(one visit, November 2005)
“You must go to De Librije,” said almost every server and wait staff member that I have had the pleasure (or not) of meeting in the various Dutch restaurants I’ve visited. For those not in the industry (ie. the “common folk”), the mere mention of “De Librije” (if pronounced recognizably), produced gasps of inspiration and wistful sighs of pleasure… So I went to “The Library” to find out whether Chef Jonnie Boer truly deserved to be the second Dutch chef to be awarded three stars by the Guide Michelin.
Inside this beautifully preserved 15th century monastery in the northern town of Zwolle, is a striking black-white-black plush “jewel box” of a restaurant. In fact, sitting in the dining room, one would hardly know that they were sitting in a five-hundred year old monastery library. High-backed black velvet chairs and booths with a white “L” (comme “Laverne”) monogram stitching, starched white linens, shabby-chic glass chandelier, and an über-modern gold relief art work above the mantelpiece sends an oddly occultish trendy vibe.
Chef Boer greets every table and presents the menu. He is Goliath. Tall and large, he is definitely an auteur chef – having full command over both the front and back of the restaurant. He is a bit gruff and relishes being at the limelight, but very amiable.
The restaurant boasts a number of menus in addition to their a la carte: a 3-course “Lunch” (65€),* 5-course vegetarian (65€), 4-course “Tradition Qualite,” (85€), 6-course “Menu De Librije” (115€) and a “10-Course Mini” for (130€). As I was in for lunch, I was only curious enough to consider either the “Lunch” or the “Tradition Qualite.” The latter offered foie gras and steak tartare; cod; wild duck; and dessert. The former offered Dover Sole; hare; and choice of cheese, dessert or coffee and pastries, which I though sounded more promising. Thankfully, my lunch companion agreed.
As noted in my review of de Bokkedoorns, the Dutch are very, very generous with the pre-meal amuses. De De Librije has been the gutsiestthus far, both in quantity and creativity. Here’s what came out:
1. Raw quail egg dusted with dry white sausage shavings. The “white sausage” was suspect, I’m not sure they got the translation correct – it looked and tasted a lot more like deep fried mini grains. They were crunchy.
2. Brown beans puree with “picklelilly” (explained as pickled cauliflower, pickles, and curry). This tasted literally like puree meatloaf and baked beans… very ketchupy, with a mild hint of curry.
3. Duck liver “lollipop.” This was your average ball of duck pate in an not-so-average presentation. It had been mixed with lavosh (the bread) and covered with a red beet glaze. It literally looked like a glazed cherry. The beet glaze was a bit sweet, but not candy-sweet, more of its natural earthy sweetness. The liver was cold and very nice.
4. Relish in a peanut tuile. Exactly what it sounds like – pickle relish in a tiny peanut tuile. Unexciting, and too ephemeral to savor… (ie. very small).
5. Mushroom paste in an egg shell with Oud cheese tuile. High merits on presentation, low on accessibility. One had to break through the cheese, mix it in and then scoop out the bits with the mushroom paste. You don’t see the mushroom paste inside at first, so it takes a little thinking, and cheese crumbs on the table, to figure out how to eat it… like the relish and peanut tuile – there was too little of this amuse to properly enjoy – especially given the “trial and error” procedure.
Before the first course, the amuse guele proper: Mackeral in spaghetti with squid and roasted red pepper ice cream. The mackerel had been rolled in spaghetti – “tree-trunk style.” (A topic of conversation between my lunch mate and I later on in the meal). The mackerel terrine was served unpleasantly cold. This was compounded by the roasted pepper ice cream, which I thought was over-powering – even against the heavy mackerel (my friend did like it) . Over all, interesting, but I can’t say I was impressed.
Mackerel and roasted pepper ice cream Dover Sole
First course was Dover Sole. The presentation was astounding. Half of the fish had been “de-boned,” leaving a ray of bones spraying out of the remaining filet. (Curiosity about the possible usage of the other half of the fish also became a topic of conversation). It was accompanied with a puree of boerenkool (curly kale – a local autumnal favorite – usually mashed up), a dollop of potatoe puree, two tiny cockles and a micro-clam shell holding a mini clam with a small piece of sautéed leek. The sole had been dusted with the same mysterious grainy “dried white sausage shavings.” Although I had asked the server for some sea salt, I didn’t need it. The fish was very delicate, yet firm – expertly prepared. The accompaniments were very nice, but scarce.
