GHENT, Belgium — Sometimes, a house beckons from the street with a warm glow from the window. You might imagine a relaxed dinner party, guests enjoying themselves, wine and beer flowing, and good food along the table.
If you happen to be walking down quiet, cobblestoned Lange Steenstraat in the beautiful small city of Ghent, such a phenomenon is happening at a nondescript house without a sign. But it’s not a private dinner party; it’s one of the best restaurants in town.
Jef, the brainchild of chef Jason Blanckaert, 33, and his wife, Famke Dequidt, 29, has been attracting more and more attention since it opened two years ago. Blanckaert makes up part of a group referred to as the “Flemish Foodies,” a title that the chef is admittedly not crazy about, but nonetheless embraces. Others are Olly Ceulenaere, an old friend of Blanckaert’s from culinary school, who runs the restaurant Volta in this city, and childhood friend Kobe Desramaults, of the celebrated In De Wulf in rural Dranouter and more casual Ghent eatery De Vitrine. The three collaborate on events and draw inspiration from one another, but have plenty to keep them occupied in their own kitchens.
Blanckaert, who grew up in Poperinge (near the French border in West Flanders), says he began cooking to help his mother in the kitchen. He enrolled in culinary school and afterward landed at Hof Van Cleve, chef Peter Goossens’s Michelin three-star restaurant in Kruishoutem. It was after his stint at Hof Van Cleve that Blanckaert moved to Ghent, a city he fell in love with as a youngster; he used to skateboard there with Desramaults. Spending five years at the now-defunct restaurant C-Jean, which at the time gained a Michelin star, took its toll on the young chef, who says he grew tired of “cooking for the type of people who come for the star and not really for what you do.”
The mood at Jef is relaxed, classy, unpretentious. That the restaurant is housed in what was apparently Ghent’s first Japanese restaurant in the ’80s explains the understated woodwork that defines the room. Dequidt, an interior designer, took care of the rest of the handsome design, including subtle branding — literally, with a brand — of the restaurant’s name onto the wood tables.
The cooking matches the setting: modest yet exciting, respectful to Flemish ingredients and culinary traditions, but forward-looking. The verb “to share” is highlighted at the bottom of the menu as if from a dictionary. “People who share are most of the time nice people,” says Blanckaert.
A small starter of periwinkles in a beautiful ceramic bowl is accompanied by a cork stuck with tiny pins for extracting the meat. The diminutive sea snails from the North Sea are the perfect bites to wake up the appetite. A full-on serving of shellfish, including pristine mussels, clams, and chopped raw oysters, continues the theme with their clean flavors. A surprising dish of haddock with celery root and pecans, which appears monochrome, is anything but — the fish and root vegetable are nearly indistinguishable white masses on the plate, imbuing each bite with playful uncertainty. The fish melts in the mouth while the celery root is pleasingly al dente and deeply flavorful, having been baked in salt for 10 hours.
Rabbit with prunes pays homage to a dish from Blanckaert’s childhood. In this iteration, the rabbit is made into a terrine and baked, then served with a rich sauce of prunes simmered in a pressure cooker, pureed with the baked livers of the rabbit, and finished with burnt onions and a typical beer jus. It’s Flemish comfort food prepared with meticulous technique and a couple of well thought-out tweaks. Blanckaert explains it as “typical of what we are trying to do here — classic dishes, or basic dishes, and making them better [and] stronger.” A glass of the sour Belgian beer Gueuze is a wonderful accompaniment, and the earthenware cooler for keeping the large bottle cool testifies to the respect Belgians have for this drink.
A vegetarian entree of Belgian endive with cheese sauce strikes a similar chord to the rabbit dish. It will be familiar to locals, at least at first. The endive is baked with Oud-Brugge, an aged cheese, but plated with an emulsion flavored with tarragon, bay leaf, and orange rind, as well as addictive crisps made from the Oud-Brugge. “People have to eat it and say ‘Mmm, I know that, it’s typical, but it’s also good,’ ” explains the chef.
For international diners, references to the Flemish repertoire might go unnoticed. But it’s a thrill to discover the flavors and textures of what has been, until recently, a relatively overlooked cuisine. A dessert of the crackly regional spice cookie speculaas, served with diced apple and bourbon ice cream, for example, is impossible not to like — no matter where you’re from.
Lange Steenstraat 10, Ghent, Belgium, 011-39-09-336-80-58Luke Pyenson can be reached at email@example.com.