August 2009


Get thee to Sportello and try the corn risotto with pancetta and chanterelles. Not a summer dish, you scoff? Just go and try it and you will change your tune.

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Ranked  #29 on the San Pellegrino list of the top 50 restaurants in the world, Oud Sluis is set in the small town of Sluis which is just over the Belgian border in Netherlands. Sluis is no country town. We had biked there from Bruges the day before our reservation (a beautiful 1hr bike ride along canals and through several other small towns- including Damme, where Liz is convinced Jean Claude Van Damme must be from) and found that the few small streets were lined with fairly pricey international brands. Seems like a vacation town for wealthy Germans and assorted Scandinavian travelers. Oud Sluis reflected this sensibility by being far more modern than we expected. We were prepared for a converted farmhouse with antique furnishing but were met with minimalist decor and trendy fixtures. The food also had this vibe, with the dishes being much more inventive and daring then Hof Van Cleve.  Not only did the kitchen seem like it was pushing the envelope a bit more, but they were having fun with the experience (as exemplified by the iFoie – the piece of foie gras layered with green apple in the shape of the Apple logo). Of course, that would all be worthless if the food didn’t taste good, but every flavor on the plate stood out. Even the iFoie, which could have easily been a kitschy flavorless catastrophe, was delicious.

That said, our experience here ended in tragedy: we were incapable of finishing our meal. We had a 7pm reservation and had to cut our dinner short at 12:45. Yes, that’s right, we threw in the towel and left after almost 6 hours. 2/3 of the way through the dessert courses and before any petits fours and assorted chocolates, coffee, or after dinner drinks. For the most part service was fantastic, but after the main courses finished and it was time for cheese and then dessert, we were more or less abandoned for two intervals of 30-45 minutes. Hard to know what happened but I’m guessing that at the time we were to have dessert there were several other tables that were approaching this stage in the meal and the kitchen may have decided that it made more sense to put us all on the same schedule.  Unfortunately for us the others had arrived far later than us and there was a significant lag between our paces, such that we had to wait a very long time for our cheese and then a very long time for our first dessert. Or maybe they just forgot about us. As much as Liz likes talking to me, if it’s 11:30 and she’s just eaten a 10 course meal and drank a lot of wine, sitting in a comfy chair for half hour will put her right to sleep. Once the desserts came I made an effort to push things along, but it was too late. We asked for the check and headed home.

Service foibles aside, we loved the food and the setting so we are willing to give their mistakes a pass. Below you will find pictures of the meal but, unfortunately, in our haste to leave the restaurant we left our menus behind. I’ll refrain from any descriptions so as not to butcher what they actually are. I will note the standouts, though:

amuse bouche #1

amuse bouche #2

The third amuse bouche was a beer macaroon with some kind of fish tartare. It dissolved almost immediately after touching your tongue but left a sweet and bitter flavor that absorbed into the fish. Very, very good.

crab?

clams with fried cous cous?

The crispy texture of the fried cous cous went perfectly with the big slimy, chewy clams.

??

The contrast in textures was taken to a new level with this dish with the pop rocks. They snap, crackled and popped alongside the chewy baby shrimp, the creamy mayo, and the icy sorbet.

too good to wait

You know a dish is good when I don’t remember to take the picture before eating it.

Same thing happened with this langoustine.

We were skeptical at first, but now this has become the desktop background for my macbook. It just tasted so damn good.

The Belgian and Dutch must love pigeon. It was on nearly every menu at the nice restaurants we went to.

then we waited...

then we waited...

....and waited...

....and waited...

...and waited.

...and waited.

Finally the cheese came. At around 11:30.

And the first dessert at around 12:15…

It’s a shame we missed the last dessert because the first two delivered in both form and flavor. Very attractive presentations and with strong but not heavy tastes. Overall the food here ranks close to the best we’ve had at any of the restaurants on the San Pellegrino list. Not quite as creative as Alinea, L’Astrance, or Fat Duck and not quite as tasty and fun as St John or Calandre.

If you go, be sure to stay in the restaurant’s hotel. They rent three rooms out of a beautiful home a mile outside of town, and provide complimentary shuttle service to and from the restuarant. Called Chico Y Luna, each room has a backyard overlooking  a cow pasture. Beware, if you are not up by 6:30 these cows will wake you up. Mooing at the tops of their lungs approximately 20 feet away from your back door. Screaming, really. That said, it was truly beautiful and the breakfast was as creative and tasty as the dinner.

