Ah, Bruges. The Venice of the North. The land of beer, lace and chocolate. With its quaint canals and horse-drawn carriages trotting over narrow, cobbled streets it’s an enchanting place, and extremely easy to get to from London by train (just one connection in Brussels – 4 hours tops).
Since my first visit many moons ago the dining scene has come on by leaps and bounds (I only remember brasseries serving moules frites as a student but perhaps at that age one cares more about the next pint of Leffe than finding a decent restaurant). The city is now somewhat of a gastronomic destination having at least ten restaurants with one or more Michelin stars (not that Michelin is the be all and end all of culinary yardsticks but it gives you a general idea).
Sans Cravate brings a bit of modern, open-necked savoir-faire to proceedings (the clue is in the name really). The front part of the venue is even more “without tie” – this being the all-day bistro section called the “gastrobar” – whilst the Michelin-starred restaurant is at the back. As is usually the case, lunchtime is a good time to enjoy such high-end cuisine when it’s slightly cheaper and often quieter. On a quick scan of the restaurant, the average age on this visit was about 46 with a Jean-Claude Juncker lookalike entertaining clients in one corner.
The restaurant’s design makes good use of the irregular hand dealt to it, with modern Scandi-esque furniture, decent spacing between tables, natural light, a narrow window from the kitchen to spy on you (rather than the other way round), and walls painted in deliberately unfinished brushstrokes in a hue somewhere between avocado and duck egg. But crikey do they need to fix their air con. On arrival it was roastingly hot inside and took a good half hour to cool down after an energetic walk from the Grote Markt (about 15 minutes away).
service throughout was amiable and the bill very reasonable indeed
A glass of Crémant du Jura from their off-beat aperitif selection helped the cooling process. Much of the wine list skews towards the Savoie region of France – an often overlooked area known mostly for its crisp white wines and light reds – with other Old World mainstays for good measure. They do the whole wine matching thing too, if you’re so inclined, but one or two glasses of your own choice is probably enough for lunch.
Amuse bouches arrived in the way they always do (when you’re not quite ready but somehow you expect it anyway). First, a solitary confit carrot on a bed of quote unquote soil. This edible soil thing seems to be a go-to trick for all chefs with Michelin aspirations these days – or in this case, a star to defend.
But the small irritations out of the way, by the starters my spirits really began to improve, which is what good food should do – especially chef Henk van Oudenhove’s refined French-Flemish cuisine. Scallop served ceviche style with chicory, foie gras mousse and sesame (both seeds and oil) married wonderful texture, sweetness and bitterness together. A star dish which set the bar high.
For the main event, two pieces of duck breast had been cooked with great tenderness and rested beautifully, served in an homage to the traditional à l’orange, with pumpkin purée, a duck spring roll on the side for a slight Asian twist, and a traditional Belgian meat jus made from the bones (which was described to me by the waiter but I didn’t quite understand). It looked like an abstract painting too with its colourful geometric circles of purée.
Yes, van Oudenhove certainly has an eye for presentation but things went a little left-field with the dessert: a bar of rhubarb set in stark relief against a half-disc of lemon rice pudding, scattered with dill and the obligatory edible flowers atop and puffed grains of rice looking like supersized maggots (get used to it kids, insects will soon be commonplace). It was pleasant enough to eat but just odd as a dish, both conceptually and visually.
But still, service throughout was amiable and the bill very reasonable indeed: a three course lunch with two glasses of wine and coffee (with a delightful collection of petits fours) came in at 82 Euros (£71 on that day’s currency conversion), so not bad at all for central Bruges. Sans Cravate is not necessarily a restaurant to travel to especially, but if you’re in Bruges it’s certainly worth it.
by J A Smith