Crisis – what crisis? Sure, there still is something like a financial crisis which hit also the fine dining world quite significantly…
But an identity crisis? Hmm.
The so-called ‘new naturals’ have left their own footprint by continuing the tradition of Michel Bras and Marc Veyrat to fully embrace the regional produce and its distinct character. Important protagonists are Antonio Aduriz (Mugaritz), David Kinch (Manresa), and, most importantly, Rene Redzepi of noma. Basically, he managed to put Scandinavia on every foodie’s map. It represents a re-focus on regional products (here Scandinavian) in a modern and authentic way. Having dined at noma, MR and Geranium I must say that this a quite distinct and unique approach to the fine dining experience as it clearly abandons with the usual suspects of luxury ingredients which I find more and more boring.
The interesting question for me is: can the Scandinavian new naturals model be transferred to other regions?
After the dinner ‘Service a 6 mains‘ at In de Wulf the answer is undoubtedly yes. There is no identity crisis, at least not for Kobe Desramaults (In de Wulf, 1*), Filip Claeys (De Jonkman, 1*) and Alexandre Gauthier (La Grenouillère, 1*) who joined forces to present a cuisine rooted in Flanders focusing on their regional products.
But not only the approach to cooking was novel but also the way of bringing their message across. To disseminate their agenda they invited bloggers from all over the world (Trine, Laurent, Bruno, FoodSnob, Bernhard, and Stephen Harris (the owner/chef at The Sportsman, representing Steve P from Opinionated About)) along with traditional food journalists. Not to forget the one and only Piet de Kersgieter who took those brilliant photos (however, most of the photos on this post are mine unless indicated).
And here it links up to the financial crisis – both a clear differentiating profile and new ways of ‘marketing’ are good answers…
To cut a long story short, the dishes, the presentation, the vibrant atmosphere of this very special evening were unique and very much authentic. It lived and breathed the spirit behind the concept and dishes as well as the pride for their local produce. A pride, I have to admit, I had only seen at noma before… And, most importantly, the dishes of the three different chefs integrated seamlessly in one menu even though each has his own handwriting…
Kobe kicked off with an IdW classic, his whelks served as finger food together with their mayonnaise. Very programmatic as the Northern common whelk, Buccinum unatum, is a very specific local product – one even says that the name whelk originates from this regions. A bit chewy at first, the mayo softens the mouthfeel and creates a nice flavour interplay with the truly fresh and iodine whelk. A feeling like a fresh catch immediately comes up. Excellent.
Kobe’s second amuse, pork, is another IdW classic, a pork soufflé seasoned with a local honey vinegar. Very good, crispy pork taste in every bite with a nice sweet-sour undertone.
Alexandre then served seawater which is a very modest description of the dish but captures the essence. Seabass is marinated with olive oil, oyster and seaweed and then infused with a jus of oyster, seaweed, basil. This created a truly unique feeling – I had almost the impression of standing at the sea and having the catch of the day just rare from the ship. Authentic, excellent.
The last amuse (guess who’s prepared it..) was cheek of ray accompanied with a true hazelnut, a hazelnut and a herbs (cinnamon, cardamom, fennel among others) mayonnaise. Somehow, hazelnut is en vogue these days (in this area at least) as I had an outstanding eel with hazelnut at De Jonkman and a langoustine dish at Oud Sluis recently. Here, even though the dish was rather small it could cope with a whole hazelnut – the combination with the deep and nutty mayo on the one hand and the herbal and slightly spicy worked amazingly well. And, the ray could really leave his footprint – a local catch, needless to say… Bravo, Filip!
A nice Cremant D’Alsace from Marcel Deiss accompanied all amuse. It doesn’t need to be champagne to get the diner in the right mood…
The real menu then started with seabass, wild herbs, pickled vegetables. On our table, I had some conversation with Trine and Foodsnob about this dish. At first, it appeared to us that something would be missing, a more rustic or spicy element. But, then after some discussion we agreed that it just has to be that way – a fresh, herbal and slightly sour intro to the menu. Otherwise it would have been too dense for a menu starter. Clever dramaturgy, I must say…
The surprising and elevating element was the accord with the local Westouter wine which not only supported the dish but strengthened the acidity and fruit of the dish. As Laurent stated: original – nothing to add.
Entre Deux Monts Westouter, Chardonnay-Pinot Gris 2008
Next up was weever, fennel, chard, red orach. Wow, this was one of the clear highlights of the night. Filip came to each table elaborating about this very dish. Very emotionally he told us that his father who was a local fisher used to catch weever but it was not frequently used because there are better sea products. How wrong.
Filip takes the weever, marinades it in fennel oil, cooks it at low temperature sous-vide for 24 hours and then fries it shortly in the pan. And that really pays off as otherwise the fish will dry out soon. Here, the fish was incredible juicy and very delicate – served with fennel purée, a jus of pork broth, fennel, vinegar and white wine, local red orach (like spinach on the bottom and a leaf on top) and wonderful sweet-sour chard which tasted a bit like a herbal rhubarb. Outstanding accord of flavours and textures, a very stringent and immensely clever and unique composition. Everyone at our table agreed that we would not complain if this would be served at a 3* restaurant. Chapeau!
