Located in the middle of the hilly Belgian countryside, a winter excursion to Chef Kobe Desramaults’ In de Wulf is like finding an oasis in a frozen desert. It’s only accessible by icy, elevated one-lane roads, which leads to trouble when another driver decides to play chicken and you’re running late for your reservation.
Somehow, that’s part of its charm – In de Wulf radiates warmth. The staff is kind and jovial, the décor rustic and practical, and the hearth glows with burning embers. A small hotel accompanies the restaurant; it is so small that they had no space available for us to stay the night, even back when we made our reservation. That meant that we had to drive to our next destination, La Grenouillère, after dinner. With the journey in mind we passed on wine, opting instead for their unique juice pairing.
Our menu began, as many do these days, with a series of small-plate “snacks”. In this case, we received onion crisp, airy pigskin, cold carrot, crispy beet and roasted Brussels sprout. The preparation was all Northern – that is to say simply prepared using traditional technique – but eating these snacks evoked memories of el Bulli in how each snack conjured the pure essence of its main ingredient.Our first snack was like eating a potato chip and dip, but so much better.
The pigskin, though thin and light, was a dose of smoked decadence.
The carrot was crisp and cool, and the brightest orange.Both the beet and Brussels sprout reminded me of a wintry Thanksgiving dinner, which is my most favorite and prime representation of both elements. Ironically, it tasted like home.
We received another course of snacks, this time meatier and robust. Right or wrong, these plates resonated with my ideas of what Northern European, “new-naturalist” cuisine should be based on my experiences dining in and around Denmark, the Netherlands, and now Belgium. It should go without saying that these were delicious, but I said it anyway.
Burned bread with local cheese called Maroilles was recommended to be eaten in a single bite. The cheese was encapsulated within the bready exterior. Light and creamy cow’s milk cheese accented the toasted bread that I normally enjoy for breakfast, and it was a perfect interlude between the lighter veggie dishes and what would shortly arrive at our table.
Snails with garlic mayonnaise, perhaps an homage to northern France, but Belgian all the same. The snails were served in-shell, with a small wooden spear protruding playfully from the meat. It was oddly satisfying to remove the morsel of snail from its calcium home.
Shrimp heads, roasted to a crisp. These heads were tiny, and unlike the carabinero from Madrid, you are supposed to eat them whole. We popped the few that we had like popcorn, enjoying the musky, charred seafoam flavor. This was one of my favorite flavors from the night.
The final snack would accompany us through the rest of our meal. Another bread, this time sourdough, accompanied by local, lightly salted butter and rendered pig’s fat to spread. Unlike the toast, we enjoyed this thick, crusty, chewy bread in all its north Continental glory, savoring it slowly to save our appetites for the full menu. That’s the trouble with bread – when it’s this good, it flips dinner from an occasion of indulgence to an exercise in self-restraint.
Fortunately we emerged from snack time with appetites intact. Before eating more, however, it was time for some juice. To our surprise, each pairing would be a vinegar from one of In de Wulf’s many pickle jars, and our playfully devious sommelier had us guess what the base ingredient was before she told us. We failed most of her tests, nailing only one or two along the way.
This first pairing turned out to be rhubarb vinegar, but we cycled through various other veggies that it could have been before settling wrongly on leek.
The rhubarb juice paired well with its accompaniment, shrimp, peeled while alive, served raw on fresh green radish and wintercress. Ethical implications aside, this course was the epitome of green, with bright, verdant flavors and textures that helped me forget the wintry wonderland on the other side of the wall. This was another favorite flavor from the evening, meaning two preparations of the same shrimp made the top of the list.
The second plate saw more seafood, this time Black Sea squid with black radish and leek oil. This plate was warm and paradoxically brought me back to the season. In keeping with the naturalist style there was no butter in this preparation, but both my father and I noticed a buttery sweetness. This plate was an exercise in contrast both visual and visceral – the crisp radish noodles complemented the raw (?) squid, creating harmony on a plate.
