Chambre Séparée - Ghent – In the private quarters of a great Chef
I had read about young Kobe Desramaults a while back, when he was running In de Wulf restaurant in Dranouter, a small town in Belgium, and it was rave reviews one after the other. As one of the youngest chefs to ever win a Michelin star, Kobe also participated in and was one of the founders of the revolution of young Flemish chefs called the Flemish Primitives that turned into a renowned gastro show, pushing the boundaries of gastronomy and showcasing talent from Belgium, and the Netherlands like Sergio Herman from Ood Sluis (now also closed) and inviting famous stars from all around the world. Sadly, In de Wulf closed down for reasons unknown – rumours are that the size of the new operation was not sustainable and that Kobe needed time to reflect after 12 years under pressure as a top chef.
Luckily Kobe found another place, a pop-up of sorts in Ghent, one of the loveliest towns in Belgium. It is called Chambre Separee - or side-room hidden from sight - and resides in the basement of a strange and soon-to-be-torn-down office building. However uninviting the building looks - grey and empty – as I near the restaurant there is music coming from inside and a soft glow from lights and a fireplace. It looks like a comfy living room rather than a top restaurant. Inside, first I am greeted by staff early as 7 o’clock and I am the first to arrive as a guest. I am served gin tonic and a nice little beetroot tart in a curtained off part of the small restaurant that acts as a real living room. An electric guitar is placed against a designer sofa, a record player is playing vinyl, low lights, warm colours. Although I am alone I feel very much at home.
They soon take me over to the main restaurant area just on the other side of the curtain. This is how I imagine my favourite restaurant layout – a huge U shaped counter with only 16 seats, well-spaced, at a distance from each other with a prefect view to what is happening in the kitchen and all the work of the chefs. I can see Kobe and his staff preparing all the food for the evening’s service, heating the oven, cutting up scallops, glazing some ingredient, preparing the vegetables.
I have over 20 courses to go through and I am already enthralled by the experience: a mixture of a chef’s table with the chef’s own vinyl’s playing rock n’ roll in the background, the large wooden counter and a comfortable chair.
First up is a duck press, one of those bronze instruments that has a large wheel at the top and from which you extract juices from the carcass of the duck. But this time, it is a bunch of North Sea swimmer, sand crabs that get flattened and pressed and out comes the lovely juices of these crustaceans. They get mixed and whisked with some sort of creamy substance. Lovely, rich crab juice straight from a cup.
Next up is a deshelled piece of lovely fresh, raw, North Sea langoustine that has a strong kelp(?) jelly beneath it and is sprinkled with some citrus rind. I can see the direction here almost immediately. Wonderful shellfish and oceanic produce from the North Sea and the area close to the Belgian shores prepared in the most creative and innovate ways, licked by fire, burnt by oven and grill, yet keeping the ingredients as intact as possible. But there is always a little twist to the story, such as the sea jelly or the lemon sprinkling.
The next dish is a mackerel whose skin has been torched and doused continuously over the fire with a good dose of pork fat and a little grainy mustard added on top. You can see from the video shot that instead of a torch, the chef uses the flaming heat of the fat to sear the skin of the fish. Mackerel is a fish that sort of grows on you as years go by. You move from sea bass to white flaky fish onto the oily mackerel and sardines and you realise what you’ve been missing in terms of taste. Japanese grilled mackerel is a huge favourite if mine and this follows in its path.
Next up, as if we were still part of a Kyoto omakase menu, a lacquered little cup arrives with a show white crab meat sits on top of egg yolk and miso. Creamy and delicate with silky smooth tastes - it lacks a bit of punch for me after the mackerel.
Some starch up next in the form of a rich and creamy puree – notably potato cream with buttermilk, a splash of strong pumpkin seed oil on top, and a spoonful of caviar. Of course the umami is evident in the rich potato cream and the smoky and strong pumpkin seed oil (that is prevalent in Austria everywhere) and the pebbles of salty caviar.
By this time the smoke is not only present in the food, but also in the dining room as the oven gets fired up by the chefs. There is a very strong primal cooking feeling going on with the grills and the ovens, and pulleys like the ones in Etxebarri. Kobe wants to bring out the best from his wonderful ingredients by the fire, but has a more subtle, and sometimes innovative approach than Victor from Axpe. This of course is not a critiscism of one or the other, just a distinction in styles.
