Well, delightfully delicious is not the literal translation of De Librije from the Dutch, but based upon my recent meal at the restaurant and night at their hotel, perhaps it should be. De Librije literally means “the library” just like it sounds and the building was, at one time, just that. It dates back to the 1500’s when it was a library within a Dominican monastery. Since that time it has seen a variety of uses, but it is difficult for me to imagine that any of them have been quite as good as the use that Jonnie and Therese Boer have put it to in its role as a Michelin three star restaurant.
The city of Zwolle is quite charming, at least in its old center, With a lovely frozen waterway, houseboats, barges, plenty of bicycles – even in winter – and some lovely architecture, it is in and of itself a fine place to visit. With a three Michelin star restaurant and a two Michelin restaurant, both under the control of the same chef, it is just that much better.
De Librije was refurbished specifically to be a fine dining restaurant and it is clear that much thought went into the design. It is also clear that the designers had a lot to work with from the beginning. The building itself is well situated next to the waterway and an old cannon and quite picturesque with a lovely brick pattern, arched windows and a vaulted entrance.
Once inside, the diner is ushered through a narrow, short vestibule, past a service area and into a cozy, high ceilinged dining room softened by plenty of padding and fabric.
The somewhat austere luxury of the black, white and gold accents is warmed by the presence of a toasty fire in the fireplace under the sleek, modern mantel. The room is further assuaged by the presence of plenty of flowers (it is Holland, after all), candles and intimate lighting. My son and I were seated in the far corner adjacent to the fireplace. It was a lovely round table set for two with a commanding view of the dining room.
We were greeted at the table by a very unusual centerpiece. It was fermented dough with grains and seeds rising under a clear glass cover. It was left on the table for a while to rise before being whisked away a bit later in the meal.
Shortly after we were seated, we were each brought a small black orb that reminded me of an old Magic 8 Ball fortune telling toy minus the white circle with an 8 centered inside.
Though not explicitly designed as a fortune telling device, this was a very cool serving bowl that held an unusual tea within, and by that foretold an evening of delicious, beautiful and creative cooking. The tea was a broth of fermented red cabbage with dried red pepper “leaves.” While not overly spicy, the flavor resembled that of kim chee. It was an intriguing and tasty start to the meal.
The next amuse was a quick bite of halibut with apricot and orange atop a crisp. This was a nice lead in to our cocktails, two different riffs off a Gin & Tonic, but labelled under the inclusive name of “Gin and Jonnie.”
The first variation, with Bergamot, Verbena and Genever base, I had sampled earlier during an exploratory walk to the restaurant from the hotel. It was simply magnificent and delicious, complex, but still approachable. This time, it was my son’s turn to sample this wonderful cocktail.
While it was being described, I grew concerned that the variation chosen for me might be too sweet for my taste, but the combination of rhubarb, ginger beer and Hendrick’s was perfectly balanced, absolutely delicious and delightfully refreshing. Both of these cocktails were simply marvelous and amongst the tastiest gin based cocktails I’ve ever had (and I LIKE gin).
The snacks continued with a brandade made from halibut with crispy quinoa. This was located in a bowl that was revealed once we had finished the halibut crisp. The brandade was creamy and crunchy, rich and tasty and it was the first time I had ever eaten a brandade made with a fish other than cod.
Cod may not have been used for the brandade, but it made an appearance immediately thereafter in two snacks based upon Dutch street food. The first was cod tongue with crispy chicken skin. This had great textural contrast and nice flavor.
The second, served along with the first, was cod skin with lemon and seaweed. Special mention must be made of the serving vessels, in particular that for the cod skin. This was a beautiful, pristine fish skeleton that was ideal for holding the morsel. Neither bite was in the least “fishy” and each had nice undercurrents of spice with the cod skin being particularly complex with a hint of Japanese flavors. These were two sophisticated bites.
The next snack was a Jonnie Boer classic from the days of his first Michelin star nearly twenty years ago (2013 marks the restaurant’s twentieth anniversary – within a year, it was awarded its first Michelin star). Built onto the diner’s hand by the server, it consisted of local beef tartare, oyster, lettuce, oyster “cream,”crispy potato and salicornia. It was fun and tasty.
Brioche bread balls were filled with maitake cream and dusted with maitake powder. These were like two mushroom eclairs that exploded with umami.
We took a look at the extensive wine list, but opted for pairings with each course.
As we would each be served a different dish per course, so too were we served a different wine with each course. Both the dishes and the wines had similarities to each other, but differed in their nuances. It was an elegant touch that the wines were simultaneously poured directly in front of us.
