Consider this a postcard from a town whose name I can’t pronounce. Fifty shades of grey is the weather here, not just an idea book for days like this. And I’ve translated so many words on my phone that I risk exceeding my roaming data plan on the vowels alone.
Welkom in Nederland. I’m in Zwolle.
I arrived yesterday ’round midnight, the only one who got off the train at this station. The only one walking these cold, foggy streets at that hour. Now it’s lunch time and I’m biting my tongue because I want to make a joke about purple drank, but nobody in this country thinks I am funny. So I’ll just sip this fermented cabbage juice in silence. It’s the first serving at a restaurant called De Librije.
I’ve been invited here so I don’t order, really. I just eat. Jonnie Boer cooks, and Thérèse — his wife — commands the floor. I’m in their hands.
Toast is in mine: a skinny piece topped with halibut fin, bittersweet orange purée and apricot oil. Hidden in the serving vessel underneath it is halibut “brandade” with some crunchy, fizzy little things that feel like pop rocks.
More bites come two by two. Shrimp and crab from the North Sea — the latter redolent of citrus, and the former on a funkier tip with brussels sprouts, kimchee, and toasted, pulverized wild rice. Cod tongue then cod skin, perched among the vertebrae of a cod spine. The succession is delicious and arresting. Jonnie’s laying snacks on snacks, and I’ve gotta have it.
The rest of the menu finds cohesiveness in the mirror, the last courses reflecting the first. It’s raw scallops to begin with, laced with black garlic and a warm broth of smoked celeriac. Cod comes later, with slices of raw hazelnut and a puddle of wildly expressive sunchoke-flower “tea.” Neither dish feels familiar at first. But my tongue and my brain start to dig, and they uncover in each a certain sweetness that is nothing if not alluring.
Beef tartare is to be eaten with one’s hands — de rigueur in this age of René. But I must also eat it off my hand, for it’s been “plated” there by the waiter, between my thumb and forefinger. I smile.
Beef again later. A thin cut from an old milk cow, the fat barely melted on a hot stone dusted with cèpe powder. It’s powerful, but it’s pretty. Jonnie slaloms between the two, a boxer alternating uppercuts and hugs.
The bone marrow and mushrooms that come with that dish keep an unexpected bedfellow in bergamot. A spiral of goose liver coils around juices of magnolia and fermented carrots. Hare à la royale comes with a bit of blood pudding so smooth that the ferrous duo feels positively elegant.
The cheese course is composed, calculated, corporeal but not copious — epoisses, rabbit kidneys, and chorizo dosed out judiciously. Desserts hit the table, as do playful party favors like a cream-filled “kiss” and a white chocolate-and-cèpe “mushroom.”
The waiter, I should mention, is a goddamn ninja. Stefan is his name. All afternoon he’d materialize like Obi-Wan’s hologram, drop some Jedi knowledge on me about water mint or bahārāt or the chef’s version of Maggi seasoning, and vanish only after all my follow-up questions had been thoroughly answered. His English makes me feel stupid, and his descriptions make me feel smart.
Now I feel a bit tired. I stayed up until six this morning in a hotel suite far nicer than I deserved (think hot tub, rainfall shower, private sauna…). So I’m pretty sure I washed myself approximately five times. And somehow Risky Business was re-enacted roughly thrice? Not really sure how that happened, or if it did.
But Stefan would not judge me for such revelry. He’s just come over to my table one last time, and laid down an edible “joint” — Dutch humor. He makes one stride away, and abruptly stops: “Here. Take two.”
Funny: I’d say De Librije was worth a double-take.