If David Byrne were to eat at St. John I’m pretty sure he would change the lyrics of his song to “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens, except you eat unbelievable meat dishes at a Fergus Henderson restaurant”. There is no place I would rather eat, period. I have a serious interest in what goes into my stomach but too often that interest puts me in stuffy places with pretentious people. I resent the snobbery that surrounds food culture but recognize that I occasionally must be a part of it if I want to eat some of the best food in the world.Which I do. So I grit my teeth and throw on a suit.  I give my wine long, penetrating stares and I say things like “structured” and “layered”.  As a result, many great meals come with a side of shame and pride swallowing. Not at St John. This is world class food in an environment where licking the insides of a marrow bone for the last drips of oil would be welcomed  not pooh-poohed.

Though the meal was flawless, I do have two regrets. First, this is the second time I’ve been and I still have not managed to gather enough people to get a roast pig. I can’t endure this much longer. I will go with strangers, I don’t care. If you’re out there wondering who in this crazy world will take you to St John so you can gnaw the fat off a whole pig’s belly, it’s me. I won’t pay for your airfare, but room and board is negotiable. Second, they did not have the roast bone marrow with parsley salad on the menu the night we went. So many variations of this dish can be found across the states, several in Boston as well, but there’s nothing like the original. I had it on my first visit to St John but was seriously bummed as I scanned the menu and saw nary a bone. I managed to pull myself together once the first dish arrived, but a part of me will never forget.

potted pork
potted pork

Though we had this earlier at Bread and Wine we had to have some more.

cauliflower, leeks, and butterbeans
cauliflower, leeks, and butterbeans

One does want a hint of vegetable. There’s a recipe for this in the St John cookbook and it’s very easy to make. It goes great as a light compliment to a fatty piece of meat.

globe artichoke, vinaigrette
globe artichoke, vinaigrette

How do you make this taste good? With a kick ass vinaigrette

welsh rarebit
welsh rarebit

Melted cheese mixed with an assortment of other flavors (e.. mustard, worcestershire sauce, paprika) over toast. This is why you need the cauliflower and artichoke – it makes you feel relatively better about inhaling this mound of melted cheese. Then came the meat: lamb, snail and sausage, pigeon, and ox heart. The dishes have no more than 3 or 4 ingredients on the plate, but each one is intense and the combination is perfect. But “simple” is the wrong way to describe the dish since so much goes into the preparation. Cooking a dish from the St John cookbook requires days if not weeks forethought.

roast lamb, green bean, anchovy
roast lamb, green bean, anchovy
snail, sausage, chickpeas
snail, sausage, chickpeas

pigeon, peas and little gem

pigeon, peas and little gem

ox heart and chips

ox heart and chips

The ox heart was the best dish of the night. Heart is so tender and flavorful. It’s what you wish steak tasted like.

side of potatoes and greens
side of potatoes and greens
peach cobbler
peach cobbler

Though known for the meat, the desserts are out of this world good. It’s as if a team of grandmothers have been indentured in the kitchen to  churn out the fruits of their accrued pastry wisdom.

A 2 hour train ride from Brussels and we were in London. We hopped in a taxi, suitcases and all, to make sure we warmed our bellies up for a dinner at St John with a lunch at Bread and Wine, Fergus Henderson’s more casual spot. This menu actually looked better to me than the one at St John so I will include it in its entirety:

what doesn't look awesome?

what doesn't look awesome?

We ordered several dishes and the waitress began to bring them out one by one. We cleaned every plate. They might actually have been reusable, it was that good.

potted pork

potted pork

Similar to pork rillette, this creamy and chunky blend of pork went great with toast.

ham, leek and potato broth

ham, leek and potato broth

The flavor was of pure pork drippings from a roast but incredibly without any of the grease or fattiness. Imagine licking the bottom of the pan you cooked a ham in and then feeling totally fine about it.

pig's head

pig's head

Lunch special. Tender pieces of face swimming in a thick broth. No drop was left un-sopped.

pig's cheek, chicory, and mustard

pig's cheek, chicory, and mustard

We ordered seconds of this one. The salty crispiness of the cheek was perfect with the tart mustard.

lentils and girolles

lentils and girolles

I’ve been making these lentils from the St John cookbook for some time now, but I didn’t know what the dish could be until this. It’s difficult e to get both the texture of the lentil and the creaminess of the stock. Mine would either be well-cooked in a slightly runny stock, or overcooked in a creamy stock. It takes a lot of skill to do something this simple.

sweetbreads, bacon, peas

sweetbreads, bacon, peas

Reminds me of the Incanto dish, brains and peas. Pretty sure the influence came from this end, though.

madelines

madelines

They might not look like much but they were crispy on the outside, warm buttery and fluffy on the inside.

