On October 19, 2010 I moved from the US to The Netherlands. This is a love story many years in the making.

De Librije Part 2

When we last saw our protagonists, they were heading down to the bar for an aperitif before dinner was served.

I was dressed as formally as I am capable of, in a little black dress, high heels in black Italian suede (like buttah!) and sparkling at wrist, throat, and ear. Carel was looking casually elegant in a slim black suit, starched white shirt and no tie. We looked good, if I have to say so myself. A butler escorted us to the dimly lit bar…

…where we were served glasses of a fine Prosecco with a splash of cherry juice in it.

We were served our appetizer, with the explanation: a foie-gras & apple “lolly”, a spoonful of piccalilli, a twist of something crunchy and cheesy, and “carrot ice cream”, which in the dim light proved to be a little baffling.

Carel figured it out – the carrot ice cream was literally a tiny cone, perched in a glassful of tiny black pearls of sand to keep it upright. We initially hadn’t been at all sure which part of that offering was edible! The ice cream was a delightful novelty and quite tasty, but the star of this plate was the lolly. It was another trompe l’oeil, perfectly reproducing a dark red lollypop, down to the ridge around the middle of it from the mold, and the shimmering sugary sheen. The outer coating tasted of apple, the interior was a creamy rich explosion of foie-gras, and it was altogether delicious.

(I do need to apologize for the quality of the photos – iPhone is not great in dim light, and it being somewhat gauche to photograph one’s food, I was doing it as surreptitiously as possible. The combination was not ideal. For really good photos of their food, go look at the website. They’re stunning and actually do the food justice.)

The bartender came to collect us after we finished our appetizer, to escort us up to the dining hall, and asked me where I was from. I explained as briefly as I could and his face lit up. My initial guess upon seeing him was correct – he was Italian, from Calabria. Yay! We exchanged a few pleasantries in Italian, and I have to admit I enjoyed the look of incomprehension on Carel’s face – role reversal all of a sudden! The bartender then introduced himself as Samuele, and insisted that we return to him after we had dined, so that he could make me a “proper Italian coffee”! I promised, and off we went to have dinner.

The dining hall was not large; the tables we set discreetly at a distance from each other, the light was low and the candlelight struck sparks from the glass and silverware, glittered off the ladies’ jewelry, and shimmered from yet more acres of raw silk drapes.

We were seated, Carel explained to the fellow that I spoke no Dutch – English or Italian, please – and every single person that waited on us after that spoke English. They must have sent out a memo; truly superb service.  On the table was a little silver cruet in the shape of an apple (which I was starting to realize was the hotel’s signature image), containing some truly marvelous olive oil, so rich and fruity and smooth that I could have happily eaten nothing but that and the bread they served with it. But…our first course arrived.

A grilled cherry tomato, served with a clear gelatin that tasted wonderfully of tomato and basil, the aroma of it getting up into my sinuses, filling my head with the flavor and scent of summer – how could they possibly have known that one of my strongest childhood memories was of picking tomatoes and basil from the garden and eating them still warm from the sun? It