Air du Temps opened in July 1997, though it has only been in its current Ardennes farmhouse location in the south east of Belgium since January 2013. The chef/patron is self-taught Sang-Hoon Degeimbre, who started out as a sommelier before switching to cooking in his first restaurant venture. He gained a Michelin star in January 2000 and a second in November 2008. The restaurant has five hectares of grounds including extensive vegetable gardens. These supply the majority of the needs of the kitchen, from beetroot to herbs, its greenhouses meaning that even things like tomatoes and citrus fruits are grown on the premises.
The dining area is split into several small rooms, with additional seating on the terrace for drinks if the weather is suitable. There is also a private dining room next to the kitchen. As well as an à la carte menu, there was a six course lunch-only menu available for €65, a five course dinner tasting menu at €105, and an eight course version at €150. Starters ranged in price from €45 to €80, mains to €55 to €65. The extensive wine list had over 500 different selections, with relatively modest markups if you are used to big city restaurants. Ogier La Rosine 2013 was €55 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for €17, Zind Humbrecht Hausereer Riesling 2008 was €77 compared to a shop price of €32, and Gangloff Condrieu 2011 was €165 compared to a retail price of €97.
Our meal began with a series of nibbles. Rice crackers were presented hanging from a little bush, each cracker having a different blob of sauce: one was flavoured with verbena, one with sage and the other with shiso. Further nibbles comprised a small shrimp puff, mussels with chicory, granita of eel and wasabi with iced cucumber, and onion two ways; as the vegetable itself, accompanied with onion cream, and then a finely diced and fried variation. This was the best of the nibbles, enjoyably sweet, the fried element a useful texture contrast. The shrimp puff was fine, though the eel flavour was rather lost, dominated by the cucumber with it; the mussel was, well, a mussel (on average 14/20).
Celeriac was cut into pasta-like strips and served with Belgian caviar and vinaigrette of celeriac and curry leaf. The celeriac had good flavour though the caviar was very muted, so much so that it would have been tricky to identify as such just by taste, and could easily have been omitted (14/20). Foie gras mousse came with mushrooms, a black cereal, citrus jelly and lemon cream. This was an odd combination, and although there was some logic in having an acidic element to balance the richness of the liver, there was too much lemon in the dish, resulting in it becoming somewhat unbalanced (12/20).
Next was prettily presented Australian wagyu beef tartare with violet flowers. The meat was of good quality, though for me the seasoning was rather tentative, in particular some pepper would have livened things up a little (15/20). This was followed by steamed lobster with herbs and a yoghurt emulsion, with confit lemon, macadamia nuts, lobster bisque and verbena. This was very enjoyable, the shellfish tender and the bisque having plenty of flavour (17/20).
A selection of vegetables from the garden included fennel, spinach, tomatoes, courgette flower, radish and cucumber with fennel oil and a sauce of kimchi. The tomato was very good, and certainly this was a nice dish, though the vegetables were not really dazzling in flavour in the way that they can be when from sunnier climes such as Italy or the south of France (15/20). Potatoes from the garden were cooked with herbs and served with squid and bonito flakes. This worked well, the squid tender and the potatoes having good flavour (16/20). The final savoury course was pigeon with spinach, seaweed and anchovy garnishes and sauce of tonka beans. The bird was carefully cooked and was seasoned quite boldly, though the garnishes (seaweed, really?) did not seem to me a particularly good match for the meat (15/20).
Raspberries came in a chocolate soup with raspberry jelly topped with edible flowers. The fruit was fine but I thought the flowers were a step too far. At the risk of repeating myself on this subject, I really wish that pastry chefs would leave herbs and flowers in the garden (14/20). The final dessert was served on a rubber sheet in the style of the famous signature dessert at Alinea, here involving apricots, peaches and yoghurt. This was very pleasant to eat (15/20), though the placing of the elements one by one on the table did not seem to me to add enough dramatic effect to justify the time taken.
Service was very good, the staff friendly and effective. A friend was taking me to dinner so I am not sure what the bill was tonight, but if you ordered from the carte and shared a modest bottle of wine then a typical cost per head would be around £125. Overall this was a rather mixed culinary experience. The best dishes, such as the lobster, showed that there was talent in the kitchen, but there were too many distracting missteps in amongst the successful plates for cooking at this level and price point. The chef seems a thoughtful individual, and perhaps tonight was not completely representative as he was trying out a number of new dishes. However I can only judge what is put in front of me, and overall there was some troubling inconsistency in the meal tonight.