Brussels: December 2023
After a wave of innovation, there is often a resurgence of historical practices. For instance, following the Nouvelle Cuisine movement of the 1970s, the late 1980s witnessed a revival in the pursuit of precision and technical prowess in cooking. Similarly, the aftermath of the avant-garde cuisine of the 2000s has left us with a return to naturalism in certain aspects, but also a search for reconnection with a traditional and well-rooted local cuisine.
Amidst a growing interest in traditional methods, many overlook that, historically, trades emphasized craftsmanship more than today. It still remains a rarity to find chefs who are deeply committed to focusing on specific techniques, perfecting them over time, developing all their nuances and reaching a higher degree of appreciation. Karen Torosyan is an exception1 with his work on pastry, be it laminated doughs, pâté en croûte or pithiviers. He brings Marie-Antoine Carême’s architectural approach and elevates it to the 21st century while adding a dose of perfectionism that is worthy of Joël Robuchon.
|Table of contents
|1. Understanding Karen Torosyan
|2. Bozar’s cuisine
|3. The setting – at Victor Horta’s last work
|4. The tasting menu – ‘The Classics’
Understanding Karen Torosyan
Although Torosyan’s story has been extensively documented – we recommend reading the excellent article by Food and Wine Gazette – we will offer a short summary. Born in 1980 in Georgia and of Armenian descent, Torosyan’s early life gave little indication of his future culinary career. Initially working in fast food outlets in his home country as a way to pay for his studies, his first real steps in hospitality began when he arrived in Brussels at the age of 18. Without knowledge of French, he started as a kitchen porter in a brasserie. His dedication and talent shone through as he gradually ascended through the ranks, becoming the brasserie’s souschef in 2001.
To ensure his qualifications were beyond reproach, Torosyan enrolled at INFOBO’s culinary school in 2002. His aptitude in the kitchen did not go unnoticed, and in 2006, a teacher at INFOBO recommended him to Jean-Pierre Bruneau. In this new role, Torosyan excelled, delving deeply into classical French cuisine and earning the position of souschef in a mere six months. In 2008, seeking to expand his repertoire, he moved to Le Chalet de la Forêt to work under Pascal Devalkeneer, exploring a more modern cuisine. Torosyan believes that understanding a restaurant’s cuisine, style, and philosophy takes about two years; and he was ready to move on.
In 2010, he was appointed head chef at the newly opened Bozar Brasserie, an initiative by chef David Martin of two-star La Paix, who had also been souschef at Bruneau. The same brasserie had been directed in the past by Peter Goosens (under the name MuseumBrasserie), but it didn’t do well financially. Torosyan brought a renewed energy and his victory in the 2015 Championnat du Monde de Pâté-Croûte was a precursor to Bozar’s first Michelin star in 2017, a year that also saw him earn the title of Best Artisan-Chef of the Year from Gault & Millau. In 2018, Torosyan decided to purchase Bozar Brasserie from David Martin and another investor, subsequently renaming it Bozar Restaurant. The restaurant continued to thrive under his leadership, achieving a 17/20 rating from Gault & Millau in 2020 and securing a second Michelin star in 2023.
When opened in 2010, the restaurant intended to render David Martin’s cuisine more accessible as a brasserie. Around three years in, Karen’s influence became more pronounced, leading to a distinctive style. This evolution resulted in a menu that blended high-end gastronomy with traditional brasserie fare and, over time, haute cuisine became the main focus.
He posits that the primary objective of haute cuisine is to stir emotions through a meal. These emotions, in his opinion, can arise through either creativity, technique or great produce. Torosyan himself does not believe in an openly creative cuisine, but rather a more introspective one that always starts from the legacy of the French culinary tradition. He believes that what makes a dish truly great is its timelessness and ability to transcend trends. Thus, Torosyan does not try to innovate, but to interpret these classics to leave a mark of his own, something lasting to pass on to the next generation.
Artists live to create and I [an artisan] create to live. This is what defines me.
The chef places great emphasis on the artisan aspects of gastronomy, particularly on skills and knowledge that cannot be easily codified in written form and come from years of hands-on experience and experimentation. Unlike creative restaurants that introduce a new menu each year, Karen Torosyan’s approach is to master the classics and refine them over time. This allows for a deeper understanding of their concept, a thorough exploration of the processes involved, and the perfection of techniques and recipes. The best example is his pâté-en-croûte. Here, he challenged the traditional 50:50 meat-to-fat ratio, creating a version with less fat that matures in just a couple of days, as opposed to the usual one week or ten days, and yields a crust that is still fresh and crunchy.