Both of the wines poured were from Germany. Mine was an Auxerrois from Baden just on the German side of the border from Alsace. Though it was a late harvest wine, it was bone dry with a floral nose. Auxerrois is one of the main grapes used in Alsatian sparkling wines and here it also had a light sparkle to it.
The wine for Lawrence was a Riesling from Künstler in the Rheingau. This was also a Kabinett Trocken or late harvest, yet still quite dry wine.
Bread was brought to the table. I’m generally reluctant to eat too much bread at meals like this, but with bread as good as this was, it is impossible for me not to partake of it. These baguettes were about as close to perfect as baguettes can get and were worth every calorie and bit of stomach space they took as was the sublime local butter from nearby Raalte that came to the table with it. Good bread is special and as I’ve stated many a time, if a restaurant like De Librije is going to bother serving bread it should be bread worthy of the restaurant. This absolutely was and it wasn’t even the marquee bread of the evening.
The first official course came out with a different variation on the main ingredient for each of us. Mine was goose foie gras with North Sea crab, almond, black olive and juice of fermented beetroot.
Lawrence received a dish with Dutch oysters from Zeeland that had been marinated with pineapple juice that had been fermented for a year and a half and topped with finely diced pickled kohlrabi and shavings of goose foie gras. We split each dish, savoring each bite of these unique preparations. Fermented products are all the rage today, but Boer was one of the first to start using them in high-end western fine dining. Their use in both dishes was wonderful. The pineapple tasted of pineapple, but lacked its sweet personality, leaving it as a decidedly savory ingredient. The same was true for the beet juice in my dish.
I loved the balletic cohesion of the dual wine pouring. It is details like this that help to make this a legitimate Michelin three star restaurant experience. The service as a whole was seamless throughout the evening.
My wine, from the Jurançon in the southwest of France was a cuvée of five different grape varietals. With a nose full of tropical fruit, the wine had plenty of crisp acidity on the palate, keeping it very fresh.
Cloudy Bay is one of the most well known wineries of New Zealand and as such I was a bit surprised to see it in this situation, but it is a good wine with plenty of the fresh, herbaceous grassiness of a good Sauvignon Blanc.
The next course played with variations on langoustines, each dish utilizing langoustines seared on one side only and similar color schemes, but that is where the similarities ended. My son’s plate featured the langoustines served with Madras curry, roasted hemp seed, a bit of pumpkin and the pure juice of haricot verts. The rim of the plate contained some crisps that were so good, I never even got to try one.
My plate showed a similar bright green sauce, but it also featured a bit more orange on the plate. Here the green came from a distillate of cucumber (made with a Rotovap) while the heightened contribution of orange to the plate was due to cylinders of pickled pumpkin atop pumpkin purée that looked like bright, raw egg yolks. The langoustines were abetted by an unusual combination of blue cheese and black quinoa. The interplay of flavors was subtle with the cucumber up front before fading out, the pumpkin a constant presence in the background and from a somewhere a curry-like finish. As delicious as this dish was, it was ultimately a tad disappointing for me. I happen to love langoustines, but their flavor was totally overshadowed by the other ingredients on the plate, especially the cucumber. The langoustines were there doing a cameo as a star actor might in a film dominated by others. Their presence was exciting to get a glimpse of, but ultimately, I wanted more of that character than was delivered. That was not the case with my son’s dish. In that dish the langoustine’s inherent sweetness was allowed to shine fully with the other elements playing their proper supporting roles. I preferred his dish.
Western Hungary was the source of my next pairing, a 2011 Furmint from Kerkaborum. This young wine had spent 11 months in old oak barrels resulting in a good structure, minimal oakiness and a spicy, earthy profile.
My son’s pairing came all the way from the Mornington Peninsula near Melbourne. It was a 2011 Chardonnay from Stonier. As might be expected form its origin, it was a very New World style of Chardonnay, full of oak, fruit and butter. It was a behemoth wine that was built to aim for high scores from Robert Parker and The Wine Advocate.
The parade of Dutch seafood continued without complaint from us as I received a cod loin fillet with smoked sprat, jerusalem artichoke and a tea of jerusalem artichoke flowers that had been grown (as much of the produce) in Jonnie Boer’s own gardens. The aroma of the tasty tubers wafted up to my delighted nose as the tea was poured over the bowl.
