SLUIS, The Netherlands -- When culinary adventurers set off on avoyage, the Netherlands used to be among the least appetizing possibledestinations.
Almost all Dutch meals consisted of soggy fish, overcookedmeat, boiled potatoes and bland cheese, often washed down with a glassof milk, or at best, cheap wine. A dour Protestant tradition seemed responsible.Only a few miles away, Dutch-speaking Belgians, Roman Catholics,reveled in restaurants featuring a wonderful mixture of French styleand German-size portions.
But over the past few years, interest in fine food has soaredin the Netherlands and the country no longer is a gastronomic desert.In a strange way, the lack of culinary traditions has allowed Dutchchefs to think out of the box and experiment. Leading this avant-gardewave is Restaurant Oud-Sluis in the village of Sluis, population 6,500.
"In Belgium and France, there is such a heavy food culture,"says Oud-Sluis chef Sergio Herman, a 37-year-old magician at the ovenswho looks the bohemian part: a baby-face flanked by a shock of long,wavy black hair falling almost to his shoulder. "In Holland, it'sdifferent: Since we have no culture for food, we are free."
His success has caused a reverse migration. Instead of the Dutchheading south for a good meal, Belgians now head north. Oud Sluis islocated just over the Belgian border, only a few miles north of themedieval city of Bruges and a few miles west of the fancy seasideresort of Knokke.
Sluis itself is a charming Dutch market town, clean and tidy.Herman's restaurant is in the center, in a small, one-story building,originally a farmhouse and later a merchant home. The restaurantconsists of two cozy rooms with 12 tables, seating a total of about 35for each meal. Behind, there's a sparkling modern kitchen half hidden.Décor is simple and warm; this is no baroque palace but a clean,well-designed modern Dutch home.
Herman's Spanish name reflects far-off Spanish ancestry;Madrid ruled this part of the world some 500 years ago. Herman himselfwas born and raised here in the Netherlands. His grandparents ran abarber shop and small café in the building. His father transformed itinto a simple fish restaurant. After his father became ill in 1990, heasked his son to return home.
Sergio had attended restaurant school and trained at some haute cuisinerestaurants, notably under Catalan superstar Ferran Adria. He wasinspired by Adria's avant-garde "molecular" cooking, as well as thework of England's Hector Blumenthal. Instead of just revisitingtraditional recipes, these chefs specialize in surprising mixes ofherbs and spices, creating new textures and tastes, often using foamsand spectacular chemical reactions to create theater on the plate. In1995, Herman gained his first Michelin star. The second followed in1999 and the ultimate third came two years ago.
Like Adria and Blumenthal, Herman works in a country without astrong gastronomic history, but where wonderful raw products long wentwasted. Sluis is just a few miles from the North Sea. The region'sfishing villages long have produced many of Europe's best oysters,mussels, delectable small shrimp called crevette grise and other shellfish. At Oud Sluis, this bounty from the sea receives superstar treatment.
Meals are a symphony of surprising tastes and mouthwateringsensations, plate after plate served tapas-style. There's a sorbet ofwasabi, sake, lemon and lemon zest. There's crevette gris mixedwith potato mouseline, tomato and lobster wrapped in mango; a muscadetgranita served with a goose liver mousse; and a soy soup with ricenoodles, fish and vegetables. Then blue-fin tuna served with Japaneselemon on a soy and tofu base. These are just amuse bouches.
The main appetizer is a tartar of Japanese wagyu beef with ajelly of parmesan, topped with a potato vinaigrette infused with citrusand vanilla. For the entree, a filet of sole is grilled with slowlycooked eel and infused with a sauce of chlorophyll from green herbs,cream and sweet and sour of fennel. Two small desserts are a chocolatemousse filled with a jelly of tonka beans and matched with freshyoghurt and different preparations of lemon with basil andbasil-mojito.
A full meal at Oud Sluis is not cheap, but by such standards,not too expensive. The three-course lunch described above runs a mere€65 per person. A four-course "Feeling & Taste" menu featuringseasonal produce is €100, and the most elaborate -- Père Et Fils --costs €150 per person.
The wine list is 450 selections long, and includes famousBordeaux and Burgundies. But it also features well-selected,reasonably-priced choices from the rest of the world like a wonderfulcrisp, round South African chardonnay from L'Avenir winery, which costsonly €32.
Oud Sluis fills up quickly and requires reservations severalweeks in advance, even for lunch. It is closed Mondays and Tuesdays.Since there's little room to expand his main restaurant, the youthfulHerman, now the father of two children, is branching out. He has justopened a hotel in Sluis. It now has only four rooms, but he aims toexpand it. He is considering new restaurant projects and plans to openone in the coming year in either Amsterdam or Antwerp.
"It is important for me to grow a little bit -- to have newchallenges, so I remain sharp," he says. "I'm proud to get all thestars and appreciation and I know I must continue working hard everyday, with lots of energy, to keep them."
4524 EA Sluis
tel.: 0031 (0) 117-461269
fax: 0031 (0) 117-463005
Lunch: 12.00 - 14.00 hrs
Dinner: 19.00 - 21.00 hrs
Closed on Mondays, Tuesdays and Saturday afternoons