Our second juice, which smelled like pickled cucumber, and tasted like pickled cucumber, had us thinking that it would be too obvious to guess regular old pickles. Maybe it was kohlrabi, maybe onion? Nope. Just pickled cucumbers, with an unusual cheesy finish that accented the following dish nicely.
That dish was a voluptuous oyster topped with a thin sheet of kohlrabi that was pickled in elderflower vinegar. I wasn’t able to enjoy this plate as much as the rest of the meal due to a plated oyster that I suspect is to blame for three days of nausea in Madrid, but my father will tell you that it was lovely.
Pan-roasted leeks with fermented leek juice (as a sauce, not a pairing) with quail egg yolks reestablished the flow. This plate was not conventionally delicious, a challenge from Chef Desramaults. The leeks were bitter and charred from their time in the pan, and the plate depended upon the acidity of the leek vinegar and richness of the yolk to keep it palatable. It was a success of balance, but it took my father and I a moment to arrive at that conclusion.
The third juice was unlike the first two. Fizzy and bright, we thought it could be an apple soda or perhaps carrot. Wrong on both counts! The sommelier revealed it to be elderflower.
As a reward for completing his previous challenge, Chef’s next course was lightly seared scallop with foraged seaweed, with a broth of coral and scallop. The scallops were meaty and sweet, just-kissed by the griddle, while the seaweed provided necessary acidic balance to the plate. The soda, also lightly sweet, complemented the scallop to make a cohesive course.
The meal continued with coastal flavors, this time North Sea crab in crab stock with Belgian potato puree. The shredded meat, glazed in crabhead caramel was slightly bitter, but the cheesy richness in the puree balanced the flavor and nestled the protein like a pillow.
Apparently impatient with our incompetent palates, the lovely sommelier gave away the fourth juice before we could even guess what it was. This fennel soda was not at all sweet, and more bitter than the vinegars we had enjoyed previously. It finished with a touch of sour and a lingering hit of pure fennel essence.
Accompanying this most unusual beverage, we received a plate of lightly poached cod with onion, chervil and mustard sauce. The cod was impeccably cooked, falling apart at the seams its tenderness complemented the slight chew of the also-poached onions and green mustard sauce. The end result was a remarkably soft and subtle dish that matched the fennel soda nicely.
Celery. The fifth juice (a true juice, not soda) hit me right in the nose – I don’t know if the sommelier intended to spoil our fun again because we didn’t give her time to explain. Add some tomato or just red color and you have an exact replica of V8.
Salt-crusted and slow-cooked celeriac root arrived quickly after the juice, a fitting companion for the contents of our stemware.
As much as I like celery and V8, celeriac root just doesn’t do it for me. Despite the time and care it took to prepare this dish (slow-cooked for 24 hours), this was perhaps my least favorite course of the night, being too heavy for a vegetable course and oddly timed.
One caveat is the cheese that they made with the powdered celeriac-skin shell was very sharp but also very creamy. A young cheese, only six months old, it was astonishingly complex and redeemed the celeriac.
Our sixth juice was a vibrant magenta colored beetroot. This was easy enough to guess considering the lack of vegetables which colors are so bright and playful. Its light sweetness reminded me of the beets my mother likes to make at home sometimes.
Another glass/plate duo, the next plate held smoked beet, boudin, crisped pork trotter and bleached sorrel leaves that had been grown in a nearby cave. Cream of onion accompanied the young beet, the boudin was creamy and delicious, and the crispy pork trotter was fatty and chewy underneath. A rich dish, the smoky-sweet beets and onion cream dialed down the fat and brought everything together nicely.
Mmmm… potato gnocchi. Gnocchi aren’t the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of rustic Belgian fare, but Chef Desramaults made an exquisite batch of glutinous potato pillows that had a texture much like, if you’ll pardon the geographical leap, a Chinese red bean pastry. With a wry sense of humor, he called this dish “Pas de Rouge” or “Absence of Red.”
