Tucked along the French and Belgium border, In De Wulf sits between farmland and field1 – a space that frames the restaurant’s dialectics. There are no answers but only more questions – true art. What explains the difference in philosophy between someone like Alain Passard, who with three gardens is supremely interested in the terroir of ingredients; and Rene Redzepi, who primarily plucks from the wild land for the plate?
In de Wulf is archetypal Michelin European restaurant – historic, remote, inn, spaced tables, the studied chef returning home – romantic circumstance and back story worth the journey. And you feel it turning off onto the dirt road, driving along a tractor’s path through an endless summer. A farm protected on three sides by greenery – a wulf. In de Wulf – how could it not be a cuisine of the land, seasons, of vegetables, wild and farmed, pickled or picked on the day? With white puffs in the sky, white spotted the nearby fields, crouched, with bags in tow.2 A request for a vegetable menu later was questioned by Chef Kobe Desramaults table-side: “We do not serve much meat here anyways”, he said with a smile.
After the seafood courses, during the meat of the meal, Kobe served four consecutive vegetables courses. This is it, i told myself, this is the meal I’ve been searching for. There were noma influences, as many progressive restaurants exhibit nowadays, but this was different. Herbs are integral to dishes, often just one or two stems or flowers, but they do a disproportionate amount of work to bring a dish in focus. And it’s here where the restaurant distinguishes itself in my opinion – for its minimalism. There is an austerity, in look and mouthfeel, when a few stems or flowers are binding or augmenting the flavors – without luscious fat or the liquid kick of a citrus acid.
Onion Flour, Onion dust, Cheese (inside)
Marinated Carrots, Chicken skin
This was a meal from last September so it would little resemble one tomorrow. Chef Kobe has long read the blog so I was known; and, surprisingly, Linda Violago was our server, as she was a few years prior at Mugaritz. Despite sitting in the darkest seat, most of the pictures turned out rather well.
Amuses are served in the lounge as you amble down from your room. This is the country and there are no reservations – just be down by 7pm. The bites themselves are not remarkable but, together, they touch on the major tastes in a variety of textures. The themes of the evening are introduced in this series – pickled, dairy, vegetables, and bitterness. And, most importantly, the diminutive herb as focus.
Fried Potato, Buttermilk, Cream
And then you move to the main dining room.
Dairy is used throughout the cooking but rarely for its luscious and excessive qualities; instead, for the sting of its acids or a soothing, not decadent, finish. It is sparse and light. In North Sea crab, lightly warmed, the sweet crab notes were gently augmented by the lemony tang of purslane and a touch of sour buttermilk. It is impressive because of its restraint – every drop is meaningful. With the North Sea oyster, the whey sauce’s acid, with an herb, maintained a focus on a plump oyster as it oscillated between briny and, with the cabbage, sweet.
“North sea” crab, buttermilk, purslane
“North sea” oyster, mussel, Ox heart cabbage, horseradish snow, whey sauce
Poached Quail eggs, Celery, Chevril, Bread crumbs
“Zeebrugge” scallop, fermented carrot
The next two dishes showed two extremes of Kobe’s cooking but they also paired well together, following the most austere dish of the night with its most decadent. Carrots fermented in carrot juice lacked all sweetness but they had a hint of acidity that cut through a sweet, clean scallop that had been barely warmed by the middle.
Dunkerque lobster, so sweet and barely warmed, was fatty and delicious; even more so when paired with the buttermilk potatoes, which had an aligot quality. The minimalism of the previous dish made this feel debauched. But, in depravity, the peppery nasturtium, four sprigs, balanced everything evenly with the tang of the buttermilk. After a bite of the potatoes, the nasturtium continued to cut the lobster.
Back to back, these two dishes showed the extremes of the cooking at In de Wulf – where pristine ingredients with very clear, and clean, flavors are treated with restraint and confidence.
“Dunkerque” lobster, buttermilk potatoes, nasturtium
Plaice fish with leek dish showed how a protein and vegetable could play off of each other on opposite sides of the plate – as equals. The textures of the gelatinous fish and braised leek shared similarities – the fish with its umami-like gelatinous flesh and the leeks with their mussel stock braised fibrous stalks. The leeks brought a sweetness to the gelatinous sensations in the mouth while the intensely acidic herbs pierced through both. Reversing the title would have yielded the same dish.