Movia, Rebula, Slovénie 2006
‘Simple’ dishes can be just simple or radical – although I have never at La Grenouilliere I had a lengthy chat with Laurent about Alexandre’s cuisine. He clearly pushes the borders and evokes strong feelings with his dishes. Same here at pickles, tarama: the char-grilled cucumber is accompanied with a tarragon cream (a little less would have been better), cod eggs, a thin slices of bacon, that’s it. However, the spectrum of flavours turned out to be less than simple – rustic, herbal, fishy, smoky and a whole array of textures as well. Admittedly, a dish for the more advanced eater;-) Excellent!
Savennières, Clos de Coulaine, Claude Papin, 2007
Another radical and stunning dish: lobster, juniper. A piece of impeccably prepared lobster hidden in a bush of juniper berries which had been burned using a Bunsen burner. With the smell of freshly burned greens the outstanding lobster had to be found and then eaten with our hands. It created an almost magical moment – a delicacy for all senses. The only compromise was that the lobster was Canadian as an Oosterschelde lobster would have been much too expensive for this… Perfect match with the Pouilly!
Brett Brothers, Pouillly-Vinzelles « Les Quarts » 2003
Mains began with Kobe’s pigeon from “Steenvorde” cooked in hay, vegetables “Zwartemoelen”, jus of hay.
After this nice presentation the plated version did not bad either 🙂 A perfect (!) pigeon, tender, juicy, slightly perfumed with hay and very near the benchmark blue pigeon I had at Arzak… The whole plate was in pure equilibrium with the tiny sand of burnt onion providing the very special kick of a sweet, sour and rustic seasoning. Excellent!
Moric, Blaufrankisch, Autriche, 2007
Then, the second highlight of the evening, for me at least (and some others at my table): wild duck “Damme”, girolles, spring onions, elderberry jus. A clear step-up in intensity, the wild duck was amazingly tender, the combination with the chanterelles and the sweet al dente spring onion worked very well. But, the key element was the mousse of wild duck confit which elevated the dish into new heights. On the one hand the creaminess softened the quite rustic character of the duck and made it more agreeable. On the other hand the reduced and intense taste of the confit quasi prolonged the gamey flavour and strengthened it. Simply outstanding!
A wine from Morocco? Well, the winemaker is French but he tries to cultivate Syrah in Northern Africa. A wine which has to be opened in the afternoon a couple of hours before drinking this Syrah had enough strength and spiciness to accompany this wonderful dish.
Tandem, Alain Graillot, Morocco, Syrah 2007
Somewhere in between the menu they proudly carried a nice piece of beef into the dining room…
… and Kobe elaborated that it stems from the local race of Bœuf de Flandres Occidentale. A local biodynamic farmer has preserved it and is thinking to start breeding this rare species again. Today, only around 50 specimen do exist…
The beef was shortly roasted and then simply served on one plate on the middle of the table. Eaten with the hands as a short intermezzo (not appearing on the menu) this was very delicate, tender, beefy, pure and very much capturing the spirit of the Flanders night. My advice to the producer would be to start the upbringing yesterday…
Desserts… Well, Belgium and especially the region around IdW is famous for its beer. Characteristic of the area it focuses not on the blonde traditional beer but rather the stark darker beers with lots of intensity. So, why not use that in a dessert? Kobe presented bacon “kaantjes” with “Pannepot” beer. Kaantjes results from baking bacon until only the crisp bacon without fat remains. As far as I recall this was used as textural crispy sand underneath the Pannepot beer ice cream. Intense and a very clever transition from the savor courses towards the sweeter desserts… Excellent – what a nice match with the beer…
Bière Struise Brouwers, Pannepot
Very elaborate, Filip continued with white chocolate, raspberry, mint “Chartreuse”. At my recent diner at De Jonkman I had a similar dish with respect to its construction but very different in ‘content’. Here, a white chocolate ball is presented and one pours mint tea seasoned with Chartreuse over it. Doing so the hidden elements of raspberries, yoghurt infused with mint, caramel of white Szechuan pepper, sablé of vanilla papa cru and ice cream of raspberries and red basil. Wow! Haute couture at the table – only the picture(s) of Piet can really capture this masterpiece! Outstanding!
Maculan, Dindarello, Italie 2006
Another provocative dish by Alexandre: handful of sand. Banana sand and a crème of parsley, that’s it. But the result on one’s mouth is quite compelling – there is a difference in textures, there is a harmony in flavours and the much hated banana (for me, that is) turns out to be delicious. Maybe because the creaminess has changed sides as the parsley is creamy and the banana more on the sandy side. Amazing.
Champagne Gobillard & Fils, Blanc de blanc
After such a meal (14 courses up to now) it makes much sense to end with a light plate: sorrel, lemon mint prepared by Kobe. A fresh, intense and herbal final which nicely bracketed the menu from the seabass dish onwards. Excellent.
This was a very compelling showcase of what regional cuisine could achieve without ‘luxury’ ingredients. The whole menu had an all-encompassing idea which was interpreted with different handwritings – the naturalness of Kobe, the elaborateness of Filip and the radicalism and Rock’ n Roll of Alexandre. All together a seemless string of pearls which made this evening very special.
Not to be repetitive but the most striking aspect was the authenticity of the whole experience, the pride which the chefs showed when explaining their dishes and the resulting vibrant atmosphere. As if the noma spirit had been transported to Flanders.
If that’s possible in Flanders why not elsewhere? The good thing is that every interpretation of the new naturals theme will unique because each region is unique. I wish we could find a German version soon… Could be a sound differentiation in the crisis and beyond…