Return to Hertog Jan

We first visited Hertog Jan just over six years ago. At the time we were very impressed and determined to go back some day, and in the intervening period they’ve gone from one to three Michelin stars and this summer they moved into new premises (more details about the construction on their site).

We were the first to arrive that evening, and walked up to the modern entrance of the renovated agricultural barn.

 

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Upon entering we were handed an aperitif made from cucumber, fennel and herbs and invited to wander a little in the gardens before sitting down.

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The entire back wall of the dining room consists of floor-to-ceiling windows, offering an uninterrupted view of the garden.

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This strikes me as something of a statement of intent, as it’s not a decorative lawn-and-flowers type of space, but a kitchen garden. The idea presumably being that as you sit and eat you can see many of the ingredients growing right in front of you.

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Once back inside (the evening was a little cooler than I’d anticipated) we sat at our table, which I was pleased to see was right by the window. Here’s the view back towards the kitchen.

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No there’s nothing creepy about taking a photo of the ladies toilet; I just like the light playing on the different wood and stone textures OK? SHUT UP.

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Following an aperitif of rosé champagne and the confirmation with the waiter that we’d like the longer of the two tasting menus on offer, the amuse-bouches started to arrive. No, this is not an egg in a bird’s nest, but a rosti with aubergine and miso purée.

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Barbecued lard. Classy. Tasty.

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A raspberry and beetroot meringue containing foie gras cream. Lovely.

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And perhaps the best for last: potato purée with coffee, vanilla, and grated mimolette cheese.

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Moving on to the menu proper, we were served bread and pig fat.

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My first wine was a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc called “Supernatural“.

The first course was perhaps the best plate of tomatoes I’ve ever eaten. Even on their own they’d have been great, but the amazingly flavoursome marigold leaves and dusting of cardamom on top lifted it to another level. Knockout.

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I switched to beer for the next course: Keyte Oostende triple beer, which I was told would best accompany the caviar. Don’t you always drink beer with your caviar?

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Belgian caviar, watermelon, mozzarella spheres, kohlrabi cones. Fantastic. This was also one of those dishes where they advise you to make sure you get a bit of everything with each bite.

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The wine for the next course was Nero di Lupo: a Sicilian Nero d’Avola. It was quite dry, with an unusual burnt smell. You can see it here reflected in my spoon, next to the empty beer glass.

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Bell pepper filled with Iberico ham and a spicy vegetable broth. Surprisingly cold, smoky and spicy.

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Another course; another wine. “Furmint”: late harvest tokay. Not too sweet.

Smoked eel, foie gras, fennel salad, miso. The salad was amazing. I guess I should be used to it by now, but in this kind of place they manage to find the most amazingly tasty leaves. It almost makes me want to spend the rest of my life eating salad.

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The next dish was called “A walk through the garden”. It’s an amazing plate of raw and barely cooked vegetables and salad held together with a blob of caviar d’aubergine in the middle. Carrot, marrow, radish, courgette, courgette flower, etc. We were told to taste them all separately. This dish was perhaps emblematic of the meal as a whole, and of the chef’s philosophy. He’s confident enough in the quality of his fresh produce to let it speak for itself. It reminds me of TV chef Keith Floyd’s advice: pick the best ingredients and do as little to them as possible.

We also had a giggle with some of our fellow diners at this point as we noticed a kitchen staff member running full pelt through the garden in front of us, presumably collecting emergency supplies. I imagined the chef in the kitchen behind us screaming “Fennel! I need three stalks of fennel, stat!”

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But now, time for some meat. To be carved with a Hertog Jan-branded knife, of course.

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Lubrication was provided this time by a Spanish red from Camins del Priorat.

Roast bone marrow, beans, pimento pepper purée, roast garlic purée, and on a separate plate, wagyu beef.

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Next drink: Riesling dessert wine. Then an empty bowl was placed in front of us. We waited a moment, and then another waiter came up behind us, lifted a silver ball out of another container, and dropped it from a height into our bowl, whereupon it smashed to pieces and fell open to reveal green apple, mint, sorrel, elderflower, and a sprinkling of space dust.
Again, amazing flavours from the herbs.