Much like St John, Bread and Wine is all about flavor, no frills. If I lived in London I’m not sure I would go anywhere else for lunch. This would be my Winchester. Shame on you if you visist London and don’t go.

“There are only two animals in the world with bones in their ‘sex’ ” our waiter noted. Welcome to Hof Van Cleve, where the endless array of delicious food is eclipsed only by the fact that you will cut some of it up with a knife made from whale penis. Hof Van Cleve is currently ranked 26th in the San Pellegrino list of the top 50 restaurants in the world. Liz and I made a special detour to the remote town of Kruishoutem on our trip to the Benelux this summer to cross it off our list. Through a misunderstanding on the part of my esteemed dining partner, we arrived half hour before the restaurant opened, and were faced with the prospect of either extending our cab ride through rural Belgium or walking around the deserted dirt roads and corn fields that surround the restaurant’s grounds. We chose the latter and in the process built up a healthy appetite which still proved no match for the amount of food we’d be served.  Both our stomachs would bend and break by the end of our 5+ hour meal. A couple more courses and my fat would have grown around and into the bottom of my seat cushion, requiring forcible removal by crane. That said, this was an unbelievably good restaurant. Heavy on the seafood, but still with a wide variety of flavors, textures, and preparations. Certainly up there with the best restaurants we’ve been to, though it didn’t have the playful element with the food that would really put it at the top.

It seems customary in nice Belgian restaurants to trot out a series of amuse bouches before the meal begins. Here they are:

braised oxtail spring roll, plum sauce, sardines on toast

braised oxtail spring roll, plum sauce, sardines on toast

herring, green apple

herring, green apple

..

(abalone) sashimi, beef sashimi, seaweed cracker, wasabi sorbet, fruit

(abalone) sashimi, beef sashimi, seaweed cracker, wasabi sorbet, fruit

frog leg, herb broth, cous cous

frog leg, herb broth, cous cous

The frog leg may have been the best bite of the night

crab, grapefuit sorbet, pea puree

crab, grapefuit sorbet, pea puree

The amuse bouches had already sated our appetites and it was hard to believe the main meal had not yet started. With some concern for our cholesterol and livers, we pressed on. The menu was in French and Flemish – I’ll include the French as it appeared and then explain what it is to the best of my ability (or to the best of babelfish’s ability)

langoustine, cucumber fettucine, avocado, watercress gelee

Langoustine "Guilvinec" cresson/concombre/avocat

Several langoustines covered with cucumber fettucine, avocado, and some kind of watercress gelee. I didn’t notice until now but it kind of looks like  a face. Several of the main dishes also came with a side dish. This came with a side of what seemed to be pork consomme (not pictured).

Maquereau "Lisette"

Maquereau "Lisette" coriand/tomate/ couteau de mer

Mackerel four ways with coriander, tomato, and razor clams. This came with a side of crab prepared two ways with an avocado mousse. See below.

side of crab

side of crab

Calamares

Calamares yuzu/dashi/algues

This was the least successful dish of the night. Squid with yuzu, dashi, and seaweed. The complimentary flavors worked well but squid seems to be impermeable to flavor. So what you’re left with is an ordinary piece of squid with a nice sauce on top, as opposed to the rest of the fish on the menu which were fleshy and porous enough to absorb whatever they happened to be in. Although it did come with a tasty soup of cockels and mussels on the side.

Homard de L'Escaut De L'Est

Homard de L'Escaut De L'Est choux-fleurs de Malines/ cepes/ belotta

Lobster with cauliflower puree, egg, mushrooms and ham.

Cabillaud Danois

Cabillaud Danois jeunes poireaux/brandade/ crabe royal

Danish cod with leeks, brandade (a puree of salt cod, oil and milk), and crab. Came with a side of what seemed to be lightly battered and fried baby shrimp and a zuchini flower chip.

Veau Sous la Mere "Correze"

Veau Sous la Mere "Correze" estragon/petits-pois/girolles

Veal with tarragon, peas, chanterelles and roast potatoes. And of course, the whale penis knife we used to cut it up.

