Popular? A severe understatement. By 8.45 pm on a Saturday evening not only were all tables at this downtown restaurant full, so were all counter seats around the well-lit, open-style kitchen at the end farthest from the entrance.
San Brussels, in the Sablon quarter of the Belgian capital, emanates a refreshing, eclectic, loft-like atmosphere, with almost Zen-like décor: bare-brick walls, wood floor and a winding garland of metal leaves weaving its way across the ceiling. Central tables even feature iron-grill wraparounds.
The food, eaten only with custom-designed bowl and spoon, bursts with surprises, beginning with ‘pressed head,’ which was the amuse bouche in the restaurant’s tasting menu that we ordered. By origin, a central European dish, it’s a miniature square of pig head terrine with a hint of nuttiness from a pea and carrot mousse. A topping of mustard seeds and a smear of basil loaned added freshness. A 2014 Clauses de Jo – Belles Pierres from Languedoc provided the perfect wine complement.
A small bowl of unfamiliar cuisine bedfellows arrived at-table next under the title ‘Charente-Maritime, a region in southwest France: an oyster on a bed of kiwi puree with a tapenade of Kalamata olives and a net of dill, the sea and the garden variety, and goat cheese snow. Breadcrumbs added a delightful crunchiness to the entire blend.
‘Air du Temps 1997’ – a signature tribute dish named after two Michelin star chef Sang-Hoon Degeimbre’s first Belgian restaurant opened 20 years ago – consists of kohlrabi cannoli filled with salmon tartare and topped with caviar, slices of radish and cardamom mayonnaise.
‘Liernu,’ the next bowl on the menu, is best described as ‘Ode to Roots,’ a veritable feast of vegetables, comprising a tasty tangle of nasturtium root, mushroom cracker, potato, beetroot and leak, all sprinkled with drops of lovage oil. Vegetables in this dish, named after the region where the owner-chef opened his first restaurant, change according to season.
Before launching into our next course, we were curious to find out more about Degeimbre and his unique approach to cooking. Born in South Korea, he was adopted at the age of five with his younger brother into a large Belgian family with eight other children. Discovering a love of cooking and service, he enrolled at a hotel training school but found he preferred to be in the kitchen and began working instead for catering companies and also in restaurant wine cellars. Armed with that experience, the visionary chef took the plunge and opened L’Air du Temps, creating a reputation among gourmands for using innovative technology such as sous vide and ultrasonic devices.
Degeimbre’s propensity for stretching conceptual boundaries is reflected in his deconstructed hamburger. Comprising two mini-burgers from flavorsome French-bred Limousin cattle, they nestle on a smooth bed of mustard and homemade ketchup, irregular chunks of toasted brioche on top with pickled onion and a sprinkling of sesame seeds – the whole combination being eaten only with a spoon, an ancient tradition in the chef’s native country.
As for dessert, Degeimbre takes a traditional Spanish staple – churros – but imbues it with a touch of sophistication to produce a delectable coconut sorbet.
All in all, Degeimbre has a natural talent for bending flavors, each complementing, not overpowering, the other, creating successive layers of taste. A most memorable, eclectic dining experience in a cosmopolitan city such as Brussels.