Editor's note: in November 2015 it was announced that De Karmeliet will close in 2016, when chef/owner Geert van Hecke will be 60 years old.
De Karmeliet is a long-established restaurant in the heart of historic Bruges. It originally opened in 1983, gaining a Michelin star in 1985, a second in 1989 and (after a relocation in 1992) a third in 1996, which it has retained ever since. The head chef is Geert van Hecke, who trained with the likes of Alain Chapel, Alain Ducasse and Michel Roux at The Waterside Inn.
As you enter the premises a lounge area stretches out before you that leads to the garden, with the main dining room to the right. An additional room is available for private functions or for busy periods. The room was carpeted and peaceful, with several paintings adorning the walls. Tasting menus were either €145 or €210, with a cheaper three course menu at €85 available at all times except Saturdays. From the à la carte, starters were €60 to €110, main courses €70 to €120. The wine list had 950 labels in all, starting as low as €25, but mark-ups were pretty fierce throughout the list. Example bottles were Casa Marin Riesling 2009 at €79 for a wine that you can find in the high street for €22, Seresin Marama Sauvignon Blanc 2010 at €120 for a wine that retails at about €26, and Amiral de Beycheville at €150 compared to a shop price of €37. If splashing out, Chateau Talbot 1999 was €275 for a wine that retails at €61, and Vega Sicilia Uncio 1994 was €1,050 for a wine that will set you back €408 in a shop.
Home-made potato crisps were provided as you look at the menu, followed by a tray of nibbles. A pastry with black olive and tomato was very delicate, a few almonds were roasted with honey and Mediterranean spices, and herring came with beetroot, Granny Smith apple and cucumber, Burrata was presented with aubergine and a sorbet of tomatoes, and best of all was a warm bisque of shrimp, which had superb flavour. The bisque was 19/20, the average a bit lower, as it is hard to give a very high score to a roasted almond. Bread was made from scratch in the kitchen, with white rolls pleasant, but a miniature loaf more interesting, with very good texture (17/20).
A dish of blue lobster came with beef tomato marinated with dried fruit, baby squid and courgette flower filled with lobster coral. This was lovely, the lobster extremely tender, the vegetables excellent (19/20). Red mullet was precisely cooked, served with superb quality sweet fennel, red Camargue rice, mussels and a fine sauce of shellfish and red wine. This was terrific, the rice giving a nice textural balance, the ingredients of very high standard (19/20).
Green asparagus from Provence was next, along with salmon marinated with tandoori spices, potatoes prepared with in olive oil, quail egg with a crust of Iberico ham and croustillant of salmon. The spices were carefully judged, the croustillant a little too soft, but the balance of the dish was very good (18/20).
Langoustine tail was roasted and came with aubergine marinated with honey and sake, goose liver with enoki mushroom and bouillon of langoustine and dashi. This was the dish of the meal, the langoustine very tender, the liver having superb depth of flavour, the aubergine delicious and the bouillon bringing the flavours together beautifully (20/20).
Duck from Dombes in south eastern France came with girolles, croustillant of duck, pastry of duck neck and pistachio, Vichy carrots, compote of green peas, melon, cherry and a melon sauce flavoured with honey and Kriek beer. This dish seemed over-complicated to me, the duck in itself excellent but the pea compote not quite working, and with an awful lot of flavours fighting for attention (17/20).
The cheese trolley had a mix of French and Belgian cheeses in excellent condition, such as two year aged Comte, Morbier and Coulommier. A pre-dessert comprised espuma of melon, vanilla ice cream, cream of lemon, sponge of yoghurt and further melon. I was not enamoured of the yoghurt sponge, though the lemon and vanilla components were excellent (17/20). Bavarois of white chocolate came with cream of caramel, poached pear, tuile of dark chocolate and almond cake. This was lovely, the pear and chocolate a classic combination, the almond cake excellent (19/20).
Coffee came with marshmallow of passion fruit, crisp chocolate, Calisson de Provence with almonds and orange and a very impressive canelé of brown rum. There was also a sable cookie with green apple and panna cotta of vanilla, and a macaron of Italian meringue. These were of a high standard (19/20).
The bill for the full tasting menu with wine pairing came to €317 (£254) per person. If you went a la carte and shared a bottle of modest wine then a typical bill might come to around £200 all in. This is hardly cheap, but the meal involved plenty of luxury ingredients and the level of cooking skill is very high. Service was excellent. This is not cutting edge cooking, though the pairing of langoustine and goose liver in one dish was unusual and worked really well. Instead of striving to be different, the chef is happy to work with classical flavour combinations and let high class ingredients speak for themselves. This was a very enjoyable meal.
Further reviews: 01st Apr 2002