in de wulf
I’ve had my sights on dining at In de Wulf for a while. So when SB suggested we take a day trip to Belgium to lunch there, I leapt at the chance. Eager as I was, I wasn’t quite prepared for the journey that snatched me out of bed in the wee hours to board an early Eurostar to Lille, then a car (with a far too chatty cabbie at the wheel) for a 45 minute ride to sleepy Heuvelland, perched on the French-Belgian border.
Kobe Desramaults grew up and started his culinary career here, but left in his teens to work in kitchens across Europe (including a two year stint in Oud Sluis). In de Wulf was actually the family home which his parents converted into a brasserie with rooms, and since Desramaults returned to take over the reins, the rising young chef has wowed the critics with his progressive Flemish cuisine and passionate support of produce gleaned from the surrounding area. In 2005 he secured his first Michelin star and became the youngest chef in Belgium to ever do so.
Weary, disoriented and starved, we were thankful to be ushered straight into the cosy lounge area upon arrival. We sunk into the armchairs beside the crackling fire and sipped a refreshing seasonal juice of sweet yet earthy ruby-red apple and beetroot as nibbles began to trickle out of the adjacent kitchen.
Whirls of Home-dried Bacon, salty and flavourful from six months of aging, teased and awakened our palates.
Moreish nutty orbs of Cereal and Herbs followed, and were promptly wolfed down in seconds.
Intriguing black mushroom powder-dusted Burnt Bread pebbles left an impression with an ever-so-slightly bitter crisp thin shell that contrasted nicely with the light creamy whipped Mariolles (a French cow’s milk cheese) within.
Bright red Beetroot cones were another successful play on texture – both our eyes lit up in unison at the delightful crunch of the first bite. Taste-wise it was also good, as one would expect of the trusty combo of beetroot and yoghurt.
I had high hopes for the pretty flower adorned chicken skin fragments but sadly they didn’t live up to expectations. The skin was too oily, tasting more like crackling than crisp poultry skin, and the carrot spread lacked flavour.
Opening bites over, we were led into the main restaurant – a homey space, brightly-lit thanks to a lovely spot of winter sun.
Our well-appointed table afforded us both a view of the rustic dining room and the expansive al fresco eating area outside. Looking out onto the lush greenery I felt an overwhelming sense of calm – it may have taken a bit of effort to get to Kobe’s hideaway, but the rural locale certainly added to its charm.
Back to the food – parsnip Crisps would have been ordinary had it not been for the parsnip dip and generous dusting of mustard powder.
Whelks were fresh, sweet, and delicious eaten with a dab of whelk-infused mayonnaise that whispered of the sea. I wasn’t as sure about the parsley juice chasers, definitely a superfluous addition in my opinion.
The first real star of the meal for me was the Mackerel Escabeche. A seriously fresh slice of gleaming fish, softly pickled with a well-judged bite from the sharp sea buckthorn.
The Crab, Swiss Chard and Nasturtium dish resting on a chive oil-slicked buttermilk sauce was also quite lovely with its gentle flavours.
Another winner was this humble looking pile of Ox-heart Cabbage that concealed velvety lightly-poached Zeeland oysters. The mouthful of sweet greens, briny oyster, fresh horseradish and whey sauce was rather special.
Equally delicious was the Scallop and Purslane (both foraged from the same shoreline) served with a warm verveine-infused broth made with the frilly membrane and corals. The scallop liquor was pure but intense and complemented the sweet silky raw shellfish, faintly-salty sea greens and crunchy raw walnuts.
We agreed that the Sea Bass, Seabeet and Turnips was the one dull note of the mains. Granted the fish was well executed, with its crisped brown skin and moist flaky flesh, but the soggy tasteless turnip ribbons was a poor match.
Our disappointment with the fish course didn’t last long however, as soon after we were presented with our next plates, along with a magnificent ash and salt-crusted celeriac. The server (one of the chefs) cut the shell open at the table to reveal the steaming root vegetable within.
Much to our dismay he whisked it back to the kitchen, leaving us with our plated thin slivers of celeriac enhanced with cream cheese and sorrel. Nice but a bit anti-climatic after the excitement of seeing the freshly-baked celeriac in all its glory.
Wild Mushrooms and Cereals was polite and pleasant, but not earth-shattering. That said, I did enjoy the textural contrast of the rough grains against the tender mushrooms.
Much like the celeriac course, the next dish made quite an entrance with a majestic shrivelled Cured Ox Heart, brought out to be shaved as seasoning.
The ox heart shavings gave a hit of salt to the blanched kale (served with a strong yeasty sauce) but wasn’t particularly distinctive in taste.
I enjoyed the final main, which boasted succulent Wild Hare Fillet, a tasty bit of sausage made from the hare legs, jerusalem artichoke purée, tender onions and a rich jus.
Desserts kicked off with a light and refreshing minimalist rendition of cheesecake – small juicy Kemmel pear spheres in a pool of amber elderberry juice served with a singular blob of gooey cheesecake.
Next was an unusual dessert featuring a large sponge-like hunk of creamy frozen beer parfait, served with walnuts, buttermilk reduction and an artistic squiggle of a biscuit.
The last was a homage to the humble apple, with a composition of apple tuile, apple snow and an airy mousse subtly fragranced with rosemary.
We adjourned back to the lounge area for tea and an endless array of additional sweet treats. Malty Beignets, although a touch greasy, were soft, warm and inviting.
Rich buttery Salted Caramel in dainty chocolate cups were delectable, as were the hard caramel drops enrobed in chocolate that cracked against the teeth and oozed a praline-like filling.
Pâtes de Fruits and Chocolate-coated Marshmallows were also both excellent but by that point I really was too full (not to mention sleepy) to fully appreciate them.
In de Wulf may not have been spectacular from start to finish, but there were a number of real standouts and the almost magical setting did make the trip worthwhile. The food wasn’t quite as ground-breaking as I had envisaged or hoped, though there was enough innovation to keep things interesting, and I quite liked that the dishes didn’t try too hard and had an ease about them that resonated with the tranquil Flanders countryside.