The final companion to the beet juice was hay-stuffed duck, roasted over smoking hay and then presented as thin slices of breast meat on the plate.
This duck, which Chef aged in-house, was funkier than any duck I’ve had but adheres to In de Wulf’s new naturalist principles. This atmospheric dish lingers on the palate; both my father and I noticed a stronger duck flavor after we finished the plate than when we consumed it. Eating with our hands gave the experience a primal quality, as well.
A vegetable cocktail appears! Finally time to replenish our glasses, the sommelier brought out a deep-red, fresh-tomato colored juice. This was a tough one, clamato-esque but meatier; we could tell that whatever the base ingredient was fermented for a length of time in between the ideal for alcohol and for vinegar. Our guess: tomato with beef stock. We were way off: fermented carrot, fennel vinegar, and elderberry liqueur.
The accompanying course was probably meant to reawaken the palate before dessert, but it sent my brain into shock. The culprit was an old, 19th-century style cheese presented to us as “Poor People’s Cheese”, which overpowered the roast and raw cauliflower with which it was served. I wish I could have enjoyed it, but some lingering food poisoning from our time in Madrid weakened my constitution such that the flavors were too strong, and I could not finish it.
More cheese followed, this time lighter and more manageable. An Old Grey from Lille arrived with a puree of roasted prune on the side. Though it smelled strongly, it was far milder than we had assumed it would be, especially compared with the Poor People’s Cheese from the course before.
We didn’t have to guess for our eighth juice, and it’s a good thing because we likely would have embarrassed ourselves yet again. Seabuckthorn is an ingredient that I’ve not found outside of Northern Europe, but I love its honey-sweet flavor and brilliant orange color.
And now, dessert. The first was homemade yoghurt with crispy carrot and seabuckthorn. A brilliant study in white and orange, tangy and sweet. I wrote in my notes that it demonstrated ingenuity and “fucking excellent yoghurt”, and it left quite an impression. This is what pastry is meant to be – a staggeringly delicious experiment on the concept of vegetables, fruits, dairy, and their roles on a plate.
The second dessert, like the duck that preceded it by four dishes, featured hay as only new naturalists can feature it. Smoldering hay in a pot accompanied hay ice cream, hay syrup, and speculoos, a typical Flemish cookie similar to ginger bread. This plate was an experiment in an unusual flavor, and while it played with traditional notions of “what is food”, the results were less impressive than the previous dessert.
The ninth and final juice, another guessing game. Like some of the earlier juices from the meal, this one is carbonated. Slightly grapey, but with savory notes. Sadly in my post-meal haze I neglected to record what the main component was.
This juice, which complemented the gingery speculoos above, also worked with the pear and elderberry plate that followed its arrival. On this plate we found pear poached in elderberry liqueur, the pear nestled atop a spot of elderberry ice cream while a pear chip laid atop the poached slice delivering textural contrast to complement the subtle interplay of the ingredients’ flavors.
That would be our final course before we rushed off for La Grenouillere, but they wouldn’t let us go without first enjoying some American-style coffee and dessert snacks for the road. In no particular order, we enjoyed:
Malt cake – hearty and delicious
Apple-beet jelly patty – nice flavors, very sweet
White-chocolate parsnip strip – unique flavor and texture pairing – excellent
Elderberry tartlet – very nice, creamy and jammy
Chocolate-covered hazelnut – expected nut, got essential oil. Yum.
Salted caramel chocolate – reminiscent of Jeni’s salted caramel ice cream (pick some up if you’ve not had it!)
Sugared donuts – hot, fresh, soft, exquisite
Despite some lapses, our excursion to In de Wulf was well worth the treacherous roads and brutal cold. We enjoyed an exceptional study in balance and pristine rusticity at the hands of Chef Desramaults. It would be worth another trip in the summer to see what he can come up with from the bounty of the summer countryside, or even another trip in the winter to experience what else he can dream up in his wintry wonderland.
All photos by John M. Sconzo, M.D. See these and more on the Flick’r Photoset.