The culinary landscape of Belgium has rapidly changed over the last few years. Talented chefs as Vicky Geunes, Kobe Desramaults, Filip Claeys and Gert De Mangeleer seem to have overtaken the older generation, many of which lost some of their stars during the last few years. One of the few remaining triple-starred bastions is De Karmeliet. Is it logical that they still have three stars while other big names names lost them?
Once you sit down and are given the menu and wine list, you will understand how chef Geert van Hecke was able to build this temple of his: He charges obscene amounts of money for wine and Parisian prices for his dishes. Don’t even bother looking for bottles under €100, they are rare and of no interest whatsoever on this list. The reason are the high mark-ups; up to 10-times retail. This is the sort of wine list that makes even water taste surprisingly satisfying.
The stage is thus set, and given the look of De Karmeliet and the cost of eating here, you might expect something rather spectacular. Unfortunately, it is here that things start going pear-shaped. The food is not of the level you might (rightfully) expect from a restaurant like this.
Geert van Hecke’s style is difficult to describe. At times he looks for Asian flavours, at others he goes for more classical French dishes and in some cases he even tries to serve ‘modern’ dishes. Having trained under Alain Chapel, he was one of the first chefs in Belgium to have received three Michelin stars, and was known for gutsy, product-driven, classical French food. Today, this is not the case anymore, as the food here seems diffuse, and tries to hard to be everything that it cannot be.
A good example of such a plate of food is a combination of sweetbreads, king crab, peas and croutons. This sounds quite delicious. The issue then is the fact that a creamy emulsion dominates the entire dish. None of the ingredients sticks out or is even noticeable, making it look more like a nice bistro dish than the sort of starter you would expect from a restaurant of this level.
Slightly better, but a little muted is a piece of beef with foie gras. Technically, this is a solid dish. The issue here is the fact that the flavours lack intensity and this lets the dish down considerably. The same happens with a duck with orange. The meat is tough, which is not pleasant. The sauce is so subtle that one cannot really detect any orange in it whatsoever. Perhaps we are just used to the rich and complex sauces of Ducasse, Le Squer, and the likes?
The desserts are not exactly of the highest quality either. Even a simple chocolate soufflé is overcooked and thus has an unpleasant texture. Solace only comes from a delicious baba au rhum, which comes with the petit-fours. If only that was a proper dessert on the menu, it would have no trouble being the best of all we have eaten at De Karmeliet during our visits.
Understanding De Karmeliet is difficult. We visited the restaurant several times over the past years and must say that if anything, it looks weaker and weaker compared to restaurants such as Hof van Cleve, Sea Grill, Hertog Jan, In de Wulf or ‘T Zilte to name but a few in Belgium. Somehow, one has the feeling that the Michelin has been overly generous with the three-star rating.