This approach is similarly evident in his work on beef Wellington and pithiviers, the latter inspired by the work of Eric Briffard at Le Cinq around 2008, the chef who re-popularised savoury pithiviers with game inspired by his research of old French recipes. Before Briffard, most pithiviers were typically filled with sweet pastes, like the frangipane used for the festive galettes de rois. Karen Torosyan makes excellent tourtes and koulibiaks too, but perhaps his most iconic dish is the Granivore with pigeon, foie gras and smoked eel, created in 2019 and a masterclass in perfection (see below).
The extent of his attention to detail is obsessive, ranging from his experiments with pithivier doughs to eliminate their vents—normally necessary to prevent steam from softening the crust (a technique he learned from a chef who had worked with Briffard)—to his precise measurements of how much fat his pâtés-en-croûte lose during the baking process to ensure an exact final meat-to-fat ratio. His passion for perfectionism and exactitude in his technique is strikingly evident. We highly recommend watching the WBP Stars video of him making the Granivore to appreciate the precision of the cuissons and aesthetics. His meticulousness, rivalling that of Robuchon, creates a sense of pure awe at the table, even after having already seen his work on social media. It is intriguing to consider whether his apprenticeship as a jeweler in Georgia during his teenage years might have influenced this attention to detail.
Regarding the sourcing of his ingredients, quality produce is indispensable and Torosyan is not afraid to search for the best suppliers abroad within reason. Sustainability is important and one must lead by example, but a fully locavore approach is not always consistent with his search for excellence.
The setting – at Victor Horta’s last work
The restaurant, set within the Palais des Beaux-Arts and designed by Victor Horta, a pioneer of Art Nouveau, is a beautiful embodiment of the 1920s Art Deco style. Occupying the same location as the museum’s original restaurant, it respects Horta’s interior design to a surprising degree. Photographic evidence from the 1930s, displayed around the restaurant, attests to this preservation. The décor features beautiful materials, with marble claddings and geometric patterns that evoke an elegant vibe. Only the gleaming metal of Torosyan’s kitchen reminded us that we were still in the 21st century.
The dining room accommodates up to 40 covers, supported by a team of 22. The staff are elegant and discreet, with the service à la russe particularly shining when presenting Karen’s pastry work. The wine list is excellent, with a great modern European selection starting from Marguet and Selosse, through a wide range of Loire wines like La Ferme de la Sansonnière, Vacheron, Chidaine, Clos Rougeard, to notable Burgundy and Jura names like Bernard-Bonin, PYCM, Lignier, Montille, Bruyère – Houillon and Tissot. The list extends to Rhône and Provençal wines like Dard et Ribo, L’Anglore, Trevallon, Beaucastel and includes Old World references like Terlano, Quintarelli, Benanti, Biondi Santi, Enric Soler, Nin-Ortiz, Quinta da Muradella, Artuke, Vega Sicilia, Clemens Busch…. However, the mark-ups are quite high, with the average bottle priced at three times its retail value. We opted instead for some lambic beers, a rare find in Belgium’s fine dining scene.
|3 Fonteinen – Druif Blaufränkisch (Blend 44) 22/23
|Very aromatic nose for a very vinous lambic. Lots of fresh red cherries and cranberries. Only some mild yeasty notes remind us that this is a fruit lambic.
|Confirming the nose, this is a very vinous beer. The attack is led by cranberries and a vinous herbal note. It’s in the midpalate that one realises the sharper acidity and lighter body compared to a normal Blaufränkisch. Here notes of yeast, leather and cedar mix through the finish for a more savoury feel. One of the best fruit lambics we have tried.
|Fine soft mousse, high acidity, dry, 8.2% alcohol, medium body. Very long finish.
The tasting menu – the Classics
There are several menu options, including a shorter lunch option, a five-course and a seven-course option as well as à la carte. For first-time visits, it is highly advisable to opt for the ‘Classics’ menu, a six-course menu that must be pre-booked 48 hours in advance. This menu includes a choice among of three of Torosyan’s signature croûte dishes: tourte, Granivore or pithivier. All have different fillings and are intended to be shared between two people.
The experience began with thin, crisp bread wafers, presented as Armenian bread. Their texture was reminiscent of filo pastry – layered, somewhat firm, yet finely delicate. Lightly suffused with olive oil, they carried an aroma of caramelised butter and a hint of rosemary. These wafers were notably crisp, shattering at the slightest touch.
One is also served a Laminated brioche, meticulously crafted into a uniformly caramelized cube, crisp on every side. When sliced, it unveiled a soft, pillowy interior, featuring a well-risen, delicate crumb and a buttery taste that stroke a perfect balance between sweet and savoury aromas. Served warm, this brioche was accompanied by a side of cultured butter, subtly tinged with the nuances of aged Parmigiano-Reggiano.