Whale dick cutlery

Whale dick cutlery

At this point we were already very full, but when the nice waiter came by to ask if we’d like cheese before dessert we just didn’t want to disappoint him. Lucky for us this was hands down the best cheese plate we’ve had anywhere.

cheese party

cheese party

There was another tier of cheese that you can’t see in the picture. We tried 12 of them.

cheese party

cheese party

Everything was delicious. Unfortunately, due to the fact that cheese plates come at the end of the meal, after a lot of eating and drinking, we can never remember a thing about any of the cheeses.

mojito

mojito

….and the food just did not stop coming

Fruit plate

Fruit plate

This was an assortment of interesting and refreshing  fruit preparations. Frozen little pearls of fruit on jellied fruit with some kind of fruit puree.

Fraises

Fraises menthe/ chocolat "Ivoire"/ prosecco

Strawberries with mint, white chocolate and prosecco

Banane

Banane fruits de la passion/ citron vert/ mascarpone

This dessert was outstanding. It came with a chocolate madeline that was so good I just had to force it down my throat.

too drunk and full to remember

too drunk and full to remember

But I think it was some kind of play on fruit, yogurt and granola.

white chocolate truffle with pistachio

white chocolate truffle with pistachio

At this point we were getting scared. Would this meal ever end?

donuts!

donuts!

Then things just got ridiculously  out of hand with the dessert wagon. In case we hadn’t had enough out came our waiter with a cart of pastries, cakes, madelines, truffles, macaroons and who knows what else. Realizing this would probably be my only trip to Hof Van Cleve in my lifetime I endured some more gastrointestinal pain to choke down a delicious eclair, a madeline, and some kind of apple glazed donut.  I’m not proud of it, but it had to happen. Years of being raised by Italian women has instilled in me the principal of “never decline what you are offered”.

are you serious?

are you serious?

Hof Van Cleve is definitely worth the trip if you are within several hours driving distance of Waregem (Amsterdam, London, Brussels, Paris). We stayed at the St Janshof Hotel, a perectly serviceable hotel a short taxi ride away. It was the perfect way to kick off our vacation.

We seek out regional specialties. If there’s a food that we can only get in  particular place then we must have it. Here are some treats from Holland that we came across along with the locations where we had them.

herring, pickle, and onions

herring, pickle, and onions

There’ s a cart in the Albert Quyp market that sells this perfectly constructed sandwich. Fresh, raw herring,with a sweet pickle and raw onions. Usually raw onions make me an undesirable travel partner for several days, but these were so mild that Liz was kissing me within the hour.

maoz falafel

maoz falafel

I’m convinced that there’s something about American regulations on oil temperature that makes our falafel so inferior to falafel abroad. I remember Maoz from my first trip to Amsteram in ’04 when I consumed it every day for 4 days. It lived up to my memories. I haven’t been to one of the now several locations in the states (new york, san fran, boca, jersey) but that would be a fairly reliable test of my hypothesis.

pancakes with salami, onion, egg

pancakes with salami, onion, egg

Savory pancakes at the Pancake Bakery in Amsterdam. Not like your American flapjack – the texture was somewhere between a  Vietnamese pancake and a farinata. Very tasty.

smoked herring

smoked herring

Smoked herring from the Open Air Museum in Enkhuisen. You can get smoked herring or eel pretty much anywhere along the coast in the north of Holland. This one tasted good going down but stayed with me long afterwards.  Intensely smoky, and not as good as the fresh herring nor the smoked eel.

smoked eel

smoked eel

This was a winner. Buttery, oily, meaty, not too fishy, not too smoky. I went back for seconds.

smoked eel

smoked eel

bitterballen

bitterballen

Bitterballen. You can find these at pretty much any frites stand and bar in Holland. Flour, butter, and minced mystery meat fried to perfection, dipped in mustard, go incredibly well with a delicious beer.

profitjes

profitjes

Profitjes. Miniature pancakes, cooked up by the several dozen on a large hot cast iron plate with small individual indents in which to pour the batter. So light and fluffy. It’s a good thing we didn’t have these until our last day in Holland (in Gouda) because it would have been difficult to pass them up whenever we saw them (which was pretty much everywhere).

fried herring

fried herring

In Marken, a lovely once island now connected by highway town about an hour from Amsterdam, we came across the Dutch version of a clam shack. Many different varieties of fried fish, all plucked fresh from the Markermee, battered and deep fried.

frites

frites

And of course, frites. More of  a Belgian thing but the Dutch get it right too. All different types of mayonnaise and sauce served out of small counters along the streets of Amsterdam and everywhere else. The perfect fuel for a stroll around town.