I first became enthralled by Chef Sang-hoon Degeimbre’s cooking at the 2011 StarChefs International Chefs Congress in New York City. His cooking was beautiful, alluring and had soul. I longed to actually get to taste it. His restaurant, L’Air du Temps, immediately became one of the restaurants that I most wanted to try. Fast Forward to late January of 2013. I had just enough time between Madrid Fusión and the Bocuse D’Or to make a quick side trip to Holland, Belgium and northern France to visit a few of the restaurants there that had captured my attention. L’Air du Temps was at the top of that list.
We arrived to a pristine, new restaurant. L’Air du Temps had just recently reopened after having been relocated to a newly built space located in the small Belgian village of Liernu about a half hour outside of Brussels. The building resembles a large farmhouse set amongst some flat arable fields. Within, the restaurant is divided into several smaller dining rooms providing an enhanced sense of intimacy and a feeling of relative privacy for a restaurant that is somewhat larger than it appears. The decor was white and minimalist, but the overall feeling was one of comfort and tranquility. The day outside was gloomy with a cold, light rain, but that did not upset the vibe inside, especially since my son and I met an old friend from Catalunya, now working in Germany, who had come to meet us for lunch.
The kitchen, off to one side of the entrance, is long and somewhat narrow, but with the same stark minimalist white decor of the dining rooms amplified by the stainless steel of the modern cooking station. We were ushered in and were greeted by Chef Degeimbre. Introductory snacks were served to us on a counter just in from the entrance. At the far end of the main kitchen, behind a door, is a separate room with a private guest’s dining table. Pastry has its own large workspace behind the main kitchen.
This was a great spot from which to observe the ordered hustle and bustle of the Chef and his well tuned staff. The work at L’Air du Temps is precise and beautiful. We enjoyed watching it happen while we chatted and snacked.
Our first snack was one that combined influences from Asia and Europe, a theme that would recur often throughout the meal. Asian style rice crisps held dabs of sweet butternut squash purée. The flavor reminded me of panelle, Sicilian chickpea fritters.This snack was also crisp, but unlike the rice crisp, it was juicy.
Crisp textures gave away to firmness. There was plenty of umami and bacon flavor enhances pretty much everything. It certainly did this delicious dish. This was served with water extracted from Douglas fir needles. The water was slightly sweet, but refreshing and delicious. Pine has become somewhat ubiquitous in contemporary restaurants, which I happen to like. This was a particularly delicious treatment.This beautiful and tasty bread was made with a combination of cereals and grilled onions. It returned us to a focus on the textures of crispness.
Many of our snacks were either made or finished directly in front of us as we stood at the cold prep area.
Many have done variations on the Arpege egg. This version from Chef Degeimbre, called “Marie Luce’s egg – Carpentras truffles,” was well executed and delicious. The yolk was intact under the truffle foam and slice and provided the base of a luxuriously creamy sauce for the brioche soldier. We drank Champagne with this and the remainder of the snacks.
There is probably no dish more closely associated with the cuisine of Belgium than moules-frites. The version at L’Air du Temps was extremely clever, fun and even more importantly, delicious. We each had a mussel served in a faux shell that was made of fried potato made to resemble the mussel’s shell. These sat atop real mussel shells, though we didn’t eat those.
At this point we were escorted to our table in one of the small dining rooms to complete the remainder of our meal. The dining room was spare in decoration, accented with an orchid, gold drapes and gold lighting.Bread service was no afterthought. The quality of the bread was fabulous. To accompany the bread there were two butters – one salted from a nearby farm and the same butter with Japanese vinegar – Maldon sea salt and Sicilian olive oil. I love olive oil, but with butters this good and local, why bother?
Though not strictly of Asian origin, this dish, a classic of the restaurant, combined Asian, African and European influences into a delicious whole. The rice was soft, fluffy and each grain had distinct character. There were a number of flavors, each subtly enhancing the others, that created a symbiotic whole. Paired with sage water, it was an arresting and delicious combination. With our friend having to drive after lunch, we all opted, in sympathy, to go with the restaurants special water pairings. Each water was made with natural flavor extracted from plants, fruits and spices. This proved to be a unique and delicious choice.
I knew that Chef Degeimbre was into fermentation, but this next dish was the first in which it played an obvious role. It also highlighted the influence of the chef’s Korean background on his cooking. Lusciously sweet scallops from Dieppe had been baked then marinated in fermented daikon juice and served with lactofermented daikon, lemon juice, lemon meringues and potato chips. The meringues, slightly sweet on their own added a bit of a sweet and sour crunch, while the decidedly savory potato chips worked as a fine balance to the meringue with a different textural crunch. The dish was elegant and just superb! It was well paired with a lime/jerusalem artichoke water.
Once again, Degeimbre performed a bit of alchemy uniting the culinary products of East and West. Luscious langoustines were given an extra bit of umami with his dashi and drops of oil. The dill helped confirm the dish’s northern European origins. The water made with fennel, cucumber and dill heightened the herbal connections of the dish.
One of Ferran Adria’s major precepts was that a good quality ingredient, no matter how humble or common, when well prepared is better than a luxury ingredient not so well prepared. Chef Degeimbre built his next dish around the humble potato and fresh herbs with equally humble accents. The dish was first presented at the table as a whole roasted bird or similarly luxurious meat based dish might have been.The initial presentation was quite simple. The pot was returned to the kitchen.
