The sun is glistening and shining on the snow that is covering the fields in Liernu. Spring is still far away and the vegetable garden at L’air du temps is still resting. The first shoots from the garden will only come in late February though San Degeimbre is already preparing his February menu called “Waiting for the Green”.
January is not necessary the best month to visit a restaurant. It comes just after the holidays and is the month when you normally try to detox from the excesses of the previous month. And it is not the best month for fresh produce. But a friend who happens to be a Maltese chef is in Belgium and we have planned to visit Wallonia’s culinary cathedral.
San Degeimbre is a chef in evolution. Today, he has reached a level of maturity that one would expect from a restaurant that is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. But that maturity is not stopping him from experimenting or trying new things. The creative streak is all the more visible even if it does not need to be spelt out.
The style remains distinct from my previous visits but there is an evolution going on and it very much in evidence. First there is the balance of flavours, an element of risk and a certain playfulness creating one surprise after another. There is also continuity though even here the dishes seem to evolve over time and then there is harmony and a narrative that gets you to think long after you leave the restaurant.
San has used winter and the lack of ingredients to make a point about the need to make use of what you have. It is a strong message in today’s contemporary world where we tend to waste more than is absolutely necessary in our consumeristic society. He has stored vegetables that nature has provided him in spring, summer and autumn and serves them during lunch. But he is also making use of things that would normally go to waste. So for dessert, he uses a dusting of the skin of jerusalem artichokes, he serves the head of a ‘gambero rosso’ or prawn and he also playfully serves crunchy scales of a fish in the memorable ashes fish dish he served us. In his final dessert, he makes a sorbet with the skin of tangerines to complement a citrus dessert.
The message is loud and clear. Nothing should go to waste and magic can happen even in the austere winter months if you think about the best way to give the land a rest before the next natural cycle begins.
The lunch is memorable in more ways than one. I’m driving so it is the first time that I opt for the ‘water’ pairing which is a series of waters which San and his team prepare with the help of an ultrasound machine. It is an experience and one which opens the doors to many possibilities. The way the water complements the dishes is astonishing and as San himself tells us after lunch when he sits with us for a short chat, the water reaches a level of complexity thanks to the ultrasound machine. That allows it to have depth and and after taste that is similar to wine without being alcoholic.
There is a dish, fried lentils with sour cream served in a tin which is made to look like caviar which is clever and delicious. It reminds us of a dish that was served by chef Massimo Bottura at his restaurant Osteria Francescana not so long ago. It is a comfort dish and one which works not only because of the presentation but also because of the surprising texture of the lentils which are not normally served this way.
We have decided to go for the Contemporary terroir menu and opt to keep everything a surprise. It proves to be the right decision because there is a certain crescendo to the lunch.
The start is playful. Autumn is reflected through leaves of potatoes and mushrooms camouflaged in leaves while false kombu is served with eel in what is a perfect start to the lunch. San then serves what he calls Belgitude, his interpretation of mussels, french fries and mayonnaise all served in one bite.
It’s difficult to choose the best dishes in a series of perfectly executed dishes. The Gambero, a deep fried head of prawn with a tartare of prawn and guacamole is exceptional. The white pearl oyster with parsley root and coconut is risky but perfect. The Liernu garden with fermented vegetables and lacto-fermented juice is a dish of perfect balance.
Maybe the most visually stunning dish was the volcano, a pike-perch fish served with its edible scales, ashes, edible coal and aubergine. He also served scallops, chicken from Lustin served with a wood-infused sauce and perfectly cooked beef with truffles that had just arrived from France. The Ponce family the Ponce in Carpentras supply these and are available till mid-February or March depending on the weather.
The two desserts to finish the meal where the cherry on top of the cake. The first was called Bretagne and was Sablé with chocolate, apple and cinnamon. The powder of jerusalem artichoke skin added complexity to the dish. It was followed by a citrus dessert with a millefeuille of lemon, saffron, confit zest, a sorbet of tangerine skin and hogweed.
San is a chef that has no formal training and one who cooked for the first time in his kitchen 20 years ago when he opened his restaurant. That should not be considered a drawback however. His constant quest to evolve and ask questions means that his is a work in progress even after 20 years. But that work in progress is starting to reach a certain balance and a level that is extremely high. He is still full of ideas and therefore far from realising his full potential even if the lunch was flawless and memorable and one which will be remembered for a very long time.
L’air du temps: Rue de la Croix Monet 2 / 5310 Liernu