Writing this column invariably follows a well-tried formula.
I return from the restaurant and put everything important just to the right of my laptop. The bill goes in the folder for my accountants. The notebook that I have written in stays in the wallet that also sits to the right of my laptop. And just next to these I place the important pieces of paper that I have salvaged from my visit: the menu definitely; the wine list perhaps; as well as any other relevant pieces of paper.
The important criterion is how quickly I refer to these and begin my article. As I grow older I have come to appreciate that first impressions of any restaurant remain the strongest and I believe, although I cannot prove this, that my best articles are those that I have written, and finished, within 24 hours of my visit. For some reason, the menus from our trip to In De Wulf in Belgium (described lovingly in this entry by the runner-up in our 2014 restaurant writing competition) have stayed by the side of my laptop for almost a week so far, almost defying me to sharpen my thoughts.
These pieces of paper include three copies of the dinner menu, clearly typed in black ink on brown paper, that list the 16 different courses we ate – plus the eight fruit-based juices which we did not touch nor the eight different ‘natural’ wines which we managed to steer clear of as well thanks to our extremely generous Belgian friends with whom we dined and who brought four bottles from their Brussels cellar ‘for safety’s sake’. Alongside these is a colourful map showing In De Wulf’s current location in the surrounding Flemish countryside.
These menus have seemed to taunt me to collect my thoughts on our evening. In one particular aspect this is irrelevant, because after 12 years at the stove, Kobe Desramaults will close this restaurant at the end of this year and, after a lifetime growing up in the building that was once the family’s farmhouse, he will focus instead on his two brasseries in nearby Ghent: De Vitrine and De Superette. As In De Wulf is full until then, my opinion seems pretty irrelevant to its future.
However, it was an expensive meal. At €170 per person for the 16-course tasting menu, with €25 corkage for each of the four bottles of wine that were brought (and opened!), my bill for four came to €780 euros, which at today’s feeble exchange rate was a debit in my account of £716.49. On top of that was our return Eurostar to Lille, a €120 taxi fare and €200 for our hotel nearby. At this price, I feel that I was entitled to an opinion.
So let me start with the positive. The largely wooden building looked charming when we first arrived there just as dusk was falling at about 6.30 pm, and even more so when we walked in to eat shortly after eight. The use of wood, of the open fires, of the windows through which we could see the chefs hard at work, the comfortable furniture, the large wooden service table adorned with a cow’s skull, and the lights all added to the restaurant’s charm and welcome.
To this must be added the empty table we were shown to, simply adorned with water glasses, napkins and the menus. Then, after a dish described simply as ‘the egg’, came something that I believe all restaurants offering a tasting menu should furnish as well: a wooden block capable of holding six forks and spoons (above right) that minimised the need for excessive interference from the waiting staff over the next few courses. Salt also was provided, a rarity in a restaurant of this calibre.
The service ethos is fantastic. Although there are certain members of staff deputed specifically to the dining room, including a charming red-bearded Swede and a charmingly friendly lass from Birmingham whose partner is the Australian sous chef, most of the food is brought to the tables by either chefs or young men and women wearing chef’s uniforms whose accents range from American to Greek or somewhere far more local. They are all very warm, extremely knowledgeable, and very, very keen to please.
But perhaps it was because the chef at our son Will’s restaurants, Portland and Clipstone, where we have eaten now so often, is Merlin Lebron-Johnson, who spent five years at In De Wulf and finally left, on very good terms, as their sous chef, that I left somewhat unconvinced by the food. Perhaps it was because I had very recently enjoyed two tasting menus in Barcelona – at Tickets and Disfrutar (to be reviewed next Saturday) – that appealed to me more and made me feel slightly bored by the format. Or perhaps things have just become a little tired at In De Wulf after Desramaults has decided to call it a day (the building is still available, according to the waiting staff, and it is hoped will be sold as a restaurant).
Of the numerous dishes we had, the fish dishes were undoubtedly the best. A mussel and potato combination among the starters was followed by three excellent pairings: scallops with helianti (one of the world’s rediscovered vegetables), wet walnuts and caviar; langoustine with nasturtium leaves and sea purslane; and cuttlefish with Swiss chard. A dish of pieces of North Sea lobster was equally good.
But it was the final two meat dishes that were something of a disappointment. The wild duck was presented to us whole complete with an elaborate description of how it had been prepared and then cooked with sloe berries before being served. We were then informed, and shown, a further bird – this time a pigeon – that was sliced and served on to two identical plates that were put on to our table for us to help ourselves to (as shown above). This was a nice way of serving but wild duck followed by pigeon did seem one bird too many.
As to the wine, our friends outdid themselves. Having promised us a bottle of Rousseau 1989 Clos de Bèze, this Purple Pager told us he had been put off by Jancis’s rather begrudging 2007 tasting note on it and opened the boot of his car to reveal two red substitutes, a 1989 Clos de Vougeot from Leroy and a 2000 Clos de la Roche from Hubert Lignier, and two whites: a 1983 Château Haut-Brion Blanc and a stunning 1970 Jurançon Sec from Clos Joliette that was the star of the evening.
In De Wulf Wulvestraat 1, 8950 Heuvelland, Belgium