This one is special. Not only because it takes you quite a while to get there and is literally in the middle of nowhere, but also because the cooking of Kobe Desramaults is absolutely stunning. This young chef, who opened In de Wulf not too long ago, is one of the most interesting chefs in Europe at the moment. But, there isn’t only his cooking here. The place, the atmosphere and the fantastic service all add to the charm of this little piece of heaven. The Hotel’s rooms are simple, TV-less and make you feel well, as does the lovely garden. There can hardly be anything more relaxing than sitting in that garden, whilst you eat a breakfast with great cheese, charcuterie, viennoiseries, bread, fruit,… This is to be seen as a complete experience, as you will be in a different world from your arrival until you leave. I can imagine that a similar (if slightly different) idea is behind Michel Bras’ UFO in Laguiole.
The main ideas or characteristics of his kitchen are running through the 20 courses without ever getting lost. The focus of his kitchen is the purity and cleanliness of the flavours. Having worked with Sergio Herman, he knows how to treat fish and crustaceans and has a penchant for beautifully arranged plates. What amazed me here is the sourcing of the products and the great respect with which they are treated. Fish comes from day boats in Boulogne and the Schelde, vegetables and herbs from the own or the neighbour’s garden, butter from the village down the road (Dranouter), cheeses mainly from the region and meat from the valleys and salt marshes close by. This closeness to the surrounding area is further put forward by constructing clean, nearly natural dishes, which can seem minimalist in some cases and highly elaborate in others.
The restaurant’s room is dominated by the contrast of dark and bright colours. It is relatively simple, but has some lovely touches here and there, like the bottle cooler and the fantastic light. The view from our table was also lovely, as we were able to see the sun set over the fields.
The service was lovely: personal, charming, attentive, interested, well-informed and always there when needed. When I asked for an end piece of the bread, I was directly obliged and it was made sure that I only saw crusts for the rest of the evening. Those things make the difference between very good and fantastic service.
Bread was great, with a fantastic crust and airy mie. The butter from Dranoutier and salted pork fat were equally good.
To start the meal, we had a few glasses of Champagne and a whole procession of amuses started arriving. I know many don’t like the idea of having a large number of small bites before a meal, but I find it to be one of the most interesting parts, as the chef has all the freedom he wants, in order to express his ideas.
We started with whelks and a mayonnaise of them. The airy mayonnaise accompanied the whelks beautifully. This was fresh and clean, very good.
Next up where a few stunning bites: Pig’s trotter, mimolette and rind of porc, honeyvinegar. The trotter cracker was a pure delight. There are few things I like more than those cuts of meat, and if they are treated in such a fantastic way as here, they just stun you. The mimolette cream worked beautifully with it. Outstanding
In the foreground is the cracker, which was topped with a cream made out of honey vinegar. This was greaseless and offered a nice crunch. Very good.
After this came a marinated herring with green apple, North Sea crab and sorrel. This was a perfect example of Kobe’s cooking. The herring was of top quality, as was the crab. Despite the fact that I don’t like herring, I must say that I did enjoy this plate. The crab and slight sweetness of the apple provided a lovely contrast. One has to mention that this is a nod to Flanders as herring is a speciality in this part of the world. Very good.
Next up came a piece of heaven. A round of marinated mackerel was topped with a pastille of herbs. This was bursting with freshness and flavour. An absolutely stunning mackerel, which must have been the best I have come across in a restaurant. The combination with the cool, refreshing herb sorbet was simply brilliant. Outstanding.
The last of the series came in form of different vegetables, herbs and flowers from the gardens around the restaurant. This came with a granite of herbs and a Keiemtaler (cheese from a valley close by) cream. It reminded me a little of Andoni Luis Aduriz’s flowers and herbs dish, where he combines them with a Emmentaler cream (not quite sure about that anymore). Here the peas and courgette in particular struck me. They were of stunning quality: minuscule, sweet peas nearly raw didn’t need the least bit of seasoning to bring out their flavour. Very good.
The first dish of the actual menu was Langoustine, potato, lettuce, smoked eel. A round of langoustine tartar came with a lettuce foam, smoked eel and potato salad. The langoustines were very fresh and tasty. The lettuce foam however, was a little underwhelming. It didn’t taste of much at all, but when combined with the langoustine, it wasn’t too bad, giving it an airy, light note. The potato salad and smoked eel combo was great. I usually despise any potato salad, but this one was good. Looking back, this was one of the two weakest courses of the menu, but it still was very good.
The second was back on the level of the amuses: Peas, rucola, egg yolk and broth of lard. The tiny peas (even smaller than those of the herb dish) where stunning, when combined with the strong lard broth and the melting yolk. It was just a fantastic mouthful, which was very pure and rewarding. This is one of those dishes that would not work without top quality products. It is great to see a vegetable based that is that good. Excellent.
