As San Pellegrino's 33rd Best Restaurant in the World, De Librije is a hidden treasure that I believe will be rocketing up the rankings in the years to come. I admit I had not seriously considered visiting De Librije until early last year when a friend recounted his latest experience which involved for a start, a butler but jokes aside, some serious cooking, luxurious accommodation and an excellent brigade of front of house.
Having finally secured a booking for an overnight De Librije Experience in January 2013, my partner unexpectedly had to fly back home due to an emergency the week before. This was going to be my first solo dining experience in a fine dining restaurant and admittedly it was initially a little daunting. Head Chef and proprietor Jonnie Boer, and his wife Thérèse, the sommelier and Maitre d’, have certainly amassed an impressive range of accolades over the past two decades.
Having held three Michelin stars since 2004 at their flagship restaurant, they certainly have not rested on their laurels having added two more stars to their sister restaurant, Librijes Zusje, located in their latest venture, Librijes Hotel, which opened up as a Relais and Chateaux hotel in 2008. The prospect of a lavish three starred lunch, followed by a two starred dinner and breakfast was certainly opulent, needless to say a very rare treat which I was not going to abandon even if I had to go on my own and I’m definitely glad I did!
Situated only an hour’s direct train ride away from Amsterdam Schiphol airport, the Hanseatic city of Zwolle is rich in history and charm with its star-shaped moat, medieval city-centre, and its only surviving city gate, the Sassenpoort. As I had some time I decided to meander slowly around the canals and explore the local produce in the shops before eventually following the cobbled street to the Librije Hotel. The dapper butler, Hans, who spotted me out of the corner of his eye, wasted no time in checking me into the suite, showing me around the premise and getting my somewhat crumpled shirt ironed.
The majestic edifice houses 19 rooms and suites, a two-starred restaurant, a wine bar frequented by the locals, a huge inner courtyard lounge which opens the roof in summer, an atelier for their cooking school and a private dining space.
After a good half hour of exploration I began to appreciate the labour of love that was required by Jonnie and Thérèse to convert this vast space, which had previously served as a women’s prison since the 18th century, into the lavish hotel that it is today. After politely declining to be chauffeured essentially 400 metres from the hotel, I found Hans waiting for me outside the restaurant to make sure I had not gone astray – this is what I call ‘going that extra mile’. I also found myself equally taken by the sight of the remarkable 15thcentury library of a Dominican abbey, which had been transformed into a world-class restaurant.
Chef Boer offered me a firm handshake as I entered before hastily retracting to the kitchen having reassured him that I was in no rush. After all, I had the whole afternoon to myself and could not think of a better place to be. As I was guided to my table, an unexpected contemporary space opened up in front of me. What appeared to be original gothic leaded windows and raftered ceilings juxtaposed the modern dominating glass chandelier and its surrounding art installation, a halo of lights. The modern high-backed black velvet chair was deceivingly comfortable and a sleek addition to a fairly mellow toned room.
As Thérèse poured out a glass of Ruinart blanc de blanc, the floodgates suddenly opened as my table was quickly swamped with an array of delectable amuse bouche, as flavoursome as they were artistic. The swim fin of halibut with apricot kernel oil had a beautiful texture and, despite my initial scepticism, the subtle sweetness and fragrance of the apricot and orange oil worked well with the fish. The tartare of beef with oyster and chives encapsulated Boer’s personality in one dish for me. Without compromising the integrity of the dish, he had slightly tweaked the original (which helped him get his first Michelin star) by plating the local beef tartare, oyster, chives and basil mayonnaise on the diners back of the hand instead. Not only was the dish executed flawlessly with a perfect balance of seasoning from the oyster and sweetness from the basil and beef, but more importantly this was a chef who had a sense of humour and was not afraid to mark his own personality in his cuisine. Just when I thought the amuse bouche could not get any better, I was left stunned by the simple brioche with Mai-Take, having never tasted such an intense earthy mushroom flavour. It had a deliciously creamy centre that melted in my mouth. What astonished me was that the maitake, which I thought was uniquely indigenous to my native country of Japan, was in fact sourced locally from the region (as were the majority of the ingredients used in the meal). As Boer later explained, the region was well known for its unique microclimate that fortunately supplies him with a myriad of herbs, vegetables and fruits.
