportunity to go a third and final time. We arrived on foot, as our lodgings were only a 15-minute walk away. We settled in, please to see that we’d been given the table by the window, like last time. The restaurant filled up quickly; both it and the B’n’B are fully booked until the end of the year.

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We chose the special menu which was a kind of “greatest hits” package of the chef’s favourite dishes, plus wine, and we got a free recipe book thrown in.

Before the menu proper we received five amuse-bouches, and because Gert De Mangeleer is a millennial the first one was avocado, with tomato powder, salt and olive oil.

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Marinated cucumber strips curled around salmon with a jus of champagne and dill oil.

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Pork and pickles. There was a surprisingly large lump of meat under the pork scratching layer on top.

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Potato purée, vanilla, coffee and mimolette cheese. We’d had this one last time too.

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At this point we were invited into the kitchen (no special treatment: everyone had their turn) for a brief look at the prep work.

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While there we were handed our final amuse-bouche: passion fruit meringue containing goose liver and Coca-Cola.

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We were then invited to walk around the gardens with a glass of lemonade. As you can see it’s a serious herb and vegetable plot.

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The red tiled roof is the kitchen; the black low building is the restaurant.

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It was nice to get some fresh air, but it was quite fresh so we didn’t tarry and went back inside for the starters.

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Caviar and plankton on dill-dusted crisps.

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The sun came out just in time for the next dish: sea bass with herbs from the garden, tomatoes, radishes and oil infused with Balinese kaffir lime.

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Pumpkin dim sum with cream of langoustine and a dollop of passion fruit.

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Grilled white asparagus with potato purée and cod roe.

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Guinea fowl with herbs, sorrel and morel mushroom. Perhaps the most plate-lickable dish of the evening. The sauce was amazing.

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The main course: wagyu beef and spicy peppers hiding underneath mushroom discs. The orange blobs are Bernadine sauce (basically béarnaise but with added tomato).

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While my wife opted for the cheese plate I had raspberry mousse with vanilla and rose water.

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And finally, a surprisingly thick and chewy caramel sheet over passion fruit and chocolate.

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At the end of the meal one of the partners stopped by for a chat and discussed their future plans, which are still in flux, but which may include a more traditional Belgian-style bistro back in their initial location nearer Brugge. Whatever they do next, Hertog Jan will be missed, and I’m glad we got to go once, let alone three times.

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Villa Lorraine

We’ve tried to go to Villa Lorraine three times (by the way, you may notice from their website that they also own Villa in the Sky). The first time we had to cancel because my wife was feeling unwell. The second time we had to cancel at the last minute because our car broke down on the way there. This time we both felt fit and well and so did our car, so we made it safe and sound.

Villa Lorraine has been around for a while, and somewhat like Comme Chez Soi its reputation stagnated a little in recent years, only to make a comeback following the appointment of a young new head chef. We arrived and were greeted by a rather elderly valet who insisted on parking our car for us even though we met him in the tiny car park behind the restaurant and he only had to move it a few metres for us into a parking space.

Once inside we chose the longest tasting menu, with wine, and sat back to enjoy the amuse-bouches. All were delicious. Squid ink cracker, foie gras

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Little fried dumplings of cauliflower and aioli.

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Sardine, avocat, vodka tonic.

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Gazpacho with cherries, a burrata sorbet and drops of oregano.

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Lobster, beetroot, crunchy little coffee-flavoured puffs.

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Frogs legs with pecorino and a cress cream.

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Sole with umeboshi (small Japanese pickled fruits) and apricot butter.

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Rabbit three ways, one of which was a slightly greasy, crunchy samosa.

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CHEESE! It’s been a while since I had a decent cheese selection from a trolley, and this one didn’t disappoint. The waiter explained what every single cheese was and then we chose five each. He laid them out on the plate in a specific order and told us to eat them clockwise. The sommelier said that we could have a glass of red wine with it, or if we were feeling daring we could go with his suggestion: saké. Of course I felt daring, and I was rewarded with a surprisingly flavourful and strong glass of saké.

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Sorbet with cardamom and orange.

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Strawberries with gold on them. And little floppy tubes full of cream.

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Nibbles to go with the coffee.

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Pretty good. Glad we finally made it. Although I think Villa in the Sky is probably a little better.

Reading Between The Lines

“Reading Between The Lines” is the name of a sculpture located in a field just outside the small town of Borgloon in the Belgian province of Limburg. The satnav brought us to a small residential street where we saw a sign pointing along a path leading up the hill to the “Doorkijkkerkje” (literally the “little see-through church”).

