The owner of Villa Lorraine, Sergei Litvine, who took over the property in 2010 wants to restore the restaurant to its former glory.
Passionate about cooking and gastronomy, this industrialist has taken over the restaurant as a way of following his passion and to fulfil his dream of owning a restaurant. But it is not any restaurant. Villa Lorraine, is one of the most famous restaurants in Brussels. It was the first restaurant to get 3 Michelin stars outside France in 1972. It held the three stars till 1984 before losing its sparkle during the 1990s and finally losing its one star in 2006.
“It is my passion and was always my dream to own a restaurant. I never worked in the catering industry but rather in industrial food production which is completely different to the restaurant business. I have very fond memories of Villa Lorraine since the time that I used to come with my parents and even my grand-parents. There was an opportunity to take it over and I decided to buy it and try to put it back at the top of Brussels and Belgian gastronomy.”
He recently invited a few journalists and bloggers to have lunch with him at this Brussels institution on the outskirts of the Bois de la Cambre in Uccle.
Since taking over the restaurant in 2010, it has been refurbished and redesigned. The interior was changed in 2011 and designed by Jacques Garcia and Marc Biermann. It was made to look more contemporary. The restaurant is divided into two, La Villa and La Brasserie de la Villa Lorraine. It has two different teams working in the kitchen and two different stations.
The kitchen of the restaurant was completely renovated in 2013. “We are still in the early phases. Apart from renovating the Villa, we have also updated its structure and the staff. The average age in the kitchen is 24 years and this is only because our head chef Maxime Colin is 27 years old,” he jokes.
In April 2012, Mr Litvine appointed a new chef, Alain Bianchin and tasked him with winning back an initial star. He succeeded in doing so in November 2013. Since August 2014, Maxime Colin, his former second in command took over and retained the one star.
The owner of Villa Lorraine has clear ideas where he wants to take the restaurant. “There is a common denominator and it is the people. They are passionate about what they do. The base is very solid and we are now giving Villa Lorraine an identity in terms of the cuisine,” he says.
One thing is for sure, the restaurant will never be like Noma or the Roca brothers because he does not like that style of cooking. “Although I am not the one cooking in the restaurant. I cannot work on something if I am not passionate about it. Molecular cuisine or the Noma style of cuisine is not something I like.”
Mr Litvine says that he likes classic cuisine with a focus on quality ingredients. “My aim is to have a Brussels restaurant that is excellent, that is modern, that focuses on top quality products which are in season. You will not find us using strawberries in winter,” he says.
The first course arrives and it is an exceptional langoustine from the island of Laeso. It is cooked at a low temperature in perfumed olive oil. It is not seasoned. The seasoning comes from the caviar. The ‘risotto’ of celeriac works perfectly with the langoustine.
Mr Litvine tells me this dish is the result of a dialogue with the chef. “It is essential that we are in sync. I am not a chef though I try to give ideas from my travels and experiences. This dish was inspired by a restaurant which no longer exists and which specialised in serving langoustines that were cooked in olive oil at low temperatures.”
The team in the kitchen is extremely young so the cuisine is not just traditional but has a contemporary modern twist. “The focus is always on bringing the best out of the ingredients which are in season.”
He indicates which chefs he likes to his team in the kitchen. Among his favourite places is Epicure in Paris by Eric Frechon and Robuchon. “I like a cuisine which is not there to surprise or wow you but rather because it is excellent. My focus is for our customers to enjoy the restaurant, to be in a place where they feel welcomed, where there is a service with a smile, where there is good ambiance and excellent food.
We are now being served char or L’Omble Chevalier with a cream of peas and mashed potatoes. It is excellent. Mr Litvine tells me that communication with the chef and the team is essential. “If there is something I don’t like, I speak up. For example, a plate might be beautiful but might not be suitable for a dish because it might be difficult to eat. Dialogue is therefore essential.”
Mr Litvine’s love for quality ingredients means that the restaurant is serving Kobe beef now that it is available for import in Belgium. “I discovered this meat on a trip to Japan. But in the past it used to be prohibited. It has been available for the past six months and we serve it in our restaurant. This is the perfect example of a focus on the product. There is little you can do except focus on the ingredient, in this case exceptional meat,” he says.
Villa Lorraine is by no means a small project. Apart from the Brasserie and the Villa, Mr Litvine has also opened two delicatessen shops which sell anything from ready made meals to desserts, wines, cheese as well as knives, exceptional Venetian glass designed by Carlo Moretti and olive oil among others. He is also owner of La Villa in the Sky.
His dream is to own a vineyard in Italy near the sea and make wine. But he also wants to be able to help artists financially. “It is important to help people that are marginalised to follow their passion and I want to be able to help,” he says.
The owner’s love for art is also evident from the personal art collection that hang on the restaurant’s walls.
There is no question that the team at Villa Lorraine are aiming high. “Stars are important because they give value to the team and they also help them to strive and aim for something,” he said. “We have a stable team and we want to continue to make progress and improve.”
We continue to speak about his favourite restaurants in Belgium. Given what he had told me earlier, it does not come as a surprise that he mentions Hof Van Cleve and Karmelit since they are the ones which are close to his philosophy. In Brussels, he loves Dolce Amaro because he loves Italian restaurants.
We turn to the price of quality produce. “To eat well is expensive. There is no question that to find good produce you need to spend a lot of money. But you can still eat well and cheaply. If you spend 1.50 Euros on pasta and add just some excellent olive oil and parmesan, it is cheaper than a ready-made lasagne bought from a supermarket. And it is so much better.”
“Fish is expensive but you can buy mackerel in season and it is not expensive. What is important is to buy things that are in season. But I believe that everything is relative. In my view, people must realise that it is better to eat good quality meat once a week and to eat well. It is better for their pockets, their health and the environment.”
Mr Litvine wants young people to discover gastronomy because at the end of the day these are the future customers. The restaurant offers an all inclusive menu which includes appetizers, two starters, a main course, dessert and coffee with wine paired to the menu for 68 euros. This menu is served both for lunch and dinner to tables where the people must all be under 28. “We started this in youth week and it was popular so we decided to keep it throughout the year. It is now slowly starting to work,” Mr Litvine says.
Despite the fact that Brussels does not have a three Michelin star restaurant, the scene is constantly evolving. Mr Litvine is aiming high with both Villa Lorraine and La Villa in the Sky. We are sure we will be hearing a lot more in future.
La Villa: Avenue du Vivier D’Oie 75: Open on Tuesday to Saturday from 12 to 2pm and from 7pm to 10pm.
La Brasserie: Open from Monday to Sunday from 12 to 2.30pm and from 7pm to 10.30pm.