One of the most charming –and rather unusual – set-ups to have garnered a Michelin star is Roger van Damme’s Het Gebaar in Antwerp. Unusual because it only serves lunch and afternoon coffee ‘n cake of a stellar quality. This makes it ideal for the city visitor who has days free to explore and indulge and an equally smart choice for anyone who has to schedule a business lunch and wouldn’t mind savouring some excellent food at the same time.
Het Gebaar is located just off one of the city’s luxury shopping streets. But, you might not even notice that once you’re inside. Because, Het Gebaar occupies a picturesque folly, a free-standing tea pavilion in the small central Botanical Gardens that couldn’t be any further from the old cliché of park refreshment kiosks. Restored and definitely upgraded in terms of cuisine, this award-winning establishment has an understated décor that doesn’t deny the whimsical vision of whoever originally conjured it up; a vintage dream of being in the country whilst in the middle of the city.
The concept for the menu is a fairly logical one. It offers a relatively limited range of excellent lunches grounded in classics. But, above all else, this is heaven if you have a sweet tooth. You can simply opt to go straight to the delicious sweet offerings, bypassing lunch for, perhaps, an afternoon coffee with a delicious pancake. Better still, hold the coffee and have that pancake with a glass of champagne. Or, try on of their patisserie menus that deliver the best value for sampling Roger’s genius as a pastry chef.
Roger van Damme’s particular reputation and primary culinary interests have always rested in the specific art of the sweet dish, the dessert and the cake. As a consummate pastry chef, his route to that of star chef is rather an unusual one. No doubt all of this played a part in attracting him and his wife to this unique location, bound up with connotations of a bygone era in which the importance of afternoon coffee and cake could not be exaggerated.
For those who really need their lunch, the ever-changing menu offers seasonal delights strongly grounded in Flemish regional cuisine. Thus, steak tartare, Ostend crab, eel or carbonade might all put in an appearance served, of course, with those famous Belgian fries and no shortage of pleasing haute cuisine chicanery.
Needless to say, Het Gebaar is the place not to miss pudding, even if it’s the only course you eat. It’s very interesting to see how Roger elevates the national staples on the dessert menu to an art form; the Dame Blanche or the famous pancakes with delicious accompaniments. But, it seems almost a waste to not try some of his unique creations with exotic names. Who could not be tempted by ‘Soleil’? It’s a ring of vanilla panna cotta, with accents of exotic fruit and white chocolate that play with sweet ‘n sour tones. There’s even a “satirical” dessert that pays homage to the fashionistas and luvvies of the fashion-mad city featuring a caramel and hazelnut handbag. Yes, seriously.
Het Gebaar is sophisticated, simply stylish and fairly relaxed. However, if you do plan to rock up for lunch or an afternoon snack, it’s probably smart to reserve. It can be unpredictably busy on more or less any day it’s open and it’s not realistic to just turn up and expect that a table will be free.