Plaice with roasted bones sauce, summer leeks, herb
Walnuts, Celery water, Aged-ham shavings, Celery puree
And then, when others serve meat, In de Wulf went full-vegetable.
In Walnuts, celery water was reduced to a viscous, complex sweetness and 2-year aged ham shavings lingered in the background with their very salty notes. Charred beans were special – there was a strong bitterness from the bean’s char and a forceful brightness of sorrel; but the creaminess of the cheese tempered both and fused the dish together. And the roasted baby cauliflower followed a similar formula – bitter intensity with soothing cream.
Charred beans, Goat cheese from “Uxem”, Wood sorrel
Onions “pas de rouge”, leeksauce, chive flowers
Roasted Baby Cauliflower, Bay leaf / Buttermilk cream
But, of course, meat would not entirely disappear. Aged for one week, this pigeon from a local farmer was then stuffed with hay for one week to ferment and develop flavor. It was then buried in hay/water for one more week; before being lightly smoked and aged for one final week. The faint smokiness clinged to the game notes, with pronounced iron spilling out in every bite.
Pigeon from “Steenvoorde”, aged four weeks
Housemade Goat Yogurt Mousse, Sorrel, Blueberry
Desserts were largely in the same mold as the mains. The housemade yogurt had a delicious tang, made green by the sorrel, that went really well with the flavorful wild blueberries. Kemmel pear with a single dollop of fresh cheese(cake) was simple but refreshing; a bit more green may have translated better here. And the apple mousse, while tasty, seemed more elaborate than the effortless minimalism of the meal. The sea buckthorn pâtes de fruits had the intensity of ten oranges, if not more – such a wonderful and fitting end – the power of nature!
Pear syrup , pear from Kemmel, fresh cheese(cake)
Apples mousse, crisp, glee, & snow; Spanish Chevril , rosemary
Endings – Sea buckthorn & chocolate
Paris is only three hours away – what better contrast to the City of Light than the rustic farmhouse of In de Wulf. While the three-star temples will always capture the imagination, and hope, breaking away for one day and night to the border is a rewarding move. The food looks more composed than in years past; hopefully this is evidence of Chef Kobe Desramaults maturing and refining. How much more refined can his food get? How much more can be stripped away? Or augmented?3
It is often about alignment – shifting tastes and fashions – what we “like’ is always a moving target. But this is where I’m at right now.4 There is a regality to the rustic origins of the food. Its minimalism belies its sophistication and ambition; but its confidence clearly shows. And, in a year of excellent eating, this was one of my favorite meals. Michelin has awarded it one star but it’s clearly two in my book;5 two for the nights I should have booked, instead of one.
1 – In De Wulf sits atop the site of the horrendous trenches of WW1. Nearby, there is a museum dedicated to the war. On Christmas, German soldiers called a truce and crawled out of their trenches, bringing gifts of sausage and alcohol for their Allied enemies. Unfortunately, that truce did not last long.
2 – Justin, formerly of Ubuntu, did a stage at In De Wulf, chronicled in his great blog, Nomadic Root. Justin has been doing misc dinners in Houston, focusing on by-catch, and will be opening his own restaurant this year – Oxheart in Houston. It could be one of the great openings of the year. And if you want to know why stages stage: Stages & Staging, Refining & Refinement
3 – Who knows but here’s a great video of a special dinner co-hosted with Magnus Nilsson; unfortunately, I was not invited.
4 – Some of us like to talk about Fine Dining Russian Roulette, fashioning ourselves Nick Chevotarevichs as we race across continents, chasing bad experiences with nothing but hope. It’s a proper analogy. Did the chef get too drunk last night? Is the kitchen down a man or two? Did the supplier supply too little too late? Did the neighboring table throw off the kitchen with too many special requests? Is our own table causing a breakdown? The variables are endless and conspiratorial – there are always bullets in the chamber – but it’s also an issue of alignment.
5 – When compared to most US one stars, In De Wulf is in a completely different league. And this one-star rating lends credence to the disconnect between US and European ratings. Its one star ratings also lends credence to a disconnect within European ratings; for In de Wulf is easily on par with many European two-star restaurants. For me, it would make a personal top 10 Europe / North America list.
6 – Some other reviews:
High End Food