Note: A love for wine is inextricably linked with a love for food but in the vast majority of restaurant reviews it is woefully ignored. I suspect that this is either because the writer erroneously thinks that there is insufficient interest with a mainstream public, or that the writer himself does not care or does not know enough about wine to form an opinion on it.
For a winelover this can really be a source of frustration. I recall a 400-word review of a hyped wine bar in Antwerp that mentioned the word wine four times, and even then basically said nothing (1 – she loves wine so she starts a restaurant, 2 – there are 200 wines on the list, 3 – there are 15 wines by the glass, 4 – the wine is good). I am not a chef nor do I have anything resembling a culinary training so this is definitely not the place for intricate opinions on the kind of wood use to smoke a salmon or the best phase of the moon to dig up potatoes, but an honest reflection on memorable dining experiences where everything clicked; food, wine and and atmosphere. Past and future posts can now be found under Wine & Dine, added in the menu bar.
The culinary reputation the Netherlands has with its southern neighbours is sketchy at best. A first day in Rotterdam sadly confirmed this view when we were served what was supposedly Basque cuisine in a restaurant on which the less is said the better (the only two Basque wines on the menu where even sold out!). Being friends with wine merchants on Facebook does have its benefits, and so on a sunny Sunday evening we ended up in Restaurant De Jong.
The concept is simple. Two menus to choose from, a meat/fish set and a vegetable set. The website will leave you clueless as everything is decided in the morning when the kitchen staff takes stock of what the supplier has available and what they can build a menu around. Simplicity in construction but not in execution is the result. The same refreshing lack of fumbling complexity can be found in the wine list, which was a concise but inspired selection of natural wines. You cannot get around incrowd names like Ganevat, Julien Guillot or Craig Hawkins, but I was pleasantly surprised by several other names offered at reasonable prices.
Aymeric Beaufort hails from a reputed winemaking family in Ambonnay but set up shop near Nimes with Domaine l’Ocre Rouge. La Perle Noire, 100% Pinot Noir true to his roots, is the perfect accompaniment for the starters on both menus, Cod with radish and mushroom ravioli on the one side and a delicious combination of green asparagus, candied lemon and sunflower seed puree on the other.
The second course, which was the same for both menus, was the first highlight of the evening; lightly grilled asparagus with foam of Comté cheese. Asparagus is one of those things that needs to be sourced locally and not grown in a greenhouse if you want that unique earthy flavour. Just a week earlier we had our first taste in a hyped Brussels restaurant and it just was not right, weak and lacking in taste. This time it was different though, as the crunchy asparagus flavour was a great match to the texture of the Comté foam.
We had moved on to red at this point with Philippe Bornard’s Poulsard Point Barre 2013. Bornard may have become famous thanks to “L’amour est dans le Pré”, which is basically dating for farmers on national television, but he is first and foremost an excellent winemaker. I met him at the last two editions of Dive Bouteille but had until now only been able to try his white wines (which you should definitely seek out!), so I was curious to see what he did in red. Red berries in the nose, a bit reductive at first but showing nicely with a bit of time. Very direct in the mouth with good acidity but more towards juiciness instead of astringency. Earthy and mineral in the finish.
The main courses were terrific on their own, but whereas one was intensified by my wine choice, the other one was more enjoyable on its own (the slight disadvantage of not knowing what you will get beforehand). The match was spot on with the Baamburgs Big, which Google tells me is a unique species of pig cultivated near Utrecht, and different preparations of beetroot. The earthiness of the wine and the juiciness of the meat worked terrific together. The other main course, potato gnocchi with smoked peas served with crunchy potato skins was a bit more difficult. On itself the dish was delicious, but the peas did not work well with the wine.
What really blew our minds was the dessert, which was an unconventional but immensely interesting and tasteful combo of rhubarb, buckwheat ice cream, hangop (Dutch goat yogurt) and flakes of beer yeast. This is without a doubt the strangest combination I have encountered up until now but to my surprise it worked. The sourness of the hangop, the tartness of the rhubarb together with the texture of the beer yeast flakes and the freshness of the ice cream just seemed to click. A daring bet but definitely one that stayed with me!
We had a great evening. Service ran smooth and the atmosphere was nice given that we could still have an enjoyable conversation in a fully booked restaurant. What really stayed with me (aside from the terrific dessert which I could not shut up about) was the creativity and drive in the kitchen. Constructing a different menu every day is challenging. Keeping up the originality and coming up with new and surprising creations is definitely an accomplishment which convinces me to visit again on a next trip to Rotterdam!