Oud Sluis is just about as hard to get to as it is good, no – excellent. Located just a few kilometers from the Belgian border, the tiny town of Sluis is a touristy outpost in the southern coastal “nether lands” of the Dutch province of Zeeland. Popular with locals as a sea-side resort town, from my short stay, I found it rather uninteresting. Thankfully, it has a fabulous two-starred (Michelin Guide Rouge) restaurant that has become one of my most spectacular “finds” on my gastronomic travels through Europe. It’s one of those places you wished could be kept a secret. Chef Sergio Herman, at 35, is one of the youngest at his level and an immense talent. He has a youthful independent spirit about him that is refreshingly un-obnoxious; and his humility is enthrallingly charming.
From the outside, the restaurant is uninteresting, if not a bit awkwardly situated. It sits in a small town square (Beestenmarkt – “meat market”) in an unattractive short strip-mall-like row of small shops. Not unlike many of the greatest restaurants I’ve experienced in Europe, Oud Sluis is definitely not to be judged by this “cover.” Inside, diners are treated to a surprisingly sleek, yet intimately comfortable space. The dining room is small, but surprisingly light and airy.
The best part of Oud Sluis (besides the food), is its top-notch service. Its très chic atmosphere came without the dreaded très chic attitude. Like their boss, the wait staff was charming, personable and entirely at the diner’s disposal. Gentlemen and gentlewomen, all of them!
Before even looking at the menu, I was presented with a large shot glass of tuna tartare with shoyu emulsion. The tuna tartare sat marinating in a unctuous olive oil and shoyu mix. Topped with a shoyu foam, I also detected a faint hint of fragrant sesame oil hiding in the back of each bite.
Having barely glanced at the menu, a paper cone stood up in a box of sesame seeds contained foie gras “dip’n dots.” Literally little round pellets of freeze-dried foie, these tiny suckers did a terribly nice job of awakening my palate. The initial shock of cold melted in my mouth into a luscious pool of foie.
As if these first two treats weren’t enough, next came a tray with four more amuses: a cup holding a tangy-sweet cucumber salad with little Dutch crayfish and a small dab of crème fraiche; foie gras crème with Granny Smith pureé and champagne granite (this was excellent); a tiny brioche disc holding tomato paste, mozzarella, and Niçoise olive; and a refreshingly briny sardine in a crispy sandwich with greek yogurt. The foie crème was especially noteworthy for the bright champagne accompaniment. As well, the mozzarella was delightfully tender.
I finally got around to ordering. I decided on the 3-course 45€ Alliance lunch menu, which looked both exciting and affordable.The starter was too beautiful to eat (but that didn’t stop me from scraping my plate clean): sea scallops two-ways. Carpaccio of scallops lay atop novel “pumpkin and chicory cannolis,” These cannoli’s were little bundles of chicory batons wrapped in a thin blanket of pumpkin and enrobed in a light olive oil. The carpaccio was also accompanied by a subtle pumpkin cream sauce. This presentation highlighted Herman’s extraordinary innovation with textural and flavor – the sashimi-tender scallop meat against the slightly crunchy chicory and surprisingly velvety pumpkin left me speechless. As well, the extremely fresh and hardly “cooked” produce allowed the natural flavors of the earth (pumpkin and chicory) and sea (scallops) to shine.
The second scallop presentation, on the same plate, featured gorgeously grilled scallops accompanied by hazelnut vinegar oil. All of this sat under a “tent” of tissue-thin pumpkin parchment. This was also another textural and flavor masterpiece. The hazelnut vinegar oil provided a unique nutty-tang that heightened the slight smokiness of the fire-grilled scallops. As well, the pumpkin parchment provided a welcomed puff-pastry-like flaky element to the meaty, yet tender scallops and nut-studded oil.
My main course proved equally stunning – featuring two generous filets of red mullet “Mediterranean style.” Each lay on a thin parsley sauce and artichoke paste, which had unfortunately stiffened and stuck on the plate (perhaps from sitting under a heating lamp), but was easily reinvigorated by mixing it with an escabeche emulsion. Each filet was generously topped with a mélange of tomatoes, Nicoise olives, and asparagus shavings commingling with a bright and crispy fennel slaw.
Herman’s creativity and innovation was reinforced in my first dessert – chocolate and black olive cake with Granny Smith granité. This dense little “brownie” was extraordinarily moist, no doubt a result of incorporating bits of minced black olive, which also contributed to the cake’s seductively dark bitterness. This was topped with refreshingly tart Granny smith granité. I suspect that the uninteresting milk chocolate sauce and two slivers of (canned) black olives on the side functioned more as a visual “ingredients garnish” to show diner the elements of the centerpiece than as a culinary stand-alone.
As well, this dessert presented a spoon holding a Granny Smith gelatin ball which cleverly encased a round of Granny Smith sorbet. This novel treat was as interesting as it was good. At first, my mouth was met with the soft suppleness of the outer gelatin layer, which soon gave way to an ice-hard ball of the tart sorbet. Again, like most of Herman’s cooking – gorgeous to look at, and a delight to eat.
The second dessert, a citrus in tuile with yuzu ice cream and lemon chibouste, was probably the low-point of the meal. But, that’s not saying much after a non-stop parade of solid winners. Be assure, this dessert was great, – but less innovative as its predecessors.
A cylindrical tuile standing on one end and filled with creamy custard featured a section of each, grapefruit and orange peeking out the top. I guess I’m just not a fan of crispy treats paired with juicy elements that threaten to “soggyfy” the former. Having this aversion, this was a bit tricky to eat. But, with a quick crack, and a few hacks, I managed to get a bit of every element in each bite without soaking the crunchy shards of buttery tuile.
The better half of this course was the yuzu ice cream, which was refreshingly different from the European citruses and the lemon chibouste, which was silky and tart. Both were definitely a great end to a great meal.
Petit fours (only if you order coffee) were extraordinary – both in quantity and quality. A tray of eight little sweets – mostly chocolate, with one extraordinary lime marshmallow proved as pretty as it was good. A hearty shotglass of tangy yogurt with fruit and crunchy granola and the accompying paper-thin “fruit roll-up” strips of mango and strawberry were another dessert in themselves!
I was depressed to have to leave Oud Sluis. I know if I’m ever near (that is, in the Benelux area), I will have to return. Oud Sluis has been my little jewel of a find on this trip… I hope it becomes yours soon too!
N.B.: For those who care (or disdain), smoking is allowed.
N.B.2: Serendipitously, while writing this review on the train, a woman next to me opened a Dutch newspaper to a full-page article announcing the release of the 2006 Benelux Michelin Guide Rouge in which Chef Herman became the third Dutch chef to earn three stars. I had already rated this restaurant, and my opinion was not affected by this coincidence. (27.11.2005).
Oud Sluis *****
– 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.