Located in an old farmhouse about fifteen minutes drive from Waregem, Belgium, the Michelin 3-starred Restaurant “Hof van Cleve” is the pride of Chef Peter Goossens. It literally sits amidst an expanse of fields with hardly any significant landmark of note nearby (a small signpost pointing down a side street is the only indication of the restaurant’s whereabouts from the main road).Named after the farmer who lived here nearly a century ago, it has definitely retained its simple and somewhat rustic country feel. The dining room is sparse, with simple wooden floorboards and minimally adorned walls and windows.Urged by a fellow culinary connoisseur to visit, I agreed to meet him for a mid-day repas. What started out as a lunch date turned into a leisurely four-hour pleasure cruise through a refined five-course meal and a comprehensive discussion of our respective dining anecdotes.The soignée at Hof van Cleve is pleasant, but muted. Perhaps it was because I was in company that I barely noticed the service. It was smart, seamless, and very relaxing. Besides the peppy hostess who heartily greeted us at the door, the rest of the staff’s presence was felt only in service – otherwise blending organically into the wings of the restaurant’s atmosphere.
We were first greeted with an amuse bouche presented in an oversized shotglass. At the bottom, swimming in a clear broth, were small crayfish, ubiquitous to Flemish/Dutch cuisine. Above this floated a thin layer of emerald-green parsley purée topped with a fluffy dose of cauliflower mousse. The whole party was crowned with a golden-yellow quail egg, poached only ever-so-slightly by the warmth of the elements below. Plunging the spoon through the egg yolk unleashed a creamy downpour… yum!
The amuse “proper” presented two items. First, a hollowed egg shell held a warm pumpkin soup with mussels topped with a foam, fresh scallion, and black sesame seeds. Since my foam collapsed (although my companion’s didn’t), I started with this. The thin, yet creamy soup was salty and lacked any evidence of pumpkin, tasting more of briny crustacean stock – perhaps influenced by the mussels. Although my friend thought it too peppery, I found it just right, especially appreciating the slight fragrance of black sesame. We both agreed, however, that the scallion was annoyingly stringy – or, as I described it, “flossing.”
The second amuse featured a cube of raw tuna, barely seared around the edges. This was accompanied by a small cinnamon-dusted quenelle of foie gras crème. The tuna was very fresh. I think this amuse succeeded most in its textural complexity. The meatiness of the fish was well complimented by the airy whipped foie and the soft crispness of the earthy-sweet beet garnish. Flavor-wise, I was most impressed by a small, almost easily overlooked, dot of prune reduction. Although only a dot, its flavor was potent enough to last through three or four bites. I also found the slight cinnamon dusting a unique addition to the foie.
Our first course featured three preparations of Zeeland oysters (5/0).
1). A strip of raw Zeeland oysters sat atop a thin layer of finely minced sweet and sour vinegar-marinated cucumbers and shallots. The oysters were topped with a translucent layer of briny sea-water gelatin. The presentation was as clear and simple as the flavors.
2). A small smørgs-like strip of oyster bread came topped with a slightly creamy crab salad and garnished with black trumpet mushrooms. Having some familiarity with the Scandinavian snack-size darlings, without knowing whether the chef intended it to be this way, I would have to say that Hof van Cleve achieved the “real McCoy” with this upmarket version. The oyster bread was limp and had a “refrigerated” staleness feel to it – cold and rather humidly-dry (the least attractive part of smørgs in my opinion). But the creamy crab on top was a great topping – unctuous, the combination of the sea-sweet crab meat with the earthiness of the mushrooms made a delightful savory duo. My only complaint was the oyster element was definitely missing – in both flavor and sight.
3. The Zeeland oyster with beef carpaccio, smoked eel, avocado crème fraiche, and salmon roe was the piece de resistance of this course. This was very much a silk-and-satin luxury type of course. From the sensually slippery fat oyster to the velvety and meaty beef and adding in the smoky eel and eye-poppingly briny roe, this was one sexy delight! I can’t sing its praises enough – creative, taste and texturally complex and highly stunning in presentation.
I can’t say that I liked all of the sub-courses the same – but together, they clearly demonstrated the chef’s ability to manipulate and take full advantage of the ingredients on hand.
With things looking (way) up, it was such a downer to have the chef disappointingly “drop the ball” on our second course. Both my lunch mate and I decided to eschew dessert in favor of the sea scallop course off of the larger eight-course menu.
This course featured two preparations of scallop. The feature presentation was a plump caramelized sea scallop topped with a tuft of garlicky sautee spinach. This was sided one side by by shallot-pureed potatoe with sea urchin and on the other by a little bundle of shaved chestnuts.