Served in the same beautiful plate as my dish, but with an orientation perpendicular to mine, Lawrence’s dish consisted on North Sea sole with Dutch cooked in nut butter and Dutch shrimp with a thick, rich, but dairy-less sauce made from the fin portion of the fish, and vegetable stock. The appearance was as of a boat laden with passengers afloat upon a bubbly sea of white. Both dishes were superb. Mine highlighted the finest attributes of the jerusalem artichokes without overshadowing the cod, which had an amazing, buttery texture. The sprats came in with a wonderful smoky bang that played off the artichoke’s sweetness. This was my favorite dish to this point until I tasted my son’s. At that point, I couldn’t choose a favorite. Both were outstanding. The wines also worked well to complement each dish. Even the Stonier, which would not ordinarily be a wine that I would choose, proved to be a deft pairing with the sole as its buttery nature added even more depth to the creamy sauce.
This intriguing trio was placed on our table as we were finishing our sole and cod dishes. Explanations would follow in short order. The large jar contained monkfish with its skin and bones that was being cooked in oil with Baharat spices at 85°C for twenty minutes. The shorter jar contained rollmopswet, pickled herring, which would have a roll to play in the dish.
Maggi is a common condiment in The Netherlands that is used like soy sauce, but which does not actually contain any soy. Introduced here as a bit of a culinary joke, De Librije makes its own version that was to be used in the dish following the next.
Belondrade y Lurton, a Verdejo from Rueda, is a wine I am quite familiar with. It too is a modern-styled oaky behemoth.
Earlier in our trip we visited a restaurant that featured bread as a course in and of itself. It might have worked had the bread actually been decent. It wasn’t. At De Librije, this bread, which had served as a table centerpiece for the early part of the meal, proved worthy of the honor it had been given. The butter was goat’s milk that had been mixed with grapes to leave a silky, tangy acidity. The combination was truly delicious.
The monkfish had been skinned and deboned when removed from the oil and now came to the table on a beautiful plate along with sour bacon, the juice from the rollmops and as shown in the photo above, a few dashes of De Librije’s Maggi sauce.
The dish was enhanced with pickled celery, grated cauliflower and mustard seeds. The aroma was not one that I typically find appetizing, but much as with great “stinky” cheeses, the eating was so much better than the smell would indicate. The brilliant acidity along with the smoke from the bacon matched beautifully with the spice-rich, wonderfully textured monkfish. The fish had remained firm like a nicely cooked lobster tail and was enriched with a lovage based sauce. Often acidity is just acidity, but the genius of this dish was how it showed layers of acidity and kept it all in perfect savory balance.
Before this meal, I hadn’t even known that there was such a thing as Dutch wine, let alone tried any. On this night, I learned that indeed there is such a thing and I even tried some. Kus van Therese or “The Kiss of Theresa” is the restaurant’s own wine, coming from the middle of the eastern half of The Netherlands from a vineyard called Wijngoed Gelders Laren from the Regent grape. The wine is aged in new American oak for 17 years and showed a peppery spice with good acidity. It was served slightly chilled.
Most beef that we eat comes from male animals, but at De Librije, we were served beef from specially selected 4-5 year old milking cows. The thin, fat-streaked slices were cooked in front of us on stones heated to about 150°C. Prior to placing the beef slices on the hot stones, a powder made from dried porcinis had been sprinkled on first to be incorporated into the meat along with the meats own rendered fat.
The seared beef was plated with roasted bone marrow and a variety of mushrooms. It was finished with a lemon-geranium sauce poured around the meat.
The beef had been seared on only one side. This was a powerfully rich, umami filled plate. The rare beef was tender. The subtly done citric acidity of the sauce added a unique element to the dish. The wine worked very well.
Still on red, my next wine once again swung around to Spain, this time to the Empordá in Catalunya. The 2010 Negre from Mas Pólit was a big, fruity wine that was well chosen for my next dish.
The choice for my son came from a bit further east, in Italy, the 2009 Ebo from the Val di Cornia Suvereto DOC in Tuscany. 50% San Giovese, 25% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, Ebo is the second wine of the Super-Tuscan Petra and is a Parker-esque, high alcohol fruit bomb.
My son received pigeon with a cream made from goat cheese and goose liver along with a juice of kohlrabi.
My dish was roe deer with black pudding and chicory.
Both of these dishes were delicious. each was centered around wonderful red meat, but accented effectively and imaginatively. Stylistically, they had more in common with the German three star restaurants I visited back in September of 2011, especially La Vie and Aqua, than the Nordic Naturalism of noma and others.
This pairing brought us in a very different direction. These were both fortified beverages built around pure fruit juice. The first, poured for me, was Macvin du Jura from Henri Maire. Pure Chardonnay and Savagnin grape juice was supplemented with Marc du Jura, an eau de vie, to a bottled alcohol content of 16.5% and was kept for eight years in oak barrels. That poured for my son was a plum wine upon a ten year old sake base. In addition to the fruit, the pits were also fermented lending almond notes. This high acid, low alcohol, slightly sweet beverage was served ice cold. It had flavors that brought to mind mince meat pie. The wines were served to accompany the composed cheese course plates.
