The All-Vegetarian Michelin Odyssey
Three award-winning chefs in Flanders, Belgium, prepare zero-meat meals for the discerning Indian foodie
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