December 9, 2021

It is December, and by some stroke of luck, I have managed to trade the first frost in the French countryside for bare feet and salty hair in the Maldives. This escape serves as a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with the best holiday destinations I’ve been to in 2021 (in a deeper way). At dinner, a second serving of the Maldivian tuna curry reminded me of why I travel; those sparks of curiosity, moments of finding oneself in solitude, and more importantly, exploring the food of the land.

Following the endless parties that ensued from The World’s 50 Best Restaurants ceremony in October, I made a detour to the city of Ghent, just an hour’s train ride from Antwerp. I would have loved to explore, but the agenda was set in stone—lunch at 2-Michelin-starred Restaurant Vrijmoed, which came highly recommended by Belgian chef Nic Vanderbeeken of Aperitif in Bali.

I arrived at the restaurant, frazzled and dog-tired from having to drag my suitcase in the rain, but jolted to life by the regal interiors of the townhouse. Tall arches of stained glass windows, coffered ceilings and gold framed antique mirrors are juxtaposed by cheery servers wearing ankle-grazing dresses in the cutest shade of cinnamon brown. It’s tasteful and vivacious all at the same time and that trait echoes throughout the entire degustation menu.

Since 2009, Ghent has been part of a food revolution, promoting veggie Thursdays. And chef Michaël Vrijmoed champions this movement by offering a vegetable-based menu at his 2-Michelin-starred restaurant. Currently, it is named the best vegetable restaurant in Belgium and third in the world. Yet despite its acclaimed reputation, I went against the grain by opting for a meatier menu at Vrijmoed.

Still, chef Michaël’s green predisposition held sway in the trio of appetisers. There were soft folds of confit yellow beetroot drizzled over with satay sauce, a green chorus of watercress and horseradish, and amaranth crisps with artichokes dipped in a sauce of parmesan and chives. Each better than the other. A startlingly good black olive cracker filled with celeriac cream set the stage for the meal to begin.

The ‘squid tagliatelle’ is what it is, in a literal sense, thin ribbons of squid envelop an ice cream of smoked eel and myoga (Japanese ginger). Rather than rubbery strands, the ‘pasta’ had bite and texture—its creamy disposition was given extra complexity with the addition of dashi broth. The next dish of sea crab flan perched on crab bisque was made opulent with imperial heritage caviar. Crunchy sea fingers drummed up the flavours of the sea and this dish went down without a hitch.

Turbot was pan-fried and topped with blushing cascades of pumpkin poached in orange juice. Maître’d and sommelier Benjamin De Buck tilted a bottle of Forlorn Hope “Queen of the Sierra” into my glass and the harmonious explosion of honey, yellow fruits and baked apples was the perfect sidekick to the manifestation of flavours. The next tipple to greet my lips, a 2017 Phinca Hapa Elvillar, made a bold point. It tasted like an enthusiastic bite into a ripe prune and smelled like wet woods littered with moss. This was trailed very swiftly with what I reckoned was the real star of the show; roasted silvers of mallard accompanied by a jus, tiny mounds of beetroot filled with figs, and a mysterious smattering of liver and heart sauce. It was the most elegant morsel of root vegetable I ever had.

The cheese course was illuminating. Gorgonzola from the North of Italy was transformed into ice cream and arrived sitting in a pool of sesame oil vinaigrette with strands of wakame ensuring that each bite was salty, nutty and creamy. Coupled with a little sake and you’re almost certain to do a little jig in your chair.

On paper, dessert sounds like a cleansing juice. In reality, the combination of apple, coconut and fresh herbs was melded by local white chocolate and became a little too sweet for my liking. I still found space for the mignardises in view of the 6-hour train ride back to the capital. 

Restaurant Vrijmoed doesn’t require a specific occasion to visit but it does take an inquisitive palate to relish. The menu is vibrant and draws on Asian influences in a wildly unexpected and scrumptious way. At €129 for six courses, the value is remarkable; do give the pure vegetable menu a chance while you’re at it.