Gert de Mangeleer and Joachim Boudens have brought a whiff of fresh air to dining in Bruges. Their restaurant Hertog Jan has become the latest 3* in Belgium and offers modern and contemporary cuisine, mainly based on the produce of Flanders.
In its current location, Hertog Jan will not exist much longer. Next year, the team plans to move to an old farmhouse, where they already grow their own vegetables and plan to give ‘farm to table’ dining an even more important place in the restaurant.
Whilst a dish such as a vegetable and herb salad is the perfect example of this philosophy, it does not mean that de Mangeleer refuses to use produce from elsewhere or advanced cooking methods. Even more characteristic of his food are combinations that are a little out of the box.
The best example for this would be a piece of compressed watermelon, which is served with mozzarella, a sliver of radish and a healthy portion of caviar. Whilst this dish sounds a little bizarre and not very convincing, it could become the perfect signature dish for Gert de Mangeleer: It does not only feature a combination of produce that is unique, but it also tastes delicious. It is a dish, where the salty caviar is mellowed a bit by the sweet freshness of the melon, and given a creamy background by the mozzarella. Paired ingeniously by Joachim Boudens with a beer from Hainaut, it is the sort of dish that strikes you with its simplicity and harmony.
The same sort of idiosyncratic combinations comes with an avocado, tomato and olive oil dish. Slices of raw avocado are powdered with an intense tomato powder, topped with fleur de sel and drizzled with olive oil. What appears so simple, is in fact a plate that is surprisingly complex and delicious. At first the avocado takes the centre stage, but as you eat it, the tomato powder comes through more and more. In the end you have the rich, warmth of very concentrated tomatoes and the silky, vegetal aspect of the avocado. Accentuated by the salt and olive oil, this is a dish that shows how de Mangeleer can create complex food with few ingredients.
Equally good is something that sounds no more exciting and convincing than the caviar starter: A re-interpretation of sushi, with salmon, rice, soy and burned cucumber. De Mangeleer serves a slice of salmon topped with a thin layer of pickled ginger and a piece of burned and marinated cucumber. On the side, creams of soy and rice add a creamy texture, whilst puffed rice with seaweed gives some crunch. As you can see, this doesn’t only feature all of the elements that one would expect to find in sushi, but it combines them in a resolutely modern and thoughtful manner. Given the quality and preparation of the salmon and the other parts of the dish, this is one of the few interesting twists on sushi we have eaten.
Compared with previous visits, we must say that the cooking at Hertog Jan has evolved a lot. Two years ago for instance, the plates were more “busy”, and did not have such a distinct personality. Now however, it seems that de Mangeleer has really found his own culinary style, which is combined with well-chosen wines by Joachim Boudens. What characterises both of them in their work is the fact that they try to use something others do not. Apart from sticking to a few wine producers that we all know and love, Boudens tries to play with unusual combinations and less-known wines in his pairings. This is in line with de Mangeleer’s cooking, which features combinations that are quite rare or might seem odd, but always deliver. Here is the strength of Hertog Jan, which we are happy has come more to the front to justify the third Michelin star, this young brigade has recently earned.
Hertog Jan is a restaurant, where progress can be felt and followed. From humble beginnings, the team here have sought to achieve ever more ambitious goals and produce food that is at the top in Belgium and might soon be among the best in Europe.