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The final dessert: chocolate, strawberries and violet flowers. Pretty.

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Oh go on, then. Just a few more sweet nibbles from the trolley.

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I went for the softer, creamier options.

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For my money this is now the best restaurant in Belgium. Or at least on a par with Hof Van Cleve. And more satifying than noma, for more or less the same price.

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With our bill they gave us a little envelope.

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The tiny vial contains fennel seeds, as it’s one of De Mangeleer’s favourite ingredients.

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And a full menu.

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Go. Book a table. Now.

Yamazato

I often forget that Amsterdam is so close: it’s a two-hour drive, which makes it perfectly feasible to pop up there for dinner, especially if there’s a Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant you fancy trying for dinner.

Yamazato is situated in the Okura hotel about a twenty-minute walk south of the centre of town. The decor is very traditional, and you are served by a flotilla of quietly shuffling and smiling ladies in kimonos, but the clientèle is international and we heard Dutch, English and Australian accents near our table.

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Naturally I muted my phone in order to respect the atmosphere, but that didn’t preclude using it as a camera.

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Cherry bubble aperitif.

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Pretty menu.

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As usual we opted for the most extensive tasting menu available. I was slightly concerned as my experience with kaiseki cuisine had been a little disappointing (read more about that here), but I was willing to give it another try.

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It started badly: Green tea tofu with fish bouillon. This is everything I hate in Japanese food. Gloopy blobs of tasteless mush. Although the bouillon was nice.

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The next starter selection was a marked improvement: gurnard sushi, shrimp dusted with bottarga, snow crab in a fish stock jelly, deep-fried scallop, and duck breast. A nice range of mouthfuls.

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Next, a sea bass soup, and we were unfortunately back in the realm of the slimy. A simple broth to accentuate the flavour of the fish would have sufficed, but they had to add something jelly-like to the liquid to make it feel more like you were eating mucus.

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At least there was nothing to complain about on the drinks front. I had two different sakés; both soft and slightly fruity and very drinkable. This one is from Akahita province.

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Sashimi. You can’t go wrong with sashimi can you? The salmon on the golden platter had been dropped into boiling water for a few seconds to give the edges that light flush.

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The main fish course: lobster overpowered by an unpleasantly strong sea urchin sauce (the pink blobs). The slice of taro at bottom left had been marinated in some kind of sweet sauce (teriyaki?) and was fantastic. A shame they gave us so little of it.

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Fried shrimp cake surrounded by corn. Not bad.

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Then came the meat course, which was accompanied by a glass of a rather spectacular Amarone. The meat and veg were sitting on top of a stone with a small heater inside (you can just about see the blue flame under the plate). Great sesame and ponzu sauce too.

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Right to left: miso soup, pickled veg, eel and rice.

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With dessert came a dessert wine: Yuzu-flavoured saké. Delicious, and only 8.5% abv.

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Left to right: peach jelly, green tea ice cream, spicy macaroon, tomato ice cream, pancake and custard. Winner: tomato ice cream.

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So, a mixed bag. Some very enjoyable dishes, and some not at all enjoyable, although some of that is undoubtedly down to the fact that I personally am not keen on certain aspects of Japanese haute cuisine (tofu). Still, I found myself quite puzzled as to the accolades this restaurant has received. Next time I want Michelin-starred Japanese cuisine I’ll stay closer to home and make a return trip to Kamo.

The hills are alive

I’ve been to the Austrian mountains before, but usually in the winter time, so this holiday the main thing that struck me was the plant life. All those Alpine meadows full of flowers, mostly in shades of purple and yellow, made the few short hikes we managed all the more pleasant.

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Don’t ask me what any of these are called, as I’ve no idea.

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This is one of my favourite shots and is currently my iPhone wallpaper:

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Naming the dead

This weekend I went to the cinema to see the film Under The Skin. Much to my surprise it was sold out. This film has been out here for several weeks already and, despite the presence of Scarlett Johansson, isn’t exactly a summer blockbuster. Forced to decide between just going back home and choosing another film, I looked at the other dozen or so films on offer. I wanted to see Boyhood but that was already half an hour into its showing, and the only other possibility was Tracks. It wasn’t high on my “to see” list, but it was on it, so that’s what I went for.

