A twenty minute walk from the centre of Bruges lies one of the city’s most innovative yet relaxed modern dining experiences, the one Michelin starred Sans Cravate which literally means ‘without a tie’ in French. The hospitable Chef Patron Henk van Oudenhove promises diners a new take on Flemish cuisine, whilst drawing on his years of classical training and, thanks to the partially open-plan kitchen, it’s possible to observe the brigade of chefs enjoying Henk’s guidance and infectious energy. Having started cooking at the age of fifteen at the award-winning restaurant, Den Braamberg in Bruges, it seems that food was in the blood.
Just one year and three months after opening Sans Cravate Henk was awarded a Michelin star. He and his wife Veronique also operate boutique guest accommodation across the street, located in an historic house, with each of the four rooms named after a grape variety; Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Syrah and Pinot Noir. Contemporary and reminiscent of Scandinavian styling, using many natural materials, the design of both the accommodation and restaurant is highly creative and one you could easily imagine a renowned interior designer had co-ordinated.
Instead, the husband and wife team were keen to oversee every element of their developing business and their attention to detail is what has marked them out from their competitors and prompted international attention. The restaurant even displays clay sculptures by Veronique. The accommodation side of the business has received glowing reviews and design award nominations since opening in 2013, adding to their customer base and lending a particular warmth to the atmosphere in the beautifully lit, stylish restaurant when residents make up the diners.
Chef’s ‘surprise’ menus consist of either three (only available on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday), five (78€) or six courses (89€), with the option for matching wines. Some of the biodynamic wines selected for us were at best interesting and at worst positively astringent, and overhearing comments from neighbouring tables, we weren’t alone and despite the sommelier repeatedly ‘selling’ us the story of how one artist-turned-wine-producer had flown in the face of founding French wine making principles. Perhaps he should have left well alone.
For those used to more quaffable wines, resulting from more traditional methods (with who cares what preservatives and additives) organic wine remains an acquired taste. I can’t help but hope that this is a trend that will eventually die out, as most of the wines selected did nothing to compliment the meal. It’s rather unfortunate that Henk’s mother-in-law happens to be a master sommelier who has overseen much of the restaurant’s wine selection. Perhaps the ultimate mother-in-law joke.
With refined cooking techniques and exquisite presentation throughout which often utilises quirky crockery, the dishes we sampled varied from those with well balanced flavours and textures to combinations still requiring some work. From a surprisingly bland starter of chilled smoked veal tartare with apple and sorrel, followed an utterly divine main of hare, cassis and red cabbage, the perfect dish for a bitingly cold winter’s night. The finale of chocolate and natural beetroot proved refreshing and cleverly highlighted the earthy notes of cocoa.
Henk is a freethinking chef who likes to push boundaries and challenge his diners to overcome preconceived ideas about food and wine. The risks don’t always pay off, but you can be sure of a menu of discovery. Unlike more cosmopolitan European cities, Sans Cravate is still fairly revolutionary in Bruges. A restaurant with a warm ambiance and a culinary flare deservedly acknowledged, not to mention boasting some of the most well-sourced ingredients you are ever likely to come across, if you want something outside the box when you are next in Bruges then Henk is your man.
Sans Cravate, Langestraat 159 8000 Brugge. For more information and to make a reservation visit the website.