Hof van Cleve, currently rated 26th best restaurant in the world, sits in a field just outside the tiny town of Kruishoutem, halfway between Ghent and Kortrijk in Flanders. This was a rare return trip – usually we prefer discovering something new, but this was one of the first three-Michelin-starred restaurants we ever went to, sometime in 2006 I think, and that was back before I started photographing and blogging meals.
We arrived at midday and as it was a warm, clear day we were seated in the garden off to one side of the main building while we sipped our aperitif (champagne, angostura and a sugar cube) and perused the menu. There’s not usually much point in me examining the options in this kind of place, however, as I always just end up ordering the longest tasting menu available.
The “Freshness of Nature” menu consists of nine courses, but before that we had five amuse-bouches to get through (which weren’t listed on the menu so forgive me if I forget some of the ingredients). First, anchovies on toast and spring rolls filled with oxtail, with a soy and coriander dipping sauce. The oxtail rolls in particular were strong and meaty, yet light.
Then beef carpaccio, raw tuna and wasabi ice cream.
The next was absolutely my favourite – a herb-encrusted frog’s leg, some kind of creamy mousse, and underneath pesto-flavoured couscous. Great textures and a confident juxtaposition of flavours.
The next one I have problems remembering anything about, and the photo doesn’t help, but I do remember that the dominant flavour seemed to come from the brown gel encircling the seeds in the middle – miso-infused, perhaps?
Finally an onion and bacon soup with a skinny strip of Peking duck on the side.
Then we moved inside the restaurant to start the meal. It’s a relatively modest interior, but very comfortable. The only thing that bothered me about the setting was the appalling modern art on the walls. In fact I’ve noticed before in many different types of restaurant that as a general rule, the better the food, the worse the art.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not all that keen on bread with meals, especially when you’re pacing yourself over a dozen courses, but we were offered such a wide and tempting selection (breads flavoured with cheese and bacon, or Westmalle trappist beer) that I couldn’t resist.
I’d ordered the selection of wines with my menu, and first up was something of a surprise – saké. Also surprising was how light and tasty it was, with a delicate citrus flavour making it much more pleasant than other rice wines I’d tried. The first course was a trio of shrimp; one in a small bowl with some avocado cream and some kind of shoots:
and a tagliatelle of cucumber with shrimp sauce.
Next, mackerel and razor clam with coriander, tomato and little lemon bubbles. Also probably the prettiest dish of the day.
It was accompanied by a cockle soup.
The inevitable squid course, with yuzu, seaweed and dashi soup.
The equally unavoidable lobster course, with belotta ham, rocket, asparagus and a quail egg.
The fourth and final fish course was Danish cod with crab and leek. The parmesan crumble at the top and bottom was a masterful touch. There was a slight delay in receiving this dish as the waitress dropped one of them as she was coming out of the kitchen. The speed with which they plated up and served a replacement got me thinking about how this stuff is prepared, whether they have spare portions on standby just in case, and in particular about how fast and skilled they must be at prepping such an elaborately presented dish.
Finally the one and only meat dish: veal with mushrooms and tarragon gravy. The lightly-fried potato cubes were wonderful; slightly leathery skin, fluffy and light as a feather on the inside, and flavoured with Moroccan spices.
To cleanse our palates before dessert, a shot of mojito topped with lime mousse.
Dessert number one: strawberries with mint, white chocolate and prosecco, with a side dish of mascarpone ice cream.
At this point chef Goossens made an appearance and circulated among the tables, stopping for a brief chat. I complimented him on his integration of Japanese ingredients into the fish courses, which he said was a result of two research trips to Tokyo.
Dessert number two: banana cream with lime, passion fruit and a chocolate madeleine.
And a side dish of cake, ice cream and crumble.
And that was the end of the main part of the meal. We moved back outside for coffee and more sweet nibbles.
We were full, but not uncomfortably so, which I think is a sign of a well thought out and balanced menu. My wife’s belly was looking rather large though…
(OK, for those of you who don’t know, she’s five months pregnant)
Overall I’d say it was as good as the first time, if not better. Let’s hope we manage to get back there before another three years pass…