It tells the story of Robyn Davidson, who trekked alone across 2000 miles of Australian desert with a few camels in 1977. It’s a beautifully shot story of a woman who just wants to be alone in the wilderness, and how hard that proves to be. There are also some interesting insights into both Australian and Aboriginal society, but to be honest the most fascinating part came before the opening credits. An onscreen caption warned “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers should exercise caution when watching this film as it may contain images and voices of deceased persons.”

Afterwards I looked this up online and found that indeed many Aboriginal tribes prefer not to name or publish images of the recently deceased as they feel that it would disturb their spirit in the afterlife. During this period (which may last between one and a few years) a generic name like ‘Kumantjayi’ is used to refer to the deceased. But it also leads to some problems, as noted on wikipedia:

“This presents some challenges to indigenous people. In traditional society, people lived together in small bands of extended family. Name duplication was less common. Today, as people have moved into larger centres, with 300 to 600 people, the logistics of name avoidance have become increasingly challenging.

Exotic and rare names have therefore become very common, particularly in Central Australia and desert communities, to deal with this new challenge.”

There’s also a bizarre anecdote on this website about how names given to Aborigines by white settlers were affected.

The one thing that remains unclear to me is to whom, in this specific case, are they referring? I mean, if the real deceased person is portrayed onscreen by an actor, does that still count? Or is it because someone who acted in the film died after filming was completed? I guess they probably mean the post-credits scene where we see photos of the real Robyn Davidson and the Aboriginal elder Mr Eddy. Davidson is still alive and attended the film’s première, but I imagine Mr Eddy is long gone by now. Which is a shame because he was one of my favourite parts of the film. It’s worth watching if you get the chance.

But I still hope to see that Scarlett Johansson film some day soon.

Bookalokal: Indian BBQ Class

This week’s bookalokal Indian verification is written by my wife Paola, as I had to spend the weekend ferrying the kids over to their grandparents in Genova. Over to Paola:

We have had various Indian home-cooked meals recently thanks to bookalokal, but this one was different: a BBQ cooking class. When I signed up, I thought we would learn a few useful marinades and then have a BBQ together, but in fact we did so much more. There were eight of us and we prepared (and subsequently ate) seven courses over the course of four very full, and yet fun, hours. Some parts were more hands-on, and at other times we watched Nikki prepare the ingredients, but the mix really worked in getting everything done.

The first thing we did was making paneer (Indian cheese) from scratch, which totally blew my mind: it was so easy! Just bring milk to the boil, add vinegar, let it curdle and strain it:
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Then we left it in the cloth and put a heavy pan on top to get all the moisture out.

While the paneer was resting, we made mint and coriander chutney:

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We then prepared the marinade to rub in the chicken legs for the tandoori chicken recipe:

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Here we cheated. Since both the chicken and the paneer need to absorb the marinade for at least two hours (if not overnight) Nikki had already done it for us the night before. So while we did learn how to prepare the marinade, we actually ate the chicken and the paneer that she had prepared earlier.

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The star behind the BBQ class is, well, the BBQ. Unfortunately the weather turned horrible, so we ended up cooking the food in the oven. Still, it was very nice and in the handouts Nikki did have some useful tips on how to cook the meat both in the BBQ and in the oven for optimal results.

The tandoori chicken went in the oven:

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While the chicken was cooking, we prepared a chickpea and potato salad as well as a tomato and cucumber one (kachumbar). In the process we also learnt useful tips about Indian ingredients and spices and where to source them.

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We made skewers with the marinated paneer, onions and peppers:

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By then the chicken was ready, so we sat down to eat all of this, while the paneer Tikka skewers were cooking.

Chicken leg, kachumbar salad, Indian-style potato salad and spicy chutney:

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Clean plate:

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The paneer is ready! Yummy…

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By this point we were pleasantly stuffed. And Nikki reminded us that we still had to make the Seekh kebabs:

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We all got our hands dirty:

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More grilling:

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And yes, we just about managed to eat a couple of those too (although a few people preferred to take them home instead).

