The man who has matured
I was told, by head chef and owner Filip Claeys, that De Jonkman was translated into “The Young Man”, the phrase representative of himself when he opened this modern restaurant with rooms off Bruges’s city centre. Filip has a good culinary pedigree, having worked for Bruges’s 3-Michelin-starred institution restaurant De Karmaliet and Sergio Herman’s (also) 3-Michelin-starred Oud Sluis, and within just a few years, Filip has developed his own Flemish flair by looking back into the Flemish tradition and re-approached it with a great skill set and a playful, informed mind. The proof was in the recently awarded 2 Michelin stars, and bluntly speaking, given my dinner at De Jonkman, F is definitely on the right track to the third star.
Inventive Flemish experience
De Jonkman is a dinner-only and tasting-menu-only sort of restaurant. The price started at €75 for 4 courses, €90 for 5, and €105 for 6. The meal began with the usual parade of amuse bouche. Miniature but extremely meticulously crafted. Soft boiled quail’s egg was coated with ham and cep mushroom powder and deep fried. The result was not just the soft gooey-ness contrasting with the crispy exterior but also the aroma and the bold flavours of ham and mushroom enhanced by fleur de sel crystal. Foie gras was served with green apple and salsify. The taste was three-dimensional: sweetness, light fruity acidity and subtle bitterness. While foie gras and apple isn’t usually an extraordinary combination, I found the layering of texture unique. Loose and liquid apple gel was lube-like (excuse my comparison) and added a glistening finish to the curd-y foie gras; the crunch from two-textured salsify – fried and boiled – well complemented the dish. The following was described as mustard-infused local cheese in various textures – flan-like, grated, and biscuit-ed. Very rich and contained a good mustard-y kick. Another amuse bouche of olive-filled gougere with prawns and mayo was also a mouthful of glowing comfort. My mouth also watered very much for springy octopus in soy and orange vinegar. The dressing was remotely Japanese (of ponzu-yuzu sort) but more aromatic than its counterpart. The celeriac puree added a silky touch and sweet nutty-ness. Last but not least was veal bonemarrow served with pickled aubergine caviar. The sharp pickle-y tang cut through the delectable marrow grease very nicely.
The first course (yes, first!) of Oyster & Jerusalem Artichoke was very memorable. Plump oysters were doused in seawater goodness and served juxtaposed with nutty Jerusalem artichoke discs (a light crunch) and puree (creamy). The dish became complete with pickled cucumber strips and vinaigrette jelly and fresh non-identifiable leaves that tasted distantly like celery. Together the pickle-y tang hits first and then the creamy sweetness that lingered. Oddly enough, the garnish brought me back to a good Thai memory – barely pickled cucumber slices in sugared vinegar “ar-jaad” – but with a finer touch of creamy texture. The scallops were prepared two ways. Served at room temperature, the first was marinated chopped scallops reassembled as an intact scallop and served with zingy white turnip tartar and cream cheese. Very unctuous but also not heavy. The aromatic citrus vinaigrette made the dish alive and the dehydrated chick pea powder contributed an appetisingly sandy texture. The other serving was warm: pan fried scallop in an entourage of tarragon jus (perfuming), parsley root (crunchy and almost ginseng-like) and sweet potato puree (heavenly silky!). The vinegar dressing bound the elements together.
Cannily billed “Message in a Bottle from the North Sea”, the next dish was that of live prawns. Filip approached me with a bowl of live and very big brown shrimps – sea delicacies long associated with his Flemish root. These shrimps, as F explained, were never brought ashore alive; the fishermen boiled them in seawater. The task he set himself to was to close down that traditional gap of eating precooked shrimps and to reintroduce them in the state of primal juicy freshness. Accordingly, F caught those shrimps from the sea and cooked to order.
What arrived at my table a moment later was not a dish but a neatly halved bottle (with “De Jonkman” label of course) containing a miniature of imaginative underwater seascape. The shrimps were prepared three ways: traditionally boiled in seawater, braised in squid ink and tempura-ed. They nestled on the bed of potato puree, hazelnut foam, tiny kohlrabi cones and leaves trimmed as if seaweed. Spectacular at all levels. I loved the warmth that oozed from the dish. The curd-y puree was loosened up by the foam and reformed with earthy sweetness. The intense natural sea flavour from the super fresh shrimps shone through the combo and became contrast of one another – the more salted boiled ones, the rich squid ink infused, and the weightless and crispy-est fried.
The highlight did not end with the “Bottle”. Red Mullet arrived mounted by a threatening sand crab. The crab, though presented with a gaping claw, was dead, deep-fried and halved. I was advised to scoop out the brown crab meat and dilute it with the red pepper jus. I decided, instead, to pop the crab in my mouth (I’m Asian) and ground it with the help of a moist, expertly sous-vided mullet. The flavour combination was that of divine comfort. The bell pepper sauce added distinctly perfuming sweetness. The side raviolo of zingy celery root and red pepper puree balanced off quite well the richness of the main component.
The last of the savoury courses was more of a filler. Filip practices the nose-to-tail philosophy and this rump of 4-year-old Holstein cow was part of his approach. The steak was seared sous-vided and finished on the grill (I assumed). It was served with wild mushroom assortment, shallots, carrot, chicory and beef jus. The beef was a good medium rare and was pleasantly chewy. The bitterness from the chicory did not overpower the garnish. Still, unlike more dishes that preceded it, this was a taste I could guess from the look of the dish. Solid cooking. Nothing too imaginative or life-changing.
Desserts, though not as memorable as their precedents, were creatively executed and expertly textured. The first dish of chocolate with hazelnut and celery root ice cream had two sides. One was predominantly chocolate-y; the other hazelnut-y. Milky celery root ice cream oozed a subtle celeriac flavour and together with zesty lime gel it bound the bitter intensity of the choc with the loose sweetness of the nuts. Passion fruit pudding with almond cookie crumbs, mango (marinated cubes and puree) and coconut (poached meringue) was delicious but less exciting. Then came the (never ending) train of petir four – pear flan with apple crisp, sunflower seed caramel and elderberry with yogurt and elderberry jelly. All was very decent. And (finally) the meal concluded with a traditional Belgian touch of a miniature but superbly crispy and yummy waffle, marinated apple and cream. The ultimate finale of madeleine was what I could have done without as it was a little too buttery for my liking.
GO FOR: Extraordinary food. Casual.
Restaurant De Jonkman
Tel. +32 5036 0767