Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 17, 2017

© De Jonge De Jong

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Dutch treat

Once an oxymoron, Netherlands cuisine is getting redefined by a new generation of talented chefs

The fussy Belgians are streaming out of beautiful Bruges and crossing into Holland to dine in a remote hamlet whose name translates unglamorously as Mud Plate. The restaurant is de Kromme Watergang, or the Crooked Waterway, and its proprietor, Edwin Vinke, was Gault Millau's Netherlands Chef of the Year for 2011.

Unlike Michelin, the highly regarded Gault Millau evaluates restaurants on food alone. By this exacting standard, the restaurant soars, but other restaurants lives up to the highest international standards, too. On a gastronomic ramble through the Netherlands, we spent several hours at Vinke’s table in de Kromme Watergang (6 Slijkplaat, Hoofdplaat; tel: 011-31-117-348-696; krommewatergang.nl), where the chef and his team miss not a beat.

Canadians don't expect great food in the Netherlands because we think the Dutch are still stuffing their faces with herring and fries with mayo. Personally, I love those raw herring brodjes, but Dutch chefs are no strangers to sophistication. In the last San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants Awards, the Netherlands claimed two, taking kinship with Denmark's Noma and Britain's Fat Duck.

Family values

Edwin Vinke is no hot-shot 20-something basking in media adulation. He's been studying, experimenting and toiling quietly for the past 19 years. He and his wife Blanche were only 25 and 23, respectively, when they opened their hinterlands restaurant.

It's a family operation: Vinke's son Tom is his sous chef. His father is the glass artist whose works enhance an already beautiful room. His fishermen father-in-law delivers the North Sea bounty. Blanche governs the front of the house with warmth and charm.

The blow-ups on one wall are photos of Vinke and his son smeared with local clay, the soil of the region they've chosen to call their own. Vinke's recently released coffee-table book is titled Briny Clay.

The Dutch are sticklers for purity of product, a trait most conspicuous in their reverence for fish. Their best restaurants are about fish, much of it supplied by that ancient Netherlanders' nemesis, the North Sea.

Fish is a simple thing: cook it simply, cook it briefly and it takes care of itself. But the supporting players on the plate are another matter — global inspired and near-infinite in variety. And don’t forget the jesters of molecular gastronomy: the foams, the oils, the dusts, the spheres.

Our amuse is an oyster splashed with margarita foam — instant delirium. The perfect bivalve with its natural cucumber underpinnings is imbued with the flavours of boozy tequila, sharp lime juice and Triple Sec sweetness. It's much more than the sum of its parts. A slab of black granite comes orchestrated with beguilements: sorrel sorbet garnished with cucumber leaf; a sweet raw scallop draped over salty North Sea crab, topped with shaved white asparagus and garnished with a baby zucchini in flower, and surf clam napped with trout caviar. Total bedlam.

Vinke pairs Dover sole and langoustine for a fish lover's two-way. He deviates from the marine world for grilled rack of lamb, sets it on cabécou, the Dordogne goat cheese, and pairs it with lamb neck poached in port wine and red shallots for a sweet-and-savory whammy. Vinke's food is as beautiful as it is expensive. Thankfully, a €45 three-course lunch menu offers a way in.

Comfort and joy

We depart the bucolic Zeeland countryside and journey to Rotterdam, the country’s second city. Rotterdam introduces us to a young warrior at the stoves. Twenty-four-year-old Jim de Jong runs a furiously busy neighborhood boîte, De Jonge de Jong (52 Delistraat, Rotterdam; tel: 011-33-10-215-2764; dejongedejong.nl). His fare covers the territory from fish to updated Dutch comfort food and includes a Canadian twist.

Our fish course is a hefty slab of skate wing awash in greens — peas, fennel, cucumber, dill, capers — and it’s very good. Then welcome to porcine cuisine: a signature dish is pig-head terrine and indeed, De Jong serves four pig heads a night, a tasty fusion of skin, snout, lips, cheeks and jowls. He accompanies the terrine with Beluga lentils. They're tiny — half the size of Puy lentils — black, tender and deeply flavourful. The surprise is, they come from Saskatchewan.

