By Andy Hayler
Nuance opened in 2008, situated in the little town of Duffel near Antwerp, noted mainly for its invention of the heavy woolen cloth that is used to make the familiar duffel coat. Just in case any visitors had missed this connection, there is a large status of a figure in a duffel coat on a roundabout as you enter the town.
Head chef Thierry They had previously trained at Plaza Athenee in Paris, Bar Boeuf in Monaco and a two star restaurant called Beluga in the Netherlands before opening Nuance at the tender age of 24. The restaurant earned its first Michelin star in 2009 and a second in 2010, which it has retained ever since. Two Michelin stars at the age of 26 is exceptionally rapid culinary progress. This is a family affair, with his wife Sofie running the front of house. Thierry and his wife opened a second restaurant called Vintage in 2014. The chef was in the kitchen this evening, something that almost seems to go without saying on the continent but is far from assured in London.
Nuance is located in what used to be a bank, and in 2015 the restaurant was refurbished to a design by the owners, who are interested in interior design. The dining room seats 42 customers at capacity. The wine list had around 300 labels with well-chosen growers, as might be expected with a sommelier that won “Best sommelier in Belgium” in 2012. Example labels were Larue St Aubie 2013 at €60 for a bottle that you can find on the high street for €30, Domaine Bachelet Monnot Puligny Montrachet 2014 at €90 compared to its retail price of €41, and Domaine Roulot 2011 at a very fair €125 for a bottle that will set you back €130 in a shop. There were some genuine bargains higher up the list. Coche-Dury Mersault 2009 was listed at €265, yet currently retails at €422.
The dining room can seat 42 guests at well-spaced, large tables covered by impeccably ironed white linen tablecloths. The acoustics of the room were good, and even with a packed dining room noise levels were no more than a pleasantly restrained 90 decibels or below. This was due to walls with acoustic damping and a floor with a leatherette covering rather than of wood – watch and learn, London restaurateurs. The walls were plain other than a modern collage and a mildly risqué black and white print “Any Suggestion?” by Antwerp photographer Marc Lagrange, noted for his erotic photos and his unusual death in a bizarre Christmas Day golf buggy accident in Tenerife.
There were tasting menus of five courses at €115 ($125) or six courses (€135 or $147) as well as an a la carte selection. We were able to mix and match the tasting menu with a la carte at our table, something many restaurants needlessly refuse to allow.
The meal began with a flurry of nibbles. Good quinoa crisps came with a punchy dip of lemon, sesame and black pepper. Chicken came with goat cheese atop a crisp lettuce leaf. Almond clam came with Thai vinaigrette. The best of the nibbles was superb beef tartare cannelloni with fried onions, cream and chives, which had terrific flavor balance. Also excellent was a quinoa salad with radish with smoked yoghurt cream and vinaigrette of oatmeal and peanuts with a hint of curry sauce. Good too was a salad of beans with wasabi seeds, green melon and flat leaf parsley, which featured particularly high quality beans (18/20 nibbles on average). Breads were made from scratch in the kitchen and were superb, from rustic rye bread and fine faugasse through to a beautiful brioche and accomplished country bread (19/20).
My starter was baked langoustine with burnt leek, leek vinaigrette, lightly pickled rhubarb and verbena emulsion, with a tartare of langoustine served on the side. The shellfish was excellent but I was even more impressed by the rhubarb, which had exceptional flavor and whose gentle pickling provided a sourness that neatly balanced the inherent sweetness of the langoustine (18/20). Mackerel was magnificent, served with Granny Smith espuma, verbena cream, radish and apple. The acidity nicely cut through the oiliness of the mackerel, which was spankingly fresh and had lovely flavor (19/20) .
On the tasting menu, veal was cooked on a slab of salt and was placed on a pile of aubergine cream with lightly pickled carrots, yellow tomatoes and a red chimichurri sauce with a gentle hint of spice, the coloring provided by paprika. The veal was excellent but the flavor of the carrots in particular was fabulous (18/20). The vegetables here are supplied from a nearby farm and throughout the meal were a star of the show.
On the tasting menu, sea bream came with fennel, black olive slices, confit lime, a mousseline of anchovies and little squares of tender squid. The fish was carefully cooked and the fennel excellent (18/20). One of our party had turbot with the same garnish, this being an option on the a la carte menu.
Venison had outstanding flavor, served with a sauce made from the cooking juices, mulberries and coffee, with a separate cherry cream, an emulsion of mushroom and a cream of potato with a potato crust. The meat was extremely precisely cooked, once of the best pieces of deer I can recall eating (19/20).
The only aspect of the meal that I would change is the dessert stage, which has succumbed to the trend of involving shrubbery. At this point I was reminded of the distinction between knowledge and wisdom: knowledge is being aware that the tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it into a fruit salad. Sadly this wisdom has eluded the pastry chef here, who added cherry tomatoes to a dessert of raspberries. This came with vanilla ice cream and elderflower. The raspberries were very good indeed but the tomatoes were jarring (hard to score but barely 16/20).
Much more enjoyable was a dame Blanche, a classic dessert of whipped cream, vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce. This was simple but lovely, gussied up with the addition of decorative gold leaf (18/20). Chocolate ganache came with tonka beans and sea salt, but was spoiled by the addition of kiwi fruit, basil and a quite unpleasant “lemon fir” disc, which tasted about as appealing as it sounds (14/20).
The pastry section redeemed itself somewhat with some of the petit fours, in particular terrific beignets of which Homer Simpson would heartily approve. Apricot clafoutis was more of a cake than a classic clafoutis but tasted fine, while a tonka bean macaron was delicate. I skipped the beetroot cake but at least my espresso was dark and rich.
Service was excellent, our young waitress particularly good. The bill came to €242 ($264) per person, albeit with pre-dinner drinks, good wine and a half bottle of the sublime Vin de Constance with dessert. If you shared a modest bottle then a typical cost per head would be around €170 ($186). I thoroughly enjoyed Nuance, whose cooking is of a very high standard. It seems to have eluded the international set – everyone appeared to be local, and there was not even an English menu. A lovely place.