I took a brief moment for the surreal experience thus far to sink in before I found Thérèse pouring me the first of the matching wine, a 2011 Weingut Stadt Lahr, Kabinett Trocken, Baden, Auxerrois, which was slightly aromatic with a floral note and a good balance of acidity for the subsequent dish. The main act of the meal commenced with the most beautiful dish of the evening, Goose liver with North Sea crab, almond, black olive and juice of fermented red cabbage leaves. I never thought goose liver and crab would marry so well, and unlike some questionable experiences in the past, in this case the magnolia in the crab provided a non-intrusive citrus aroma and flavour to the dish. Ironically, what initially appeared as humble red cabbage juice was in fact the star component of the dish providing a complex earthy flavour with a clean finish. As I savoured the last spoonful, my attention was immediately distracted by Thérèse, who was approaching me with a rather familiar bottle of my favourite white wine from the Mornington Peninsula, Australia; a 2011 Stonier Chardonnay. The exotic herbal lemon, lime and spicy oak aroma with a nice balance of creaminess and a fresh tangy acid finish was a fine accompaniment to the
Monkfish, rollmops and baharat. The monkfish cooked sous-vide was juicy and tender and the seasoning of the dish from the bacon was spot on. It was, however, the slightly tart pickled gherkin soaked in rollmop juice that added a burst of flavour and life into a dish, which would have been otherwise only good; superb! I was subsequently delighted to encounter another familiar bottle, this time a slightly chilled 2010 Mas Polit, Vilamaniscle, Emporda, from my mother’s region of Cataluña. The intense fruity and woody aroma with hint of blackberry, plum and powerful tannins were exactly what the ‘De Veluwe’ Dairy Cow steaks, mushrooms, lemon geranium and calf marrowneeded. I admired Boer for sourcing the meat locally rather than opting for an easier choice of importing an expensive cut. He transformed this cheap cut into something extraordinary by aging it for two months, and searing on a rock that was 140°C hot and coated in powdered ceps. The intense flavour of the earthy mushroom was infused and sealed into the steak, and the melting bone marrow added a rich buttery layer on the crispy potato underneath. Each bite was an explosion of flavours that I wished would last forever, but as with all good things, they had to come to an end.
I didn’t really have much expectation from the cheese course as I personally prefer my cheese stronger and smellier, contrary to the typically milder Dutch cheeses like Gouda or Edam, but perhaps this shows my ignorance of the regional cheese. Boer’s choice of cheese was unexpectedly a French Epoisses, served with rabbit kidney and potato juice. The pungent cheese from Burgundy cleverly cleansed the intense flavours of kidney and the creamy potato juice, which resembled to that of a potage, canvassed and prolonged the bursts of flavours.
I was finally succumbing to the idea of desserts although a part of me wished this meal would not end however unrealistic that sounded. The Roasted white chocolate, bergamot and dill had a good balance of flavours whilst the bergamot cleansed my palate from the preceding cheese course, but I was far more intrigued with the unusual Sweet Thai “green curry” served on an ice bag. The mango sorbet, fried bananas, basil, meringues, ginger beer and black sesame which had been pureed and passed through liquid nitrogen married well with the spicy curry and ginger. It was an unusual but fun and memorable dish that was a clever interplay of textures, as well as the savoury, spicy and sweet flavours, creating a lovely warm feeling on the palate despite it being refreshingly cold!
There are many reasons why I think De Librije is currently one of the best restaurants in the world, let alone Europe. The confidence Boer exerts over his cooking skills and palate is apparent from the way in which he daringly combines flavours and textures that are sometimes construed unconventional, yet works magnificently. The frivolity and playfulness underplaying the seriousness and hard work going into every single one of these incredible dishes reiterates Boer’s humility; and I strongly believe that this is why he is able to break down and push culinary boundaries to new heights. But, let’s not forget the unsung heroes of the front of house who were superb throughout the meal. They looked after every single diner with remarkable attention to detail, fluidity and finesse that appeared so effortless, completing the trifecta with Thérèses perfectly chosen wines.
I do not have the creativity and imagination to even comprehend how Chef Boer will evolve his cooking to the next level but rest assured I will be there to witness it first hand, and hopefully soon.