Editor's note: in January 2018 it was announced that Hertog Jan would close on December 22nd 2018.
Hertog Jan moved premises in 2014, near to its own farm in Zedelgem, just a few miles outside Bruges. The original building has been converted into a bistro. The new premises opened in July, the building originally a 180-year old barn that has been completely redesigned inside while retaining some of the original features. The architecture is unusual, with a very modern building extended out on one side from the original barn exterior. The new dining room looks out over the extensive vegetable garden. The room itself has a quite low ceiling, wooden floor and has very well spaced and large tables. Apparently there is capacity for up to 80 guests, but at this point they were limiting themselves to half that number while the kitchen settles in. There were a dozen chefs working tonight in the huge new kitchen, which is placed under the old barn roof. The noise levels were pleasantly low despite the hard surfaces in the room, with the 60-decibel level tonight being about that of normal conversation.
You can choose from either a tasting menu of assorted lengths (priced at €115, €195 or €245) or a la carte, with a pair of starters at €75 and main course from €85 to €130. The wine list, organised by style rather than country, was quite short for a restaurant at this level, with 234 labels, but it ventured quite widely around the world in its selections. Example wines were Lomond Fields Snowbush Blend 2010 at €50 for a wine that will set you back €17 in a shop, Saahs Nikolahof Federspiel 2013 at €75 for a wine that you can find in the high street for €30, and Felton Road Calvert Pinot Noir 2009 at a reasonable €125 for a wine that retails at €78, At the posh end of the list, Penfolds Yattarna 2007 was €240 compared to a retail price of €94, and Leroy Aloxe Corton 2005 was €475 for a wine with a shop price of around €279. It can be seen that mark-ups were not excessive, at least if you are used to being gouged in London restaurants. Mineral water is €14, but this seems to be for as much as is needed rather than by the bottle.
The meal began with a series of nibbles. Crispy potato was the base for lightly smoked aubergine and miso, the latter working well with the vegetables, which were excellent (18/20). Tomato and fresh cow milk cheese was pleasant (17/20) but the best nibble was barbecued bacon on a crisp, with barbecue sauce, fried gherkin and lardo. This had lovely flavour, the sauce rich and savoury (19/20).
Less successful was meringue filled with goose liver with beetroot and raspberry, which for some reason tasted distractingly sweet (16/20). This was followed by a signature dish of the chef, cream of potato with coffee, vanilla and Mimolette cheese from Lille. This is not a dish that I would say was an obvious crowd-pleaser, with its hint of tiramisu-like sweetness at the savoury stage of a meal, but the vanilla flavour managed to not dominate too much, and it is certainly an original combination of tastes. I had this dish last time I came here, and though doubtless the preparation is much the same, tonight the vanilla note jarred a little more than I recall (17/20). Bread was excellent, made on the premises and having good texture and a nice crust (18/20).
Next was a dish showcasing tomato in several forms. Tomatoes from the greenhouse outside came with marigold flowers, cardamom, onion, and juice of tomato. This was pretty and pleasant, but the flavour of the tomatoes here was never going to compete with those that you find on the Amalfi coast (17/20).
This was followed by cured salmon tartare, with grapes, excellent pickled cucumber, edible flowers, champagne and cockles sauce, salmon roe and dill oil. Although the salmon was fine, the overall effect was too salty, even to my taste (16/20). Next was blue lobster with yellow beetroot, tonka beans, vanilla and seafood sauce. The lobster was tender and the beetroot had good flavour, but I am not sure about the wisdom of having the scent of vanilla with this dish, especially at this level of concentration (17/20).
A collection of vegetables and herbs was a take on the famous Michel Bras gargouillou dish. Here there was turnip, radish, courgette flower, yellow beet, cress, beetroot, garlic flowers, cauliflower, marigold flowers and cucumber, amongst others. This was another pretty dish, enjoyable but ultimately dependent on the quality of the ingredients. The vegetables were good, but it is hard to compete with the stunning quality of vegetables used in the two Michel Bras restaurants, in Laguiole and Toya, and inevitably a dish that is a direct tribute to another invites comparisons (17/20).
This was followed by lacquered eel with melted goose liver, fresh fennel salad and miso sauce. The eel was fine but there was a surprisingly strong taste of mint in the salad; this is a flavour that all too easily can dominate a dish, as it did here (16/20). Lacquered aubergine with sesame and dried grated cod roe featured miso, which brought a welcome sweetness, but the dish was again extremely salty. I like dishes at the salty end of the spectrum compared to many people, and this was too much even for me, which was a pity as I really liked the aubergine and miso combination (16/20).
The final savoury dish was Australian wagyu cooked with charcoal, served with peas, beans and onion with a cream of pimentos and fermented garlic purée. The beef had quite good flavour, though as always with waygu from somewhere other than Japan (wagyu actually means “Japanese beef”) it is never quite like the real thing (18/20). Cheese was in good condition, a fairly small but nicely chosen selection. This was followed by cottage cheese, strawberry and edible flowers on a biscuit base. This segue into dessert was pleasant enough, but the combination of cheese and strawberry flavours felt a little strange to me (16/20).
Next was apple, sour herbs and elderflower blossom. I am not a fan of shrubbery-based desserts at the best of times. The apple itself was fine, but I found the combination of flavours with the other elements far from an obvious match made in heaven (15/20). Finally there was a biscuit base with wild strawberries and more mint. The strawberries had good flavour but the mint again dominated the dish. Sure, it was mint season, but whilst I actually like mint, it is such a strong flavour that it needs to be used with considerable restraint, which it was not here (15/20).
Service was impeccable, though the pace of the meal was distinctly leisurely, the meal taking around five hours to unfold. Overall, while the setting is now much prettier than the previous venue, I found the meal tonight to be less consistent than the one I had here previously. Presentation was superb throughout, and this is some of the prettiest plating you will encounter in any restaurant. However several dishes had niggling issues of one kind or another, either an issue with seasoning or with one flavour dominating the dish to a surprising extent. These niggles are all the more grating when you consider that the prices here have nearly doubled. The full tasting menu now is €245 compared to €130 previously. The bill, for the full menu with wine pairing, came to €371 (£297) per person. This is a lot of money when you consider that the meal did not use many luxury ingredients; a bill in a Paris 3 star will be even higher, but there you will be awash with the finest langoustines, scallops, turbot, truffles and the like. You could eat for less here if you went à la carte and shared a bottle of modest wine. In such a case then a typical bill might come to €210 (£168). Clearly the new premises will have involved a heavy investment, and the owners will need to try and get a return on this, but I wonder how well the local market will react to the new pricing scheme.
Further reviews: 17th Feb 2012