ANTWERP: They say the devil is in the details. And in this regard, it is difficult to find any detail missing at the newly opened Hertog Jan at Botanic in Antwerp. This has been a much awaited reopening. After Gert de Mangeleer and Joachim Boudens shocked the Belgian culinary scene with their decision to close their flagship 3 Michelin star restaurant Hertog Jan in Zedelgem four years ago, they have not rested on their laurels.
They’ve moved L.E.S.S. Eatery from the previous location to the centre of Bruges making it a destination restaurant in its own right, one every city would be proud to have. It also clinched a Michelin star in the process. It was soon followed by another Michelin star at Bar Bulot, a typical Flemish brasserie of exceptional quality. They will open a second outlet in Antwerp later this month. Even their latest venture before the opening of the new Hertog Jan was a success. Babu is their interpretation of what a ‘burger or bunner’ should be. First it popped up in Bruges at L.E.S.S. Eatery before the opening in a permanent location in the city of Ghent. Just to understand their pursuit of perfection you should try their fries.
But their most ambitious project yet is Hertog Jan at Botanic. You could say this is Hertog Jan 3.0. This time they’ve gone in a completely opposite direction. Gone is the perfectly well-oiled machine that served 140 people each day it was open. Instead, they have perfected the art of craftsmanship serving a maximum 22 people but the restaurant could also fill up with 10 or 12 guests since there are just 5 tables in the restaurant.
With Hertog Jan in its first format they pushed the boundaries of the space to clinch three stars. In Zedelgem they converted a former barn into a spectacular restaurant which overlooked their garden. As they themselves admitted, it took time to get used to the new space particularly since a third Michelin star had not been something they were expecting before they moved.
But they ended up adjusting and making the place one of the top dining spots in the world. Now, they are back using a space in a former cloister in the centre of Antwerp to showcase what they do best which is exceptional food and incredible hospitality.
At the new restaurant both Gert and Joachim return to what they love most. They no longer have anything to prove having as Gert said ticked a lot of things off their bucket list. Now, it is about taking things to the next level, if that could be at all possible. As they say it is all in the details and for lovers of details, the new restaurant is one that keeps on giving.
Both Gert and Joachim told me before the opening that they could now focus on details and aspects they could not work on when they were serving 140 guests for lunch and dinner each day.
They have worked on all the details, fine tuning during test dinners while also cooking for some of the world’s best chefs that landed in Antwerp for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards earlier this month.
There will be no spoiler alerts (or very few) if you continue to read on. It is Gert and Joachim’s wish to keep the element of surprise for guests who visit their restaurant. In a time where every dish is photographed so many times, it felt almost liberating to spend an evening knowing that the photos you end up taking don’t need to be Instagrammable and will not be used for anything else other than to serve as a memory of what was eaten.
So why is such a tiny and exclusive restaurant in the news and so important for the Belgian culinary scene? For this we need to go back four years when they announced the closure of their restaurant. The Belgian scene had pretty much lost two 3 Michelin star restaurants at one go with the closure of Karmeliet and Hertog Jan. That had left just Peter Goossens at the very top. And while the latter is considered today to be the Godfather of Belgian cuisine, Gert is younger and had more of an international following.You also need to recall that pretty much at the same time, Kobe Desramaults also closed the legendary In de Wulf, another Belgian restaurant that was globally iconic. Kobe Desramaults went on to open Chambre Séparée (which closed earlier this year).
The reason is in the fact that this is likely to become one of the most sought-after bookings in the world. First there is the question of supply. The restaurant only has a very small amount of covers. Secondly, both Joachim and Gert will be present whenever the restaurant is open (and it will be only open for two weeks each month). At a point when tables in restaurants sell out instantly, having such limited supply makes it even harder to secure a table. That of course will add to the allure as is the mystery of what to expect.
People will travel to Belgium to get a spot at this restaurant where there is a guarantee that Gert and Joachim will be awaiting you in their home.
Gert has travelled extensively especially to Asia where he has become a household name cooking in many events at chef friends. The Japanese touch is visible throughout in the minimalistic design of the restaurant, in the precision of the cooking, in the clean and pure flavours, in the attention to detail, in the welcome, in the omakase philosophy of leaving everything in the hands of the chef and in that constant pursuit of perfection.
Both Gert and Joachim have reflected hard on the decision not to take into account dislikes or allergies but as Joachim rightly pointed out a minor change at one table can throw a menu completely off balance leaving clients ultimately disappointed.
The menu is balanced, there are constant surprises along the three-hour journey and for the time being only one classic has made it to the new Hertog Jan from the previous restaurant. It is the potato foam with vanilla, coffee and mimolette cheese. For those who have been mesmerised by Hertog Jan before, Gert’s touch and flavour combinations are visible throughout each and every bite. Expect perfectly plated dishes, harmonious but also explosion of flavours. And look out for details, everywhere including in the bathrooms.
Gert and Joachim have the capacity to make it look simple. It’s not.