The following dish, North Sea squid, dill, star anise, chervil, was the weakest of them all, at least for me. The presentation was gorgeous, the squid well prepared and of good quality, but the whole seemed a little ridiculous. Had it not been for the great broth, I wouldn’t have enjoyed this at all. The small cubes of squid where too small to give you much pleasure. Considering the quality of the other dishes, it didn’t really bother me that this wasn’t quite my thing. Good.
Grilled sole, watercress, millet, mussels and cockles. I can hardly imagine a better sole dish. The fish was cooked perfectly and had the firm flesh I so much love with sole. This is the kind of product quality one dreams of when sitting in a coastal restaurant, only that here the brigade really knows how to cook, making it even more enjoyable. The accompanying millet (toasted and as a salad), mussels and cockles gave it fantastic background. This was a truly great dish, which I won’t forget all too soon. Outstanding
The Eastern Schelde lobster, mashed potatoes with buttermilk was equally perfect. I absolutely love lobster, and such a fine specimen will not grace your mouth every day. The pieces were expertly cooked (which means not too much, rather mi-cuit), and burst with flavour. The simple association with the buttermilk potato puree was one of those minimalist presentations that work. It was like a match made in heaven, one didn’t need anything else. Any addition would have distracted your attention. This was innovative, simple, accomplished cooking I hope to find more often these days. Divine.
Eastern Schelde eel, green celery, jus of eel & honeymead. Another of these outstanding local products that was prepared in the most effective, simple way. The eel was absolutely beautiful and didn’t fail to impress. The jus was also of interest, as it was treated a little like a meat jus. It was slightly sweet, powerful, a little acidic and absolutely beautiful. Outstanding.
Next up came a few meat courses, starting with Braised lard of pork’s belly, pickled vegetables, elderberry. A small rectangle of braised, tender, tasty pork’s belly came with a few shavings of pickled slightly acidic vegetables, a bit of crunchy pork skin and a hint of elderberry syrup or broth. This was so good, that I asked for second helpings, which were even better than the first round. The pork was just fantastic, and worked beautifully with the pickled vegetables as these gave it a sour, slightly sweet counterpoint. Outstanding.
The second met course of the day was Lamb from “ La Vallee au Ble” cooked in hay, broad beens, turnips. A piece of perfectly cooked lamb, which had an interesting (in a very good way) flavour, thanks to the hay, was accompanied by very good broad beens and two turnip preparations. Very good.
The chef had tried a dish that day, which he served us to see what we think of it. It was an onglet of beef cooked in salt with a cream of garlic. Extremely simple but extremely good. I would not go too far if I said that this was easily the best of the meat dishes we had that day. The beef came from the coast, and had remarkable texture and taste. I was surprised by the fact that it wasn’t overly salty, as it lay in salt without any leaf or so to protect it. Again, this was a most simple, but accomplished dish. Considering that it was a first try, I would like to know what this dish would look like, once it’s ready to go on the menu. Outstanding.
As this was my first visit here, I decided to go for both cheese and dessert. The cheeses are matured by Philippe Olivier and are served with four jams and two new types of bread. All of them were very good, although I didn’t take the names, I preferred the stronger ones (on the right) and found the vieille mimolette to be very good.
The Dessert parade, started with Raspberry, fresh cheese, staranise, chervil. This was a mostly iced dessert, which featured a range of textures reaching from relatively hard pastilles, to delicate snow and the creamy (not iced) raspberry mousse. It was refreshing, not too sweet and very enjoyable. Very good.
Rhubarb, rose hip, sweet woodruff was the second of the three. This was already much more interesting. The different elements all worked beautifully together and created a magnificent mix of tastes and textures. As with both of the others, this dessert was on the refreshing, moderately sweet side of things. Excellent.
The last was Sorrel, lemon balm, mint, green strawberry. This one was interesting. Definitely the first time I ate sorrel in a dessert, but hopefully not the last. The many elements worked together so well, that all one had in the mouth was a harmonious flavour, rather than a whole cacophony. Excellent.
Tea and mignardises were equally good and interesting.
The following morning saw a great breakfast with more good products and lovely service. We left more than happy, with only one wish: Return as soon as possible.
This was an absolutely lovely stay, one that I hope to repeat more than once in the future. The reasons are numerous, but mainly there is of course Kobe’s cooking. It is exactly what I could see as an alternative to the “molecular” extravaganzas of some Spanish chefs, as it brings one great products in a most natural, nonetheless innovative way. The food was (with the exception of two courses) absolutely stunning, definitely worth a second star (he already holds 18p in the Gault Millau if I’m not mistaken). It will be interesting to come back in a few months and see how this kitchen evolves, as Kobe seems to be someone as passionate and hard working as one could ever hope to find.
A few words about the price, the menu (without the onglet) is no more than euro110, a price, I find more than fair for this kind of cooking. Shorter versions start at 70, and lunch is no more than 45. The wine list is fairly priced for such a restaurant, with many bottles at around 25-35euro. However, as the place is still young, the cellar needs to age and develop a little, as most wines are from the last ten vintages. I would recommend anyone who goes here to stay there, as it is a most unique experience. The rooms are priced at 90 (weekdays) and 130euro (weekends, holidays).