On a second night in Rotterdam, we’re at Euromast Brasserie (20 Parkhaven, Rotterdam; tel: 011-33-10-436-4811; euromastbrasserie.nl) up at the 96-metre level of the Euromast tower. The old rule is, the better the view, the worse the cooking. Not this time: the kitchen is capable. The app pairs soy caviar — salty, smokey, slightly sweet spheres made from soy sauce in the molecular mode — with smoked salmon garnished with shiso leaf, walnut oil and daikon radish. The main star is ultra-juicy, perfectly roasted guinea fowl. With dishes like this, the tourists are getting respect.

Capital pleasures

We finish in Amsterdam. Since 1981, the 100-seat, stylishly redesigned Selecta (26 Vijzelstraat, Amsterdam; tel: 011-31-20-624-8894; restaurantselecta.nl) has been feeding Amsterdamers the Indonesian rijstaffel — the real booty the Dutch hauled home from their colonial adventure in the East Indies. At lunch, we make our way through the 14-dish ritual, its highlights delicately fried prawns, chicken in sweet soy and lamb kebab fairly howling with spices. Not everything works, but it doesn't much matter: chili-based bomblets explode across the palate, pushing all the right buttons from sweet-and-sour to savoury umami.

At the Hotel Okura — the only European address for this Japanese hotel chain — Ciel Bleu is Amsterdam restaurant aristocracy and has two Michelin stars to show for it. Casting an eye on crashing global economies, the hotel smartly opened Serre (333 Ferdinand Bolstraat, Amsterdam; tel: 011-31-20-624-8894; serrerestaurant.nl), a stylish bistro in which chef Marc van der Tang pares down Ciel Bleu invention for thinner wallets.

A riff on the Japanese bento box brings scallop, halibut, razor clam, North Sea shrimps and dessert. A €35 prix fixe menu rolls out Canadian lobster salad, sea bream fried with its skin on — a delicacy in itself — and served with crispy mussels and saffron potatoes, followed by Dutch farm cheeses for dessert. In fair weather, the restaurant opens into a sidewalk café overlooking a canal, a most agreeable choice for lunch.

French fusion

Located in a charming old quarter of the city, Restaurant Greetje (23-25 Peperstraat, Amsterdam; tel: 011-31-20-779-7450; restaurantgreetje.nl) looks back on Holland's rich, checkered history and plays gastronomic anthropologist, reviving and modernizing as it goes: goose fat, anyone? A grilled "sandwich" of Frisian sugar bread layered with duck liver terrine and served with apple syrup may be the richest sandwich on the planet. Stewed veal cheek served with nettles and sauced in black pudding epitomizes Greetje's meld of past and present — even if you may need a stretcher to carry you out.

Our last stop is another first-class fish restaurant, the two-Michelin-starred Bridges (197 Oudezijds Voorburgwal, Amsterdam; tel: 011-31-20-555-3560; bridgesrestaurant.nl) in the Sofitel Grand. French chef Aurélien Poirot, who trained with the Alains — Dutournier and Ducasse — in Paris, knows fish. He buys the best. Then, like Edwin Vinke, drawing from a billowing palette of accents, he transforms it to consumable art.

Poirot takes yellowtail tuna, garnishes it with sea asparagus, bathes it in a broth made from a tiny Japanese lime and naps it with caviar. He serves melt-in-the-mouth octopus as carpaccio with pine nuts and mint oil. He pairs scallops with pork belly for surf 'n' turf. Lobster goes Indian with tandoori seasonings, enough to give a New Brunswicker the willies. Every bite is memorable.

Poirot embraces the playful chemistry of molecular gastronomy. He loves the new toys: expect foams of wasabi, black garlic, potato and hibiscus. And when did you last roll wasabi dust on your tongue? You walk out with a full tummy, empty pockets and a sense that if all the chef's ingredients were listed, the menu would unfurl all the way to Brussels.

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