BRUSSELS: The Michelin Guide has released its new rankings for Belgium and Luxembourg including a new three Michelin star restaurant in Antwerp but there is one glitch. Restaurants are closed and have been closed since October and there is still no date for their reopening.
COVID-19 has been devastating for Belgian restaurants. Closed in the first lockdown in March till June a relatively calm summer was followed by a difficult autumn which culminated with restaurants closing for a second time in October. Until now, there is still no date for the reopening. Some hope that the reopening could take place sometime in March, others are speculating it could well be in April or later.
So the announcement of the new Michelin Guide was welcomed not with the usual anticipation. There has been considerably less commentary on social media despite the fact that there was a major shift in the hierarchical order of what many internally consider a fragmented country.
The third Michelin star went to Viki Geunes of restaurant ’t Zilte in Antwerp. This may have come as a surprise to some but insiders in the Belgian food scene had recognise the potential of Viki Geunes. Anyone following Flip Dejaeghere, also known as Flip World Foodie on Instagram and one of the most well travelled Belgian food influencers will have guessed that this was a very serious contender for the coveted three stars.
It is of course a pity that the accolade came in a year where restaurants had been closed for over six months throughout 2020. When Michelin hesitated to award David Martin two stars in Brussels for his restaurant La Paix a few years ago they actually said that there was a rigorous process which involved international inspectors. So how did they go about this rigorous process in a year that has been complicated by COVID-19? We don’t really know. And this lack of transparency is again what’s problematic with the guide that seems to fail to evolve.
By no means am I trying to downplay the accomplishment of Viki Geunes but the award of three Michelin stars in this particular year comes as a bit of a surprise. In the past years, Belgium had lost two three Michelin star restaurants over the past few years because of the retirement of Geert Van Hecke of restaurant De Karmelit as well as the closure of Gert de Mangeleer’s flagship Hertog Jan. Many had been expecting Michelin to award a third Michelin star in the past years with a few potential contenders being mentioned by Michelin had been adamant that none had made the grade.
The award of t’ Zilte marks a tectonic shift in the Belgian city culinary landscape. Antwerp is slowly but surely establishing itself as the culinary capital of Belgium. The Flemish city has always been a melting pot of cultures. This design capital is enjoying a revival. The presence of Dutch Sergio Herman and Nick Bril have worked wonders. Together they created one of the most stunning restaurants in the world, The Jane housed in a former military chapel. Separately they have opened Le Pristine and August adding to the choice in the city.
This position is set to be consolidated in June this year with the opening of the new Botanic Sanctuary luxury hotel which will house a new fine dining restaurant by Gert de Mangeleer and Joachim Boudens (of three Michelin star fame) as well as Dutch chef Jacob Jan Boerma of former three Michelin star restaurant De Leest in Vaassen, the Netherlands who will open Fine Fleur together with Thomas Diepersloot. The hotel will also welcome the opening of a second Bar Bulot, the brasserie by Gert de Mangeleer and Joachim Boudens which clinched a Michelin star on the outskirts of Bruges.
There is also more good news for Antwerp since 2021 should potentially mark the organisation of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants award ceremony which was cancelled in 2020.
On the other hand, Brussels star seems to be fading, at least for the time being. Is this just a Michelin observation or is it really the case on the ground? For a city that became the first outside France to get a three Michelin star restaurant way back in history, the scene at face value is nothing short of catastrophic. In the span of just a few years, the city has lost three two Michelin star restaurants leaving it with just 4 for the time being. There were also no new additions in the 1 star category for this year.
With the closure of Sea Grill at the end of 2019 came the obvious loss of the 2nd star. This was also accompanied by the loss of a star for Villa Lorraine, the legendary restaurant that became the first 3 Michelin star restaurant outside France. The fortunes of this house, how under the ownership of Brussels serial restaurant entrepreneur Serge Litvine is set to shine in 2021. Yves Mattagne will take the helm at the newly refurbished restaurant which is set to reopen in April COVID-19 permitting.
That alone is not likely to change the fortunes of the city but it certainly is a start. There are other bright spots in the Belgian capital from from Humus & Hortense with its sterling work on sustainability and vegetable-based cuisine to Barge, from Vertige to Toshiro to mention a few names.
There is the opening of the Corinthia Grand Hotel Astoria 2022, a hotel which will raise the bar in terms of Brussels hospitality and will likely also bring top names in the gastronomic scene to the capital. So not all is lost for Brussels though these are clearly tough times.
Gent lost a star with the closure of Kobe Desramaults Chambre Separee. Its closure had been known well in advance given it was always temporary but it was painful to watch one of Belgium’s top talents close without much fanfare because of COVID-19.
What impact Michelin will have in the context of restaurant reopening is hard to see particularly given there is still no date for their reopening. While last summer had given some sense of perspective for the future, the new lockdown will have a more lasting impact on the culinary scene. As to the future is there potential for more three stars? We’d say definitely yes. For sure there are candidates in Brussels, in Wallonia and another restaurant in Flanders close to Antwerp. Only time will tell.