Dario Puglia’s Antwerp restaurant rises from the flames

Summary

Italian chef Dario Puglia has transplanted and renamed his restaurant in a stylish former interior showroom

Gist reborn

Transparency is often invoked in the restaurant world – most modish menus today come burdened by exhaustive supplier lists – but rarely is it manifested so literally, or so lightly, as at Antwerp restaurant Gist, which was relaunched this month in a sleek new home.

On opening night, the wrap-around glass facade disclosed a buzzing scene within, as well-heeled locals quaffed prosecco in the circular dining room. Beyond a backlit column, another wall of glass separated the revellers from the chefs – the latter doubling as entertainment, as they juggled flaming pans amid giant jars of preserves and futuristic hardware.

“It’s the most open kitchen I know,” chef Dario Puglia (pictured) tells me, a few days later. “The glass comes down to the work surface. There’s no wall or other separation. I wanted a place where customers could see everything we do, see the moment when their plates are born.”

Like a televised delivery, it’s a rather magical process: the hermetically sealed space ensures that no smells linger on customers’ clothes.

Before its rebirth, Gist – the Dutch word for “yeast” – occupied a relatively modest venue in Antwerp’s upmarket ’t Zuid district. It was originally called Gigi Il Bullo (Gigi the Rascal) but the clownish Italian name gave the false impression of a simple pizza and pasta joint.

Elegantly sparse

Gist seemed like a better fit for Italian Puglia’s earthy-yet-haute cuisine – as did a bigger, bolder canvas in the city centre. “I did it just to become better,” he says, chortling. “Actually, the plan was to move to Paris, but Antwerp is becoming increasingly famous for its culinary scene. We now have huge restaurants like The Jane. I thought why not just go for it here?”

The plan was to move to Paris, but Antwerp is becoming increasingly famous for its culinary scene

- Dario Puglia

There’s no mistaking the gastronomic intent of Gist 2.0. Floating inches above medieval Kaastraat, or – aptly – Cheese Street, and with views of the castle ’t Steen, the pure, streamlined venue seems to have been transplanted from mid-century LA.

At one end of the 46-seat dining room, a corridor unspools towards an elegantly sparse bar and black marble toilets. “It used to be a high-end interior showroom and, oddly, there are almost no right angles,” explains Puglia’s life-and-work partner Mieke Vandenberk. “We’ve made the space flexible. All the tables are positioned so they overlook the kitchen, but we can also rearrange things for more intimate dining, like Valentine’s Day.”

Puglia sources most of his produce locally but makes room for dry-aged beef from the Basque country and Danish organic ham. Since he lovingly produces almost everything in-house – bread made of stone-ground ancient grain and beer, cheese from raw goat’s or Jersey milk, and sausages from small-scale organic farm meat –Gist is only open for dinner from Thursday to Monday.

Mains start at €20, and four- or six-course tasting menus are €42 to €64. “A gastronomic restaurant is usually very expensive, but we, and others in Antwerp – the young chefs at Graanmarkt 13 or L’Épicerie du Cirque – are changing that,” Puglia says. “The time when you needed €300 to go to dinner is over. Food should be fun.”