Two Michelin stars and 4 Gault Millau toques (18,5 points) - Sang-Hoon Degeimbre, L'air du temps, Liernu, Belgium
Photos: Adam Szuly
Just one hour drive away from Brussels, in Liernu, you'll find the restaurant of the Korean-born chef, where he has built up his own unique world. Sang-Hoon describes himself as "a Korean born, a Belgian man and a citizen of the world". He told me that he was adopted from Korea by his Belgian parents and he only got to know his Korean roots as an adult. The square farm operates as an accomodation as well and it was built in the Hesbaye style, typical for the region. The little inner courtyard is rather closed, which makes the view of the fields from the restaurant even more stunning, especially from the little private room and the kitchen. I don't know whether the name of the restaurant matches Nina Ricci's parfum on purpose, but once you enter this exceptional world, it is immediately obvious that the concept and all the little details are unbelievably thought-out.
The whole set-up is very well planned to the very last detail; the design is trendy and modern, very much in contrast to the natural, organic fashion of the restaurant, but in full harmony with the dishes where you'll find again the same contrast: very strong regional influences, use of local produces on one hand, and the artistic, modern, trendy and beautiful food plating on the other.
The 47-year-old chef is planning significant changes and doesn't stop for a moment. He opened his restaurant 20 years ago as a self-taught chef, after having spent some time in the world of wine. He added with a smile that after all this time, he can even afford to have a philosophy and not only youthful enthusiasm. He never gets tired, the very young kitchen team keeps up his dynamism. When a few hours after the lunch service I anxiously asked him whether he would prefer to rest a bit before getting ready for the dinner service instead of showing us the grounds, he said that 20 minutes walk in the garden will be just enough of a rest for him.
The real boss at L'air du temps is the garden, as Ben, the gardener explained to me. They don't use any kind of chemicals on the 5 ha. His very good English skills made me suspicious that maybe he hasn't spent his whole life out on the fields. He admitted that he had been a banker, but as a regular guest, he had duly participated in the restaurant's previous life periods. Eventually, he decided that he wants to work with the chef and he joined him as a gardener. And now this place is where he comes home, here is where he really feels at home.
Basically both of them are obeying the garden, the will of the wheather and produces. Of course, they try to be prepared for every possibility and also for the winter period, so they do quite a bit of preservation and keep a lot of their products in the fermentation cellar. No wonder that the whole team goes on "study trips" to the other master of fermentation, René Redzepi in Copenhagen. But here the team is not international, mainly local chefs work here. Of course, some foreigners come to do their stage here - but this is possible only if they accept the strict conditions: they have to spend at least half a year working here.
They both know the garden like the back of their hand. It's not a display or exhibition area, but all components of the dishes are grown here. The peach leaves that taste like almond, the shiso leaves in different colours and flavours and lots of herbs and vegetables. According to the chef's theory, the produces of the same colour are matching in taste as well, thus he tries to express this when creating the dishes.
The private room with the fabulous panorama will soon be turned into a reception area, so that everyone can immediately see where they arrive. Experience is what you need, that's what Sang-Hoon believes in, everything depends on that and on the people. He expects that after the trends of the kitchen and the products, the focus will shift gradulaly to the people.
But in the kitchen, he is in the center. From the other parts of the guest area you wouldn't see, only from the private room, which is a sort of chef's table at the same time, but he is always on the go, being the most active member of the kitchen crew: he has a hold on everything, controls and coordinates, plates up, prepares.
Dishes that weren't even on the menu:
"Hanging bread", amuse bouche and duck liver, bread and different sorts of butter:
Spirit of Korea
Wagyu beef and sesame leaves [covered in kimchi as a Korean twist]
Seasonal vegetables, lacto-fermented juice, fennel oil
North Sea flavours
Tomato and shrimps [a sophisticated version of a Belgian classic]
Potatoes, sorrel pistou and turmeric juice
Kind of trou normand: "Cosmo Politain"
John Dory, zucchini, Gruyère cheese
Pluma ibérico (Spanish cut from just behind the neck of the pork, well marbled), grilled bell peppers, galanga, sunflowers
Elderberry, yogurt, hazelnut
Roasted peach, sorbet of milk and peach leaves
Petit four, coffee on the terrace with the chef and Ben, the gardener:
Domain visit with tasting
The whole atmosphere is as fantastic as the menu. Unique style, perfect harmony in the work of the kitchen crew, as well as between the components of the dishes. Creative, artistic dishes putting the excellent regional ingredients in focus, with a carefully built up line throughout the meal, presented with lot of playfulness. You can choose an oustanding wine pairing to go with the menu, or, as a unique solution, you can also choose the menu paired with different types of infused waters. I strongly recommend the place.
Great accommmodation just 100m away from the restaurant. (affiliate)