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[Belgium] In De Wulf -- December 2012 report

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Marvelous, marvelous restaurant. My best meal last year and one of my best ever. The full story is below, and the pictures are here http://pocketfork.com/benelux/in-de-w...

There’s no such thing as trying to eat. One eats or one doesn’t. And half-hearted promises are as loathsome as air kisses and limp handshakes. So when I told a guy named Kobe that I would come to a town called Dranouter, I meant it. Now I’m In De Wulf.

This place is in de middle of nowhere, so we’ll stay the night in the guest rooms upstairs. But this afternoon, ambassadors from France, Spain, China and the US convene in the lounge — a UN of restaurant junkies. Friends old and new have just eaten lunch, while my buddy Jose and I await dinner. 3,600 miles from my house, I am at home.

Tea time turns to tee time, and we are back by the fireplace. I feel like a Lay-Z-Boy in this lounge chair, where my poor posture is rewarded with a wealth of snacks and a flute of champagne. Some are crispy, some are pickled, many are both. Call me plebeian, but the pork rinds (topped with gossamer lardo slivers) and nachos (well, beet chips with yogurt) please me most.

We move through the kitchen to our table to find a plate of rocks. Among them hide crispy shells of burned bread, stuffed with a pungent local cheese called Maroilles. Snails from the French-Belgian border town of Comines have traveled 25 minutes here to meet a garlicky aioli, possibly longer if they’ve walked. With crispy shrimp heads we do a line of vinegar powder.

Up to this point in the meal, our fingers have been our only forks.

The water is only 40km from Dranouter. So it’s no surprise when mackerel, seppia and oysters wash up on our plates like successive waves on the shore. The latter, wedded with whey and sauerkraut, show how just three ingredients can reveal a thousand nuances. Briny, tangy, tart, crispy, creamy, and rich — it is all of the above. But I’ve squandered it, greedily, in one bite.

Ingredients at In De Wulf repeatedly take the stage one by one, and each has time to speak. Roasted leeks get dressed in the mirror, with fermented leek juice and an oil made verdant with their tops. A stagiaire comes by with a couple of sunchokes that the poor bastard has been basting with butter for 5 hours. The inside is like custard; the outside, candy.

Kobe turns up table-side and breaks open a dinosaur egg-sized orb of salt to reveal a knobby celery root baked inside. It’s served in a warm, silky foam of the same, and a slab of celeriac “cheese” on the side whose production sounds so labor-intensive that I zone out during the tutorial.

A masterful wine pairing has me feeling rather toasted toasty. It’s mostly vin naturel: oxidative funk when it is called for, elegance and brightness when it’s not. Far from the “drinking vinegars” of which a chef friend of mine disparagingly tried to warn me earlier this week. Vive la différence of opinion.

Kobe Desramaults and I crossed paths twice in 2011, first in Belgium and later in New York. For two years I have thought about these flavors. Now, of tonight’s proteins and pastries I could opine at length. But doing so would undermine what I believe to Kobe’s greatest skills: those of an editor.

Tonight’s was a meal with no commas. Staccato sixteenth notes that form a song. One that is personal. Persistent. Powerful. Its verses are clear. But its melody changes as soon as you’ve memorized it. It is one that makes you listen. Kobe is one to watch.

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  1. Very good review and an accurate depiction of what to expect.
    The place is indeed in the middle of nowhere - for non-car access the train to Lille (across the border in France - around Dranouter, Lille is called Rijsel but this confuses nobody) and then a taxi is probably the best way to get there.
    Staff members, including the boss, are charming, multi-lingual, fiendishly well informed about the food and filled with pride about what they produce.
    Prices depend on the number of courses you take - given the goodness and balanced nobility of the dishes (and that you will not often pass this way) don't restrict yourself.