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The path runs through apple and pear orchards, and after about ten minutes walking we came to another sign explaining that the church/sculpture is made of 100 layers of steel weighing 30 tonnes.

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And there it is.

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Because it’s constructed of horizontal layers of metal, its transparency varies with the angle at which you view it.

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As you get closer to it and look up at it the layers start to overlap, giving an impression of solidity.

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Inside, looking up at the ceiling, the layers overlap completely. Apparently the type of steel used “is a group of steel alloys which were developed to eliminate the need for painting, and form a stable rust-like appearance if exposed to the weather for several years.”

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Looking up inside the steeple.

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And of course even semi-transparent structures can cast solid shadows if the light is coming from a certain angle.

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Here’s a timelapse video of its construction in 2011.

Villa in the Sky

Whenever we told people we were going to eat at Villa in the Sky they would invariably reply “Oh, that one where you dangle from a crane?”. No, this one is in a proper building, although it matches Dinner in the Sky for sheer vertiginousness.

Much like The Cube, this is basically a large glass shed attached to the top of a pre-existing structure (in this case the IT Tower, one of the tallest skyscrapers in Brussels), which contains a pretty small kitchen looking directly onto a dining area which can seat about 30 people. We had been given the table at the far end of the room, looking right over the edge of the building to the streets below.

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The view from our table, across the centre of Brussels:

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I hadn’t expected the room to be this small, or for us to be this close to the edge, and at first I found it a little dizzying and uncomfortable. As you can see the structure is firmly bolted to a set of girders attached to the main building, so we weren’t in danger of wobbling off, but logic doesn’t mitigate irrational fears.

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I sat very still and looked at the horizon. It was perfect weather for enjoying the view, and it was interesting to see many recognisable Brussels landmarks from different angles, and also to notice some things from above which aren’t visible from street level. This is probably the best restaurant view in the city.

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An aperitif helped calm my nerves.

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One other thing we hadn’t realised beforehand was that there was no choice when it came to the food. That probably makes sense given the tiny kitchen, so we were happy to accept the proposed tasting menu, and chose a selection of wines to accompany it. I can no longer be bothered to take detailed notes on what exactly I eat, so the descriptions will be basic and you’ll just have to drool over the photos instead. First amuse-bouche: crab.

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Foie gras cubes, about the size of a thumbnail.

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Blurred photo of raw langoustine marinating in a broth, with a lemon smear on the side.

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Quail egg covered in crunchy stuff and topped with a slice of truffle.

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Bream.

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As the horizon rose to meet the sun they lifted the blinds on the side of the room to let more light in.

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This had the effect of increasing my anxiety a little as the view was now clear on all three sides of me, even in my peripheral vision. But I kept my focus on the plates in front of me and continued drinking to dull the sensation of tumbling forward into the abyss.

A couple of dishes were served by a very young man wearing a large badge which identified him as “Arnaud, the intern”. He was keen to practice his English and described the next dish for us (artichoke, rocket and potato). I would have called the white stuff a “foam”, but he referred to it as a “cloud”. I’m still not sure if he made a mistake, or if it was deliberate, to fit in with the whole ‘in the sky’ theme. Anyway, it was nice, and lacked the bitter edge which often puts me off artichoke.

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Fish, fennel and fregola, which is a type of small, Sardinian pasta. Nice, but the piece of fish was tiny: about the size of my thumb.

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Chicken. Quite salty, although I like that.

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At this point we had a small pause before the meat course so we went outside onto the terrace for a better look at the view. Well, I say ‘outside’. I stood by the doorway and took a couple of quick photos before staggering back to our table.

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Other diners did what people these days do when there’s a view.

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Once we’d sat back down a police helicopter flew past exactly level with us, and scarily close. Seriously, only about 10-15 metres from the window. I bet they did it on purpose to freak us out. Bastards.

Next came the beef. First time I’ve had cheese and gravy together on the same plate. Again, quite salty. Again, I didn’t mind, although some might.

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Cucumber, cream and rum palate cleanser.

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Strawberry dessert. The edible checkered tablecloth was a nice touch.

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And then a selection of smaller sweets with the coffee. Chocolatey caramel stuff.

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Watermelon, meringue and yuzu.

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Red fruit coulis and a spot of wasabi.

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A very nice meal, deserving of its two Michelin stars, and even though most of the courses were petite we didn’t leave feeling hungry. And if you can fight off the vertigo the view is amazing. I’d definitely go back.