The first appetiser – the Vitello (veal from Corrèze – caper – gorgonzola) – presented a thoughtful balance in its composition. It began with a crisp pâte brisée tartlet filled with tender, milk-fed veal tartare from Corrèze, complemented by the bold taste of gorgonzola. The veal’s subtle, milky notes were the perfect backdrop for the strong cheese. This combination, both new and successful to us, found its balance with the sharp addition of capers, which added a vinegary punch, while a black peppercorn tuile on top provided a spicy kick. Overall, the dish offered a modern interpretation of beef tartare, melding traditional and inventive elements in a simple, yet elegant presentation.
Next, the Marbled ham (marbled ham – horseradish) was a creative rendition of the Burgundian, ‘jambon persillé.’ At the heart of this dish is a pork shoulder from Auvergne with great fat marbling. The preparation is straightforward yet precise: the pork is brined and gently poached in a vegetable broth. This process ensures that each bite is both tender and succulent. Subsequently, the pork is finely minced and blended with a mixture of reduced white wine, shallots, mustard, cornichons, and a trio of herbs – parsley, tarragon, and mint, imparting a refreshing twist. To help setting the terrine, some of the broth is incorporated, enhancing its texture and flavour.
Arranged in tidy cylinders, each portion was topped with a dollop of horseradish cream, offering a gentle spicy note that harmonized with the robust ham. The dish was completed with a tuile in the shape of cypress leaves, more whimsical than functional, providing a crunchy element. Although the tuile‘s elaborate presentation might appear somewhat extravagant for a simple terrine, it did not diminish the terrine’s expertly crafted flavours, which remained faithful to tradition.
We continued with a Raviolo (Brittany lobster – tarragon), which offered a contrasting experience. The single raviolo, filled with minced blue lobster, was let down by its pasta dough — thick, tough, and slightly undercooked, causing some slight splitting at the seams. Inside, the lobster filling, while soft and mushy, was flavourful. The true star here was the lobster bisque with tarragon. Rich with the essence of roasted lobster shells and a classic Provençal mirepoix of carrots, onions, tomatoes, and fennel, the bisque’s deep seafood flavour was finished with abundant butter blended to create a light foam. A hint of tarragon oil brought an extra layer of complexity. Although the raviolo itself was underwhelming, the bisque stood out, making us wish for a bowl of just this concoction.
The first starter was Hamachi (Hamachi of Zeeland – lemon caviar). It was served in the form of a tartare covered with a veil and topped with sorrel flowers and lemon caviar. Underneath the tartare, there was a panna-cotta-like curd. The textures combined pleasingly, with the veil having just the right consistency, the hamachi being tender, and the panna cotta smooth. While the flavours were generally mild, the overuse of chives in the tartare somewhat disrupted the dish’s balance and harmony.
Our final starter before the croûte was a Scallop (Green cabbage – caviar “Caspian Tradition”), elegantly simple in presentation. Each of the three scallops was ‘sandwiched’ between a layer of cabbage and a delicate quenelle made from scallop roe, all nestled in a silky beurre blanc nage. Cooked gently, sans coloration, the scallops retained their juiciness and sweetness. Perhaps the role of the sandwiched quenelle and cabbage, with a hint of alliums, was not immediately clear to us, but they complemented the overall flavour profile beautifully and their cuisson was impeccable. To garnish, each scallop was crowned with Caspian Tradition caviar. This medium-sized caviar, cultivated in Belgium, boasted a notably intense flavour with umami and a kombu-like taste.
As we reached the main and climactic part of our meal, we received a baguette and some hummus. The baguette had a quirky appearance, with a well-cooked crust that was simultaneously crispy and thin. Despite its slightly dense crumb, possibly due to being under-proofed, its flavour remained true to that of an authentic French lean bread. The hummus, complemented it well, with a smooth texture from abundant use of tahini, while maintaining a distinct chickpea taste. The cumin was very aromatic but well balanced, ensuring all the flavours of the hummus were discernible.
Tension rose as we saw Karen Torosyan making the finishing touches to our main, his famous Granivore. Presented before baking, it was a sight to behold, and even more impressive as it was expertly sliced into serving pieces. This creation brings together pigeon from Bretagne, goose foie gras, and house-smoked eel. The assembly is meticulously planned. It begins with spinach leaves coated in a smoky, umami-laden paste made from grilled nori, dried mushrooms, and dashi. These leaves enwrap the pigeon breast, a slice of goose liver, and a fillet of eel, smoked to perfection at 28°C. The ensemble is then enveloped in a slender, crisp, non-laminated dough. This dough is sprinkled with a blend of grains such as linseed, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, and millet, providing a delightful nutty crunch.