To our great shock, the scallop was overdone. Not enough to make us return the dish, but enough that my friend and I could sense each other’s deflated disappointment from across the table – without even looking at each other.
The other presentation was not as attractive, but much better, in my opinion, – both in taste and preparation. Like buried treasure, the sea scallop, sliced width-wise, lay beneath a rich and smoky eel crème topped with an eel emulsion. Perfectly tender and melt-in-the-mouth silky, the scallop felt like it had benefited from hours of being braised in oil. This was very good.
The next course presented us with bar de ligne, or fresh line-caught sea bass served on a bed of Mimolette salsify and topped with cured shaved ham. To this dish, the server poured a razorclam stock. The fish was very nice and tender, but otherwise, this dish’s main attractions were in the accompaniments. On one side, a razorclam shell held razorclam with razorclam mousse and a nutty-bitter rocket puree. On the other, a single “sweet and sour tomato” with a butter-Mimolette crust.
Like many of Goossens dishes thus far, texture was key in this course. While sharp earthiness of the Mimolette cheese worked well with the salted cured ham, the interplay between the ooey cheese with the slightly tender salsify and the chewiness of the ham only heightened the pleasure. As well, the shellfish-briny razorclam against the bitter-fresh twist of the rocket puree benefited from the slightly trying, yet tender, razorclam meat against the creamy mousse. Finally, the tart-sweet tomato, which was near-collapse from being oven-dried was rebutted by the wonderfully crispy saltiness of the Mimolette crust. I also appreciated that the entire dish wasn’t drowned in a downpour of broth. The server added enough just to wet the bottom of the dish – preserving the textures and distinct flavors of everything presented.
To end this festival of savories, our server presented us with wild hare accompanied by baby Shiitakes, sweated endives, lingonberries, and miniature dice-sized cubes of red beet and boudin noire. How lucky were we!! The party was completed with a nicely finished risotto, a dash of topinambour (sunchoke) puree and three foie gras croquettes.
Thankfully, my mom had always told me to chew my food well, as my first bite yielded a dangerously tooth-dislodging little pellet. While I appreciated learning that the hare was very fresh – and definitely wild, it was a rather unpleasant experience. Dropping the little lead weight onto a napkin, I proceeded to enjoy otherwise tasty and moist meat. Not to be outdone, the sides dazzled.
The yieldingly soft Shiitakes, velvety endives, dark-livery blood pudding, earthy-sweet beet and the slightly-popping and tart lingonberries all contributed to a harmonious taste and feel of earth and woods. I especially enjoyed enrobing the sweated endives around the meat – a little present for the tastebuds to “unwrap!” The rich risotto added a nice grainy, if not creamy counterpoint – along with the sunchoke puree, which all but dissolved happily into the mix.
If the hare course had an Achilles heel – it’d be in the foie gras croquettes. While my lunch mate enjoyed them – I found the inside too runny and slightly sweet. Although I could definitely tell there was foie involved, they tasted more like a runny tarot pudding – it even had a slightly purplish tint, if I remember correctly. I have to admit – it was the sweet that ruined it for me.
Satisfied, we sat back to steady ourselves for transitioning down to the world of sinful sweets. Though we had both opted out of dessert in lieu of the disappointing scallop, we were both presented with a palate cleanser. Our mouths were cooled with a shotglass containing a sweet vanilla gel topped with bright-tart Mojito granité. Perked up, I was ready to finish off the meal.
Coffee, chocolates and mignardises were, as always, a sheer delight. As noted in previous reviews of the Benelux region’s restaurants, these can be a dessert course in themselves – if ordered (they are usually not included in your meal).
Hof van Cleve’s selection of coffee sweets were unrivalled: a heady, yet summery bright, raspberry milkshake with “avocaat” (Dutch eggnog); a rather pedestrian “fried snowball” (beignet dusted with powdered sugar); and yummy, buttery and fresh–out–of–the–oven large speculaas (Dutch gingersnap) madeleines.
Accompanying these main-stage performances was a host of side-shows. These included a dark coffee macoron (surpisingly, I found this stale and hard), coconut marshmallow, cannelle, butter brioche with vanilla crème, and dark chocolate with passionfruit.
Also, with the coffee came a tray of chocolates: dark chocolate with orange ganache, milk chocolate with gingerbread (this was my favorite), white chocolate with walnuts, milk chocolate and nut nougat, and dark chocolate with black tea (a close second to the gingerbread). I couldn’t possibly eat anymore, so I requested that the hostess kindly box up an assortment – which she did – generously – leaving me with two-weeks worth of sweets with which to remember the even sweeter Hof van Cleve.
A three-star well merited and definitely worth visiting!
Hof van Cleve ****
Tel: +32 (0) 93835848