The pork-rind sauce perfectly complements the brill with melted goose liver. A gin and tonic sorbet is refreshingly bright against the salty razor clams. The sommelier assures me that the 2010 Premier Cru Burgundy is a fresh and agile vintage. I’m eating in the Merlet Hotel in Schoorl, and it richly deserves its Michelin star. I’ve been to another couple of starred restaurants in Holland during my trip. The food has been exceptional, but I can’t help wondering what it will do for my perspective.
I’m a burger and fries type guy. I’m also a pizza guy, a pasta guy, a steak guy and a seafood guy – I love food. To me, culture is best measured around the table. I’m not a fine-dining snob, but I see the potential for exquisite artistry. I’m jotting these notions in my little notebook when Chef Jonathan Zandbergen’s signature dish is delivered.
We ordered the five-course tasting menu, and this is three or four. No one can quite remember because the courses are interspersed with amuse-bouches. In impeccable English, the head waiter describes the dish – lacquered sweetbreads with coffee and coriander gravy. It’s decorated intricately with tiny edible flowers and micro vegetables. It would be over the top if there was too much on the plate, but like the taste the serving size is masterfully engineered.
I’m quite tipsy by the end of the meal. A quick Brexit joke segues into a friendship with the sommelier. He invites me into the kitchen to meet the crew. It’s quite a moment. One of the world’s great chefs shakes my hand and shows me a dish he’s creating for tomorrow night’s menu. He’s a young fellow, only 31. I decide that I am an underachiever as I walk back through the miniscule kitchen.
Of the Dutch restaurants I tried, the Merlet was the most formal – the most like its three-starred cousins. In a restaurant with one star, the food is top notch. The service is also generally excellent. Absolute perfection is required to gain additional stars. One thing I have noticed is that the single-star eateries tend to be a bit more laid back, less intimidating. This sentiment was echoed in Haarlem, where I ate at ML and Ratatouille Food and Wine in the previous days.
Haarlem is vibrant and buzzy – a compelling blend of cosmopolitan old and new. Ratatouille embraces this character, being housed in an old warehouse on the Spaarne River. There was an air of irreverence as we were led to our table. According to their website, Ratatouille’s star epitomizes Michelin’s desire to embrace cuisine that is not elitist, stuffy or traditionally French. Although, somewhat frustratingly, this type of food often falls into the latter category.
We have Chef Jozua Jaring’s ‘Chef Exceptionel Menu’ of five signature dishes. There is a worryingly noticeable lack of offal. In some ways it was daintier and lighter than in the other restaurants. One particular dish, a cote de veau (roasted veal rib chop) was a basic affair of simple, clean flavors, belied by complex visual presentation. It was a work of art.
The veal was so tender that you hardly needed a knife; the flavor deliciously offset by earthy chanterelles and artichoke hearts. In spite of the apparent complexity of these dishes, I thought that I could have made them. Except they would have looked far messier. And the meat would have been over or underdone.
The host at ML the following evening looked like an extra from The Fifth Element. He showed us to our table while I marvelled at the precision of his side parting. Another old building repurposed for the sake of food, ML is wooden floored and airy. We decide to have the ‘Menu van de Chef’ of six courses. The format was the same: multiple dishes, spaced with amuse-bouches, explained in flawless English.
I snagged Chef Mark Gratama’s menu. Gamba/roti/kwartelei/kousenband/knoflook – course two. It was a big prawn, crispy fried in a lattice-like crust, with a type of long bean, small roti bread, quail egg and garlic puree. It was an Indian-inspired dish that was delicately spicy. The food at ML was a little more playful. One appetizer was served in a tuna can. Another featured a small mound of horseradish pearls. I asked how one made a horseradish pearl. With liquid nitrogen, the waiter replied.
When you discuss art, it can’t help sounding a bit pretentious. It’s the same with Michelin-starred food. Eating like this is an incredible experience – the meals were entertaining and memorable. We enjoyed ourselves for several hours over delicious victuals created by incredibly talented chefs. Objectively speaking, I’d take that over dinner and the theatre any day.
Was I desperate for a burger? No more than normal. Holland has nearly as many Michelin stars per capita as France, and I was delighted to eat in three of its best restaurants. The main impression is one of respect. I don’t want a burger every day, nor do I want a Michelin-starred meal. When you talk about honesty in food, both a fabulous pizza and chef’s signature dish can provide it. The difference is that these restaurants offer events of artistic cuisine. I’d say three or four days is enough for a while, but the memories will last for a lifetime.