The croûte‘s architecture is thoughtfully designed, facilitating easy cutting. This ensures each bite combines all the components, a notable achievement in layered dishes like this which simply tend to collapse into a mess. The tender pigeon breast, cooked to a juicy medium rare with a subtle flavour, complemented the equally delicate and perfectly mi-cuit goose liver. Adding to the textures, the smoked eel provided a beautifully soft and smoky contrast. In terms of taste, the croûte stood out with its salty, nutty flavour and satisfying crunch. Visually, the dish was flawless, clean and precise, showcasing Torosyan’s workmanship. To truly understand his craft, we strongly recommend watching Torosyan work in this video, as he skillfully shapes a minimal amount of dough into a flawless form with little room for error.
The sauce, derived from the pigeon carcass, featured a deep brown colour with a rich, meaty flavour and a gelatinous consistency, akin to the Spanish oxtail dish, rabo de toro. Using the whole bird, alongside this, the pigeon leg, encrusted with pistachios, was served with a spicy piment d’Espelette condiment. The leg was cooked to such perfection that the meat effortlessly detached from the bone. The pistachios, however, provided a crunch that seemed overly harsh for the delicate meat. Additionally, the spicy chilli condiment felt somewhat out of place.
The tasting menu included a small minimalistic dessert made with Mandarin and pumpkin reminiscent of the style of the now vegan Eleven Madison Park. This dessert consisted of a raw pumpkin circle brushed with a reduction made from spiced pumpkin juice, where aromatic spices like clove and allspice were prominent. Beneath this, there was a layer of mandarin sorbet accompanied by pieces of pecan and cacao. The dessert was light and refreshing, yet it did not quite appeal to our tastes. Throughout the menu, we encountered issues with texture, and in this dessert, these texture issues were most pronounced. As a pairing, we went for a Domaine Huet Le Haut-Lieu Moelleux 2003 by the glass – a bright and honeyed wine, which, surprisingly, showed no tertiary notes even after 20 years old.
Finally, the Millefeuille showed up served à la russe. Presented on a large trolley, the millefeuille looked grand, exposing its magnificence with a thousand layers and slightly oozing Tahiti vanilla filling. The waiter skilfully cut it right before our eyes, a feat given its delicate nature. This pastry, made in the style of pâte feuilletée inversée, had perfectly laminated layers, making them distinctly visible. Despite its extreme fragility and shattering crispiness, it could be easily cut with a spoon, yet it held its structure until the very last bite. The pastry had a good sweet butter flavour and distinct caramelized undertones. The crème diplomate accompanying it was exceptionally light and silky, slightly runnier than usual but harmoniously melding with the delicate pastry texture. The vanilla flavour was intense, but it was not overly complex. Nevertheless, the execution of this classic was nothing short of spectacular, a world-class dessert.
The mandatory Petit fours (mandarin pâte de fruits – ‘tiramisù’ – tartlet with bergamot and meringue) ensued. The mandarin pâte de fruits was truly excellent, with a texture comparable to Jacques Genin’s — soft and melting in the mouth. The flavour was a mix of sweet and sour mandarin, but it was slightly marred by an excess of mandarin pith, making it a touch too bitter. The tiramisù bonbon, encased in a white chocolate shell and topped with a coffee veil, had a delightful flavour. However, it seemed to have been frozen and then thawed for serving, making it a bit too cold, which compromised its texture. The tartlet was exceptional, featuring a sharp, beautifully shaped pâtesucrée filled with a piercingly acidic lemon curd, infused with bergamot and flowers, and topped with a meringue disc to counterbalance this tartness.
Karen Torosyan offers an experience that, while anchored in French cuisine, often ventures into a unique blend of modern French styles, enriched with personal and technical touches. The main courses impress and even move with the chef’s impeccable use of technique. Whether it is the sauces, aromatic oils, or the way proteins and pastries are prepared, there is a clear skill at work, even if the pasta during our visit did not meet these high standards. However, at times, the intention behind some of the starters was a bit challenging to grasp.
The stand-out feature of the restaurant is its pastry. This was our primary focus during the visit, and it was impressively executed. In this regard, Torosyan demonstrates extreme precision, OCD attention to detail, and a relentless pursuit of perfection. It’s rare to find restaurants that so clearly display the results of years of refinement and dedication to specific dishes. While assessing a restaurant solely on its pastry-focused menu may not provide a complete picture, in the realm of croûtes, Bozar not only met but surpassed expectations.
- Bittor Arguinzoniz, with his grill would be another one.