Belgium- Hertog Jan- ✪✪✪

With an idyllic garden and gorgeous modern-architecture restaurant layout, Hertog Jan was one of my favorite visits in all of Europe. 

LOPPEM-ZEDELGEM (BRUGGE), BELGIUM

SERVICE: 6.5/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $328 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10

Situated in a lush, green garden a few miles outside of Brugge, Hertog Jan is the masterwork of the Lebron James of the culinary world, Gert de Mengeleer. Gert is on an incredible roll- he achieved his third Michelin star at age 34, making him one of the youngest chefs in the world with that honor. Gert's motto is "driven by simplicity," and the menu is one of the purest product-driven presentations (i.e. fresh fruits, vegetables, and ingredients) I have ever seen. The garden (pictured above) is where most of the restaurant's inputs come from. 

 In the summer, pre-dinner aperitifs start outside near the garden

In the summer, pre-dinner aperitifs start outside near the garden

Upon entering, you approach the hostess stand in a dark ceramic-brick lobby that feels like a nice spa. Surrounding you are books as well as take-home preparations of jam, sauces, and condiments branded by de Mangeleer. It's not an uncommon sight in some of these Three-Star restaurants, but this one takes it almost to gift-shop levels. We walked out past lovely rectangular artificial ponds to an absolutely stunning patio, greeted by the setting sun and a lovely glass of reasonably-priced champagne. While the views weren't as sweeping and magnificent as Hof Van Cleve, Hertog Jan takes full advantage of its setting. 

Service throughout was okay but not great, and in some cases not even good. As the first few precursor dishes wrapped up, we asked to stay on the patio for an extra moment to enjoy the sunset. The staff behaved as though this was the most toweringly ludicrous request one could possible level at them, and told us that the kitchen couldn't handle such a request. It does seem a little odd that the kitchen couldn't handle having their dishes walking an extra ten feet, but so be it. 

 First Bites: Smoked Mackerel, 9/10

First Bites: Smoked Mackerel, 9/10

Charmingly smoking over a small bed of twigs, this delicate wrap of mackerel with a light pasty crust and a garnishment of flowers was a beautiful opening statement about the meal and the amazing things to come. The temperature was just-right, and the smokiness of the dish gave it a total-sensory experience. 9/10. 

 First Bites: Tomato + Broth, 10/10

First Bites: Tomato + Broth, 10/10

A dish that impresses with its simplicity and obvious technical complexity; tomatoes stuffed with mozzarella had their insides carefully extracted and refined into a delicate broth. The effect of eating both together was that of an exquisite tomato soup. Creative, interesting, and a beautiful presentation. 10/10.

 First Bites, Continued: Beef Cannellonis, 7/10

First Bites, Continued: Beef Cannellonis, 7/10

Another fantastically pretty presentation, this time of two small, crunchy cannellonis with Flemish beef and bright spice powder. Serving on a bed of plain white rice was shrewd, bringing out the colors of the beef and the spices. The flavors didn't quite match the brilliance of the visual presentation- it was a little plain, honestly- but still enjoyable. 7/10.

 First Bites, Continued: Goose Liver + Raspberry, 10/10

First Bites, Continued: Goose Liver + Raspberry, 10/10

Though the chef frequently espouses his simplicity-driven cooking style, it was clear to me that this dish was a fun play on the potential of complexity- a beautiful medley of goose liver, raspberry, and lychee practically exploded with flavor. The lychee was served ice-cold, which played off the warm goose liver and the electric-zing of the raspberry dust. A truly memorable dish. 10/10. 

   First Bites, Continued: Potato + Lychee, 6/10

  First Bites, Continued: Potato + Lychee, 6/10

While the presentation was bright and luscious the flavors were actually fairly bland on this potato-based dish. Working with starches is always risky, and even with a nice blend of sea salt and oil the staid texture overwhelm the core idea of the dish. 6/10.

 Course 1: Potato Soup + Coffee, 9/10

Course 1: Potato Soup + Coffee, 9/10

This next potato dish made a ton more sense- a dense, rich plate of cream of potato, shaved cheese, and coffee grounds. Check out the dazzling colors and patterns of the ceramic- this was carefully thought through. Completely delicious 9/10. 

 Course 2: Sea Bass, 9/10

Course 2: Sea Bass, 9/10

A traditional Peruvian presentation- this dish was straightforward, light, and delicate. The fish felt a bit confined in a jail of vegetables visually, but a small note on such a delicious fish. 9/10. 

 Course 3: "A Walk in the Garden," 9/10

Course 3: "A Walk in the Garden," 9/10

A dish that was decadent in its pure, crispy, practically ringing freshness- the Walk in the Garden is an always-changing dish that reflects the most-currently-available products from the garden outside. An impossibly dense collection of colors and vegetable textures made this feel more Jungle than Garden; this dish is the pinnacle of showing what the chef's supply chain can do. 9/10. 

 Course 4: Beet + Langoustine, 9/10

Course 4: Beet + Langoustine, 9/10

Langoustine and beet with a stock of langoustine- the colors flowed nicely, and played well against the greenery of the previous dish to provide a nice contrast. 9/10.

 Course 5: Eel, 8/10

Course 5: Eel, 8/10

This meticulously-folded preparation of eel with sauce was a beautiful penultimate dish- lush sea flavors played well with the crunchy, starchy tri-fold vegetables. 8/10.

 Course 6: Wagyu Beef, 9/10

Course 6: Wagyu Beef, 9/10

Incredibly tender and hidden under layers of mushrooms, this was one of my favorite Wagyu preparations of all time. 9/10

 Course 7: Vegetables + Cream, 8/10

Course 7: Vegetables + Cream, 8/10

Lastly, a beautiful baked tart with surprisingly sweet vegetable cream. Small green shoots remind us of the heavy vegetable-driven meal we've just enjoyed. A beautiful concluding statement. 8/10.