The All-Vege­tar­ian Miche­lin Odyssey

Three award-win­ning chefs in Flan­ders, Belgium, pre­pare zero-meat meals for the dis­cern­ing Indian foodie

Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - Brunch - - THE TRAVEL ISSUE - Text and pho­tos by Gir­ija Dug­gal

As an avid trav­eller and self­pro­fessed foodie, the joy of dis­cov­er­ing new lands is very of­ten marred by the ba­nal­ity of culi­nary op­tions avail­able to a vege­tar­ian like me.

Sure, there is al­ways bread and cheese to fall back on when you are bored of pas­tas, risot­tos and green leaves mas­querad­ing as salad, but what about gourmet op­tions that aren’t limited to pricier and pret­tier ver­sions of the above­men­tioned dishes?

So imag­ine my sur­prise when a visit to Belgium’s pic­turesque Flan­ders left me not just hap­pily sated, but also with a new per­spec­tive on high-end vege­tar­ian din­ing.

Flan­ders has been the epi­cen­tre of a culi­nary rev­o­lu­tion in re­cent years, with a host of in­trepid chefs ex­per­i­ment­ing with in­gre­di­ents, tech­niques and flavours. In the process, they have carved out a new iden­tity for Flem­ish cui­sine and col­lected over a hun­dred Miche­lin stars.

Three years ago, I found my­self in the tiny Flem­ish town of Bruges, dis­patched by my then-edi­tor on a Miche­lin-starhop­ping culi­nary quest. Bruges is the fine din­ing cap­i­tal of Belgium, ri­valling Paris and Lon­don in the num­ber of Miche­lin stars per capita. Two of Belgium’s three-starred es­tab­lish­ments, Her­tog Jan and the soon-to-close De Karmeliet, are lo­cated here, apart from other cel­e­brated restau­rants like De Jonkman and the sin­gle-starred Au­berge De Her­borist.

This lat­ter place, whose name lit­er­ally trans­lates to Herbal­ist’s Inn, was my first port of call.

Here chef Alex Han­buck­ers of­fers a fresh daily menu, serving dishes that the Miche­lin guide has de­scribed as ‘fresh, in­tel­li­gent and beau­ti­fully en­hanc­ing the qual­ity of the fine pro­duce’.

My meal be­gan with an amuse­bouche of can­nel­loni of cu­cum­ber, radish and ar­ti­choke served with pick­led veg­eta­bles and potato crisps — a de­li­cious com­bi­na­tion of sour and sweet, crunch­i­ness and creami­ness — and a salty quinoa salad topped with a creamy cu­cum­ber mousse. The three-part main course was a thin disc of cold tomato pâté topped with fried onion rings, spring onion, greens and lightly spiced rice pop­padams, fol­lowed by A Walk in the Chef ’s Gar­den, a vis­ually-pow­er­ful treat pre­pared with leeks, aubergine, tomato, micro greens, crisp slices of blue potato and pi­quant cit­rus foam, topped with a driz­zle of fine French caste­las olive oil. The fi­nal tour de force was a wild­mush­room risotto with feta and a burnt-car­rot puree, driz­zled with a vegetable stock and soy sauce. It was a risotto un­like any I’d tasted.

Next, I made my way to An­twerp and ‘t Zilte, a con­tem­po­rary two-starred res­tau­rant. The menu card read like a gro­cery list, with dishes iden­ti­fied only by their core in­gre­di­ent — feta, chicory, potato, cit­rus or pear, for in­stance, fol­lowed by names of three other in­gre­di­ents in each dish. The ap­par­ent sim­plic­ity of the dishes masked a so­phis­ti­cated ar­ray of tech­niques and in­gre­di­ents. As chef Viki Ge­unes told me later, “It should look sim­ple so peo­ple don’t have to think how to eat it.”

The amuse-bouche was a green-bean jelly served on a bed of yo­ghurt and topped with crunchy mus­tard seeds, fol­lowed by a beau­ti­fully pre­sented ring of creamed let­tuce dressed in micro herbs and goat’s-milk cream, with grape­fruit strands on the side to of­fer a bit­ter con­trast. The spring salad was a re­fined mix of mildly pick­led and still-crunchy young fen­nel, egg­plant, baby car­rot, radish, turnip and cab­bage, served with an egg­plant cream, pesto and a black olive dress­ing. But the star was a dish called Potato, which served the hum­ble vegetable four ways—fried discs, crisp rolled-up strips, mash and deep-fried crack­ers. Enoki mush­rooms and a puree of black beans of­fered tex­tu­ral and flavour con­trasts. I left ‘t Zilte stuffed and happy.

That same evening, hav­ing walked off my lovely lunch, I made my way to the in­con­spic­u­ous­ly­lo­cated Dôme, a one-star es­tab­lish­ment with a pe­riod din­ing room capped by a dome. Chef Julien Burlat favours sim­ple, clean flavours and tech­niques over culi­nary sleight of hand. I asked him for the carte blanche menu—

a wild-card se­lec­tion of five amuse-bouches and four main cour­ses. The very first starter as­tounded in its bril­liant sim­plic­ity — a pi­quant dip of mashed lentils pre­pared in sherry vine­gar and sprin­kled with crunchy fried lentils, served with bread sticks. Main course kicked off with a but­ton­mush­room gnoc­chi served with goat’s cheese, grated black truf­fle and wild chicory, fol­lowed by bok choy and turnips cooked in orange jus and served with a dress­ing of soy, lime, lemon and orange juice, an in­ter­est­ing com­bi­na­tion of tex­ture and bit­ter, sweet and cit­rus notes. Dessert was a sur­prise on the palate — a sor­bet of bas­mati rice served with a curry meringue and a crunchy pep­per wafer.

Three days in Belgium made me for­get I was a vege­tar­ian in a for­eign land. And though I’d just touched the tip of Flan­ders’ gus­ta­tory plea­sures, I left know­ing I’d be back.

Bruges in the Flan­ders is the fine din­ing cap­i­tal of Belgium, ri­valling Paris and Lon­don in the num­ber of Miche­lin stars per capita

WHET YOUR APPETITE

A unique pre­sen­ta­tion of the baby­corn starter at the ‘t Zilte res­tau­rant in An­twerp

FROM A VEGE­TAR­IAN FOOD TRAIL

1. Peo­ple en­joy a meal at a res­tau­rant out­side the pro­vin­cial govern­ment build­ing in Bruges, Belgium.

2. At ‘t Zilte (in pic­ture), the dishes on the menu are iden­ti­fied only by their core in­gre­di­ent

3. The ‘t Zilte spring salad is a re­fined mix of mildly pick­led and crunchy veg­eta­bles

4. The staff at work in the open kitchen at ‘t Zilte

5. Potato, the star of the ‘t Zilte menu, serves the hum­ble vegetable four ways

6. This colour­ful main dish at Au­berge De Her­borist plays with tex­tures

7. A Walk in the Chef’s Gar­den, served at Au­berge De Her­borist, makes for a vis­ually-pow­er­ful treat

8. Can­nel­loni of cu­cum­ber, radish and ar­ti­choke at Au­berge De Her­borist

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