All in all a lovely afternoon and some great, easy recipes that could very easily be made again and again at home. I’ll be back for more!

 

[insert generic slogan here]

There’s an ad campaign in the Brussels metro at the moment for Celio clothing stores. A young man wearing a jacket, t-shirt and bright red trousers leaps into the air, full of joie de vivre. The slogan next to him says “Life, enjoy”.

“Life, enjoy”. What exactly does that mean? Apart from the nonsensical punctuation, what does that tell us about the product, or the company selling it? That I will finally be able to enjoy life if I buy a pair of red trousers?

Similarly there’s a Pepsi ad in the street near my office which says “Live for now”. Silly me, there I was living for last Tuesday when I should have been living for now. Thanks, Pepsi!

Many things bother me about this kind of advertising slogan. Firstly there’s the fact that presumably someone somewhere was paid a not inconsiderable amount of money to “write” this generic piffle. Secondly, it tells us nothing specific about the product being sold: most of these phrases are entirely indistinguishable and interchangeable. And why do they even need a slogan anyway? They’re not telling us anything useful. I guess they feel they’re creating a “brand identity” or some such bollocks but when it’s this wishy-washy and meaningless surely that defeats the object.

It reminds me of the trend a few years back for TV ads which consisted of a selection of beautifully-shot life events (weddings, births, playing with your children, exotic holidays, and other generic scenes of a happy life). They all looked the same, except for the company name and slogan at the end, usually along the lines of “Gribble’s Widgets: for the way you live today”.

 

Bon Bon revisted

We first visited Bon Bon nearly six years ago, and always wanted to go back for a second visit. In the intervening period it gained its second Michelin star and moved to a location only ten minutes’ drive from our house, so now there was really no excuse.

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Compared to their previous premises their new digs were sleek and spacious. You could spend the whole evening watching the staff plating up if you wanted to, and it was possible to eat at the bar if you wanted an even closer view.

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Incongruous among all the straight lines and minimalism was this old fashioned bell the staff rang whenever a dish was ready.

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Our first amuse-boushe was ‘Kiwi en trompe l’oeil”; a crispy sweet tube containing kiwi cream.

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Number two: fennel gaspacho with a curry foam. This being Belgium the curry was pretty mild, but it was still a nice idea.

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Eggs mimosa with smoked eel. Cute egg cup.

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Beetroot macaroon with horseradish.

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Mushroom tartlet.

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Having chosen our menu (five courses, although there was also a seven course option) we received our daily bread, complete with Peloponnese olive oil in which to dip it.

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Our first proper course was “Moscow” potatoes with caviar, chives, straciatella cheese mouse, cucumber, celeriac juice, purple potato chips, shrimp and langoustine, accompanied by a glass of cucumber and Hendrick’s gin.

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Easily the prettiest dish of the evening, but also one of the tastiest.

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Gambero rosso: very slightly grilled but otherwise raw shrimp. The jasmine tea dashi poured on top was amazing.

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Sole with comté cheese and Jura wine. Yes, cheese with seafood can work! Yah boo sucks to the naysayers!

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Lamb with peanut, artichoke, shallots and beans. I was unsure at first about this combination of flavours but it grew on me and by the end I was quite enjoying it. It was introduced as “Lamb: a souvenir of Senegal”, but I’m not familiar enough with Senegalese cuisine to comment on that.

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For dessert we were given three options: strawberry, chocolate or herbs. Intrigued, we both chose herbs, and this is what we got: fresh cheese from Beersel with cucumber, pepper, sorrel and dill. Beautiful. I love light, refreshing desserts and this one definitely hit the spot.
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With our coffee we chose from the petits fours trolley (my dreams of a re-enactment of the famous Victoria Wood sketch were dashed by the disappointingly competent waiter).

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So there you have it. No complaints about the food from me, although a few times we were left with our empty plates a little longer than I’d expect from this kind of establishment (sometimes they stayed there right up until the following course arrived). But considering how close it is to our house I can don’t think we’ll wait another six years before we go back. Bon Bon lives up to its name.

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