Thin ice

A change to the lunchtime routine today. A social event in the lobby provided a free lunch, so my half an hour break was available to be used for something other than eating. Usually that would mean reading, but I wanted some fresh air and exercise and it was a bright, sunny day, so I wandered outside and found a park I’d never visited before, only a few hundred metres from the office.
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Don’t walk on the grass ice.

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Rebellious ducks.

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Frozen feather. The black blob stuck to the twig is a snail. I like how the ice creases and folds around the shell. Still, poor snaily.

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An awful lot of leaves in this pond.

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I was fascinated by the way tiny bubbles under the surface of the ice outline the objects below them; rocks and branches.

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Maybe I should get out more often.

Brussels Toy Museum

Last weekend we paid a brief visit to Brussels toy museum with our smallest child. A couple of years ago we went to the one in Mechelen which is a lot bigger and has a wider range of stuff on display, but the Brussels version has its own charm. It’s chaotic and dusty and haphazard, and concentrates mainly on early to mid-20th century toys. It’s more like stumbling into a large attic full of old and unsorted toys than a real museum, although there are glass display cases and the occasional explanatory note.

This gigantic, limbless, featureless baby doll welcomes you after you’ve paid your entrance fee.

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In one corner of the ground floor there’s a toy kitchen area where a lot of the kids played. In fact quite a lot of the toys were scattered around on the floor and were available to play with.

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The bus, in the centre of this photo, was also a popular seat.

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A display on dolls notes that the first attempts at making racially diverse baby dolls simply involved taking standard white babies and painting them black.

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Another toy kitchen. These dolls are about six inches tall.

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There were a lot of toy shops and kitchens, and I was struck by the detail and craftsmanship of the individual items.

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Fish and squid.

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The religious toy display. Who among us has never wanted to play at being nuns?

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Don’t ask me why this boy has a transparent cage torso. The girl on the left seems to be wondering too.

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The glorious Raj.

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Shadow puppet theatres.

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I remember watching Bonanza on TV as a child, but I never knew there was a toy line.

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Lorne Greene!

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Back in my day we couldn’t afford individual baths, so we’d all pile into the tub together. With a fish.

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There’s a lot more than this on display – it spreads over three floors – and it’s worth and hour or so of your time if you’re in the neighbourhood.

The Restaurant

The Restaurant may possibly win acclaim for its food or admiration for its decor but it’s never going to win prizes for its name. Then again, it is located on the ground floor of The Hotel, so I guess they didn’t have much choice. Still, it’s very silly and makes it difficult to search for information or reviews online.

The decor is serious and sumptuous: lots of heavy fabrics and velvet, lots of black, with spots lighting the room. It reminded me a bit of Via Lamanna. We were given a table for two by the window and a menu. The lighting was a bit hit and miss, which explains the graininess of some of my iPhone photos.

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Looks easy, doesn’t it? But in fact you have to choose a country as well as an ingredient. There are three chefs in the kitchen: French, Italian and Thai. Each has created a dish based around each of these main ingredients, so you can choose, for example, Thai Egg for starter, and Italian Sea Bream for the main, or whatever.

To make the choice easier we were given an iPad which allowed you to scan through the illustrated menu switching between ingredients and chefs. This was handy, but then I don’t see the point of having both the iPad and the printed menu.

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The golden swoosh seems to be an obligatory part of the sea bream dish.

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We made our selections and then received an amuse-bouche of salmon.

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My starter was French Mushroom, which took the form of a salade folle: mushroom and salad and herbs and truffle shavings. It was fine, but lacked a little punch, I felt. And dill was a weird choice of herb as it seemed to be the most dominant flavour. The truffle, by contrast, was fairly tasteless. I’ve had this experience before: cook with it as an ingredient and it’s wonderful and distinctive; but just shave it, raw, onto the top of the dish and it’s just like eating a chewy cardboard disc.

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My main was French Guinea Fowl, which was supposedly a deconstructed club sandwich. Eggs, salad, bacon, and curly bits of toast. Nice.

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My wife made a slightly better choice: the mouthful I tried of her Thai Beef main was delicious.

It was quite filling so we skipped dessert, although I was momentarily tempted by the “Autumn Éclair”. Our wine for the evening was an Australian Shiraz and very nice it was too. I also liked the way the light from the table lamp passed through the bottle and lit the label from behind.

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I liked the concept and would be willing to try it again. But considering the prices they’re asking I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed by the food.