Main course featured two preparations of hare. . First, a filet of hare sat with grilled chicory, a salty celeriac puree in a pillowy pellet form, and a “mille feuille” stack of apple and beet in which the hollowed core contained oozingly warm Munster cheese. The hare was sauced at the table with its own blood sauce. Second, this course featured a puff pastry. When cut open, it revealed a tiny bit of stewed hare inside.
The filet was very tender and still a little red; it had a pleasantly slight hint of gaminess. I found the sauce to be the centerpiece. Dark and rich, the livery sauce had been spiked with a tinge of cinnamon and spices… if you’re not a fan of blood sausages/products, you would not have liked this dish. As well, sweet, crunchy, oozy, and the intense mushroominess of the Munster – the mille feuille was an extraordinary gastronomic challenge.
The stewed hare was perfectly done – not mealy or tough, the strands of meat were melt-in-your-mouth delicate – with a sweet(er) tangy sauce… reminiscent of the brown bean puree amuse. Combined with a few flecks of the buttery pastry, this was the ultimate comfort food. All very hearty, yet manageably light.
The big decision came after this course: dessert, cheese or coffee. Tempted by the cheese cart, I resisted and decide to see what the pastry chef would offer. My friend chanced the “coffee and pastry.” Behind door number 1 came an assortment of desserts:
1. Banana with rum with coconut cream. This was mashed banana and rum inside a vanilla and chocolate mousse casing. Good, but not great … but then, I’ve never been a banana fan.
2. Banana-curry ice cream. You know I love ice cream… but not this one… it tasted as strange as it sounds.
3. Pineapple marshmallow with coconut ice cream and a coffee tuile. I liked this very much. An airy-light block of pineapple marshmallow hid a dollop of ice-cold coconut ice cream… wonderful.
4. Pear and walnut tart.
5. Lemon mousse. The mousse had been piped into a gelatin roll – so it looked like a small long pellet, or actually, a cigarette.
Pineapple marshmallow; Coffee & Pastries
Door number 2, my friend’s coffee and pastries choice, produced 10 white chocolate truffles, passionfruit cake (ball), small pastry bun, a citrus pastry, and an “after 8” mint. The truffles weren’t very good – they were filled with “flavored” white chocolate ganache – 2 of each of 5 different flavors: coffee-cardamom (my favorite), kaffir-lime (runner-up), sherry, baileys (unintelligible), and orange (also unintelligible). The rest I didn’t taste, so I can’t comment. I can only say that my friend raved about the “after 8” mint.
My meal wasn’t perfect, but I was full and pleased. I think Chef Boer hit the first two courses solidly in the “bulls-eye.” The fringe items – amuses, dessert and pastries were hits-and-misses – and unfortunately, more misses… Some of the combinations, like the pickle and peanuts, banana-curry ice cream, and brown beans and “picklelilly” were just a tad bit outlandish for my palate. They seemed more like food experiments that a rebellious adolescent might concoct as a culinary “dare” – a description which accorded with my observations of the ostentatious chef.
Service was amiable, if not a bit aloof. I noticed some of the bigger parties getting serviced faster and more efficiently. Water had to be asked for (numerous times). As well, the presentation of the dishes were little rushed, and not well coordinated. For instance, my fish (as you can see) came with the fish closer to me, whereas my friend’s plate was presented the other way. As well, I had to take a picture of my friend’s hare because the server had splashed the sauce haphazardly all over my plate, (she was standing on the my friend’s side of the table – I don’t know why she didn’t come around to my side) making the course a rather unattractive pool of black sauce. I know these are nit-picky details, but I would have expected more grace and care at a 3-star establishment. In my opinion, De Librije is a two-star at best…
*N.B. Although De Librije is member of the Alliance, they defy the association’s stated rule that all of their restaurants offer a 45€ 3-course lunch menu and a 65€ 4-course menu.De Librije ****
8011 TW Zwolle
– Miserable: What else do you want to know?
* Okay: Go there if you want edible food, you won’t die, but disappointment is possible.
** Decent: Average food. Nothing to write home about.
*** Good: Memorable. Quality food and service. Would measure up to most standards…
**** Outstanding: Charmed. A jewel of a find and hard to beat.
***** Excellent: Flawless. Seamless, ie. must be very finicky to find something wrong…
****** Speechless: ‘nough said.