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.