While Victor would probably have plated the next course, a wonderful tranche of turbot baked on the bone like it was, simply grilled, Kobe here makes a sauce from mustard and the juicy and gelatinous parts of the turbot wings and places it on top of the fillet of fish. This was delightful and I appreciated the kick of the rich sauce on the juicy, firm fish.
Continuing on the seafood theme, and fish with rich toppings came a delicate piece of red mullet with uni on top and a creamy sea urchin sauce beneath it. Mullet 5 star and sauce 6+ stars awarded. The mullet was once again grilled on the open fire and then the sauce and the creamy uni added afterwards. That little extra goes a long way.
Another dish that was less pronounced was the rather beautiful smoked celeriac slices that were baked in the oven in a salt crust and then added to it were the fresh scallop pieces. The beautiful celeriac overwhelmed the scallop for me completely and although it gave a textural contrast, did not go to the heights of the previous courses.
Next up came a vegetable only dish of endives, truffles and mushrooms. The sour endives, mixed with the earthy mushrooms and the shavings of black truffle were quickly disposed of and it was a dish that I almost forgot about. Here you can see it broken up but it did arrive with the mushroom batons intact and shaped into a circle.
Ankimo braised in Tokaji wine with a sourdough toast. Perhaps one of the most memorable dishes of the night. The monkfish liver strong in depth in flavour and braised in a sweet, botrytized wine was spread on the grilled sourdough bread like some paté. Ah, the glory of the the ankimo cream was a taste that will linger with me for long.
Dogfish and smoked potato with green leaves (?). This combination of dogfish – a type of small shark – and the potato was more of a comfort food like combination – and the green leaves of a plant that I forgot to ask about added some sharpness and acidity but the composition just didn’t feel right or special compared to the others. It was more like a mashed potato with some fishy elements mixed in. It fell flat.
I did get some onion bread baked in the oven along with some cheese that I completely forgot to take a shot of and then a pre-dessert of green apple with dill and angelica swimming in cream to stimulate the digestive tract.
At this point, credits have to be handed out to the really great sommelier, who had a different pairing to each course. The food pairing was accompanied mostly with white wine, but then once with a unique Belgian white beer, another with an almost orange, fizzy, bubbly strong organic wine, then another with a 1978 sake and another with a super limited bottle of almost Brandy like Italian white wine. The wine arrangement was as unique as the food.
The desserts started with a poached pear hazelnut tarte with thyme and lavender. A little basket of joy, kind of like a mini tarte tatin. Then a gorgeous plum kernel ice cream with some Belgian biscuit.
With the dinner nearing an end the staff escorted me back to the lounge area where I was served a huge, fluffy, flaky pastry apple cake with caramelized apples – not sure why I got it, sure wasn’t my birthday! It was there that I enjoyed a cup of mint tea to wash it all down. The apples were delicious and I sipped the tea looking at the next groups of guests arriving for their 9:30 dinner reservations. How lucky they were!
Chambre Separée is an amazing restaurant. Not only because of the whole ambience and the rock playing all night and of course the chef’s immaculate taste in music, but because of the informality of the experience and the closeness of the chef. It feels almost like a Japanese omakase experience with loads of fish, crabs, mackerel, seafood, mushrooms, but with the delicate taste of the fire that has touched the ingredients and smokiness that adds another dimension to the flavour.
In 25 courses obviously there should be some hit and miss combinations, but I mostly felt a big HIGH in a lot of places, such as the mackerel, the turbot, the red mullet, the monkfish liver and the duck and then a “pause” of sorts at the crab and egg, the dogfish, the celeriac and scallop dishes. But trust me, they were all great.
I’m sure I have to place this as one of the most memorable experiences in recent dining history, because I felt welcome all along and didn’t feel at all overwhelmed by the food, the richness, the length of the dinner or anything. It felt like the extension of Kobe’s personality, or even his living quarters. I’m so lucky to have booked a place here before who knows what happens to the building later. And I also hope that Kobe goes onto greater glory elsewhere once this happens.