A Dutch Chef Makes His Mark

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SLUIS, The Netherlands -- When culinary adventurers set off on a voyage, the Netherlands used to be among the least appetizing possible destinations.

Almost all Dutch meals consisted of soggy fish, overcooked meat, boiled potatoes and bland cheese, often washed down with a glass of milk, or at best, cheap wine. A dour Protestant tradition seemed responsible. Only a few miles away, Dutch-speaking Belgians, Roman Catholics, reveled in restaurants featuring a wonderful mixture of French style and German-size portions.

But over the past few years, interest in fine food has soared in the Netherlands and the country no longer is a gastronomic desert. In a strange way, the lack of culinary traditions has allowed Dutch chefs to think out of the box and experiment. Leading this avant-garde wave is Restaurant Oud-Sluis in the village of Sluis, population 6,500.

"In Belgium and France, there is such a heavy food culture," says Oud-Sluis chef Sergio Herman, a 37-year-old magician at the ovens who looks the bohemian part: a baby-face flanked by a shock of long, wavy black hair falling almost to his shoulder. "In Holland, it's different: Since we have no culture for food, we are free."

His success has caused a reverse migration. Instead of the Dutch heading south for a good meal, Belgians now head north. Oud Sluis is located just over the Belgian border, only a few miles north of the medieval city of Bruges and a few miles west of the fancy seaside resort of Knokke.

Sluis itself is a charming Dutch market town, clean and tidy. Herman's restaurant is in the center, in a small, one-story building, originally a farmhouse and later a merchant home. The restaurant consists of two cozy rooms with 12 tables, seating a total of about 35 for each meal. Behind, there's a sparkling modern kitchen half hidden. Décor is simple and warm; this is no baroque palace but a clean, well-designed modern Dutch home.

Herman's Spanish name reflects far-off Spanish ancestry; Madrid ruled this part of the world some 500 years ago. Herman himself was born and raised here in the Netherlands. His grandparents ran a barber shop and small café in the building. His father transformed it into a simple fish restaurant. After his father became ill in 1990, he asked his son to return home.

Sergio had attended restaurant school and trained at some haute cuisine restaurants, notably under Catalan superstar Ferran Adria. He was inspired by Adria's avant-garde "molecular" cooking, as well as the work of England's Hector Blumenthal. Instead of just revisiting traditional recipes, these chefs specialize in surprising mixes of herbs and spices, creating new textures and tastes, often using foams and spectacular chemical reactions to create theater on the plate. In 1995, Herman gained his first Michelin star. The second followed in 1999 and the ultimate third came two years ago.

Like Adria and Blumenthal, Herman works in a country without a strong gastronomic history, but where wonderful raw products long went wasted. Sluis is just a few miles from the North Sea. The region's fishing villages long have produced many of Europe's best oysters, mussels, delectable small shrimp called crevette grise and other shellfish. At Oud Sluis, this bounty from the sea receives superstar treatment.

Meals are a symphony of surprising tastes and mouthwatering sensations, plate after plate served tapas-style. There's a sorbet of wasabi, sake, lemon and lemon zest. There's crevette gris mixed with potato mouseline, tomato and lobster wrapped in mango; a muscadet granita served with a goose liver mousse; and a soy soup with rice noodles, fish and vegetables. Then blue-fin tuna served with Japanese lemon on a soy and tofu base. These are just amuse bouches.

The main appetizer is a tartar of Japanese wagyu beef with a jelly of parmesan, topped with a potato vinaigrette infused with citrus and vanilla. For the entree, a filet of sole is grilled with slowly cooked eel and infused with a sauce of chlorophyll from green herbs, cream and sweet and sour of fennel. Two small desserts are a chocolate mousse filled with a jelly of tonka beans and matched with fresh yoghurt and different preparations of lemon with basil and basil-mojito.

A full meal at Oud Sluis is not cheap, but by such standards, not too expensive. The three-course lunch described above runs a mere €65 per person. A four-course "Feeling & Taste" menu featuring seasonal produce is €100, and the most elaborate -- Père Et Fils -- costs €150 per person.

The wine list is 450 selections long, and includes famous Bordeaux and Burgundies. But it also features well-selected, reasonably-priced choices from the rest of the world like a wonderful crisp, round South African chardonnay from L'Avenir winery, which costs only €32.

Oud Sluis fills up quickly and requires reservations several weeks in advance, even for lunch. It is closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Since there's little room to expand his main restaurant, the youthful Herman, now the father of two children, is branching out. He has just opened a hotel in Sluis. It now has only four rooms, but he aims to expand it. He is considering new restaurant projects and plans to open one in the coming year in either Amsterdam or Antwerp.

"It is important for me to grow a little bit -- to have new challenges, so I remain sharp," he says. "I'm proud to get all the stars and appreciation and I know I must continue working hard every day, with lots of energy, to keep them."

Oud Sluis
Beestenmarkt 2
4524 EA Sluis
tel.: 0031 (0) 117-461269
fax: 0031 (0) 117-463005
e-mail: contact@oudsluis.nl
Lunch: 12.00 - 14.00 hrs
Dinner: 19.00 - 21.00 hrs
Closed on Mondays, Tuesdays and Saturday afternoons

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