I don’t know if Degeimbre consciously was influenced by Adria here, but this dish was a perfect example of what Adria was referring to. This was a stunning preparation that grew more and more delicious with each bite as the subtle intricacies made themselves noticed. Not intuitive, but the pear-ginger water served with it was excellent as a pairing.Once again, a relatively commonplace vegetable a cabbage, had been cooked and brought to the table for presentation then returned to the kitchen for plating.
The roasted cabbage returned with company. Degeimbre’s dish was a study in this common vegetable through a variety of forms and preparations. In addition to the roasted cabbage placed on the bottom of the plate, Degeimbre included house made kim chee on top of that and wilted Chinese cabbage on top of that. Covering it all was a generous pile of freshly shaved Carpentras truffles with nut-brown butter used as a sauce. Again, Degeimbre created a very special dish out of relatively humble ingredients (mostly). The water pairing was muscovado sugar, apple and cloves – quite tasty and a perfect foil for the dish.Our meal was hitting the home stretch. Local pigeon was served with thinly sliced “red meat” turnips, romanesco and tonka bean sauce.
The inclusion of tonka beans from South America gave this dish a global touch that would otherwise have been one of the most local dishes of the meal. While not exactly classic, this was one of the more conventionally served dishes of the repast. Regardless, the pigeon was wonderfully cooked and everything worked very nicely. The relative conventionality of the dish, however, was made up for by the unusual combination of red pepper (paprika) and orange water.
As with In de Wulf two days earlier and the vegetables earlier in the meal, the roasted duck was brought to the table for our inspection and then whisked back to the kitchen for carving and plating.
The beautifully cooked duckling from the same region in France as the world famous poulet de Bresse once again bridged continents. The initial presentation of the duckling in the cooking vessel spoke of Europe, but the final plate bore a large Korean imprint with Doenjang risotto and black garlic. In addition, the plate contained watercress and lime. Degeimbre never showed anything less than a deft hand in blending these ingredients from different cultures. The result was a synergistic whole that was always interesting, beautiful and delicious. Shiso-vanilla water was the effective water pairing with this dish.
In my experience, foie gras is typically served relatively early in a meal. Degeimbre used it here as a bridge to dessert. The foie gras had been blended with chocolate, layered on thin slices of bread and topped with mirin and crumbled dried fruit. While I liked the idea of this course and its placement, it was the course that I felt was the least compelling of the meal. It was served ice cold and lacked depth of flavor compared to the other courses that had been served. It was still good, just not as wonderful as the rest of the meal had been.
The path to dessert was taken further by a cheese course that paired Gorgonzola with a fresh cheese, pear and fried onions. The gorgonzola remained the dominant flavor, but the fried onions contributed a significant amount as well as being a major textural element of the dish. The pear was a finishing note, coming in at the end with sweetness. Composed cheese courses are chancey and frequently don’t work as well as just providing great cheese. This one, however, worked quite well in blending its disparate components and making them cohesively delicious.
The first dessert was an elaborate construction put together by the pastry chef at the table. He used a rectangular, flat white plate as his canvas.
He went from plate to plate to plate in a stepwise, orderly fashion, first drawing a line of thick carrot-lemongrass purée and building upon it with carrots in a number of different ways combined with different ingredients such as orange citrus, anise, sesame and menthol.
The icing on this cake, so to speak, was a pot placed in the center of the table that had liquid nitrogen and then a warm, anise-flavored juice poured into it, which created a dry-ice like effect enveloping the table with a fog that had the aroma of anise. It was all quite theatrical and much fun. It was also quite tasty. This also included the final juice pairing of the day – carrot/clementine.
This course was served with minimal description. Simply described as “Chocolate and Acidity,” I could not argue with the accuracy of the name. Barely sweet, the dessert was a play between dark chocolate and highly acidic citrus along with some herbs. The dish might have been just as comfortable during the savory part of the meal, but to my mind it was refreshing and worked well just where it was.This was a simpler treat, but no less delicious. Orange flavored cookies flanked a chocolate-whiskey ganache. It was pure decadence. The sweets kept coming. Test tubes have never been used so beautifully or with such delicious purpose as with this viscous drink of Chinese green tea with mint and mango bits suspended within it.
The food pairing movement started and has flourished in Belgium. On the right in the clear glass were mashed apples with tofu, vanilla and a dried apple on top. Next to it was a classic food pairing of banana and parsley with dried banana on top. These were interesting combinations that worked well together to produce unexpected deliciousness.The unusual combinations continued with a chocolate sorbet atop a mint granita and topped with dried Bellota ham and … …caramel with pineapple and popcorn!
Though not at all far from the major city of Brussels, L’Air du Temps feels like it is in the middle of nowhere. That is not a slight, as it affords the restaurant the ability to have farm to table, New Naturalist and global sensibilities. The Korean born, but raised in Europe Sang-hoon Degeimbre is well suited for this apparent contradiction and has crafted a truly unique destination restaurant that has feet in at least two continents and meshes them effectively in a beautiful and personal way. Our visit took place only a few weeks after the restaurant relocated to a brand new building. As wonderful and special as it was, I could see the experience getting even better as the seasons bring their individual bounties and the remaining parts of the project including a small hotel get completed. L’Air du Temps is a breath of fresh air in the world of contemporary restaurants.