Beautifully plated, my course was based on Epoisses. It was served with chorizo cream, rabbit kidneys and juices from their home-grown potatoes. The epoisses is served as two balls, an encapsulation of creamy goodness.
The other plate was “bad” waffles with goose foie gras, goat cheese, hazelnut and beet ice cream. I have found composed cheese courses to be incredibly difficult to excel at. Jonnie Boer’s were quite good, but I couldn’t help but feel that with the epoisses especially, I would have preferred to have just eaten it by itself or with some of the restaurant’s fabulous bread. The goat cheese plate had a lot going on, but the goat cheese cut through it to leave its mark.
Through the vast majority of the meal we were each served different plates and wine pairings, but here we each received the same, starting with this lovely Moscato from Vignetti Massa that was poured into Burgundy glasses. It had a mild effervescence and tremendous character.
The Moscato was paired with a strange, but superb combination of roasted white chocolate, bergamot, pistachio and dill. The dill came in the form of an ice cream. The roasting of the white chocolate (on a Big Green Egg) gave it a more savory character and the citrus of the bergamot tied it all together. Non-intuitive, creative, intriguing and tasty with a variety of textures, this totally worked and was nicely augmented by the wine, though I would have preferred a bit more acid in the wine to balance its sweetness.
From the previous course on, we were on the same track. Pure yuzu juice was blended 50% with sake to create this tart, refreshing low alcohol (7%) beverage from Japan that was served with the next dessert. This had the acidity I had longed for in the Moscato and then some. I loved it.
This was one of my favorite desserts from this trip and a superb dessert from any point of view. Thai green curry, mango, black sesame and ginger beer were combined in a texturally varied plate that had different, but always delicious flavors and balance in every bite. This was cold and stayed cold as it was served on a hard frozen ice pack. It was one of the tastiest products of liquid nitrogen that I can recall. The Tsuurume Yuzu was the perfect accompaniment despite the mixing of ethnic Asian culinary metaphors.
I had earlier noticed three Dutch cheeses and now they were brought for us to sample. These were raw Jersey cow’s milk cheese, all of the same type, but of different ages.
There was a trio of Dutch cheeses from Remeker that came next. The first, called a prill was aged 2-4 months, the second, the Remeker Puur, was aged for 8-10 months and the third, Olde Remeker, aged for a year and a half. This Gouda style cheese had a rind of ghee that was totally and deliciously edible. The differences between the cheeses was clearly visible, but even the prill had nice sharpness to it. The Puur was sharper yet, denser and saltier and , of course, the sharpest was the Olde, which was dense with umami, but still supple. These were brilliant cheeses and much like trying different ages of culatello in Italy, the direct comparison was instructive, delicious and fun. I was happy that they were served in their natural state to be enjoyed without distraction.
Our final formal dessert arrived. Beet with licorice and cassis, once again, was not an intuitive combination. In the wrong proportions this could easily have been a disaster, but Jonnie Boer has the culinary balance of a world class gymnast on the beam and he artfully wove the textures and flavors together to make this work so very well.
It was quite clear that this is a restaurant that cares about what they do and how they do it. It was therefore entirely appropriate that we received more “kisses” in the name of Chef Boer’s wife Therese at the end of the meal. Unfortunately, Therese herself, usually a fixture in the front of the house, was ill and unable to be there that night. These were offered in her stead.
One dish had Therese’s Kisses as white cake with a dreamy sauce of apple and magnolia, while the other plate had them filled with passion fruit and salted caramel. These were a very nice touch.
Another very nice touch was the white chocolate and cepe mignardises. Once again, boer showed impeccable balance and skill.
The final plated item wasa whimsical egg filled with Advocaat, an egg-nog like creamy alcoholic beverage served with cinnamon, crunchies and pear at the bottom.
Given that we were in Holland, it was appropriate that this epic meal came to a conclusion with an edible joint. The fact that I didn’t have the munchies that night makes me think that it was a facsimile, but then I was feeling pretty good by then anyway.
Chef Jonnie has been at this for some time. He was one of the first in northern Europe to do high end cooking that was not strictly based upon the French model of luxury cooking. He found and utilized top notch Dutch product and incorporated the influences of Holland’s far-flung empire into his cooking. Both of these elements have since become commonplace. He was also one of the first to utilize fermentation (about 4 or 5 years) as a distinct tool in the kitchen to heighten the culinary aesthetic of a dish. Of course, none of these things would have any import if he didn’t have the vision and skill to put everything together in beautiful, imaginative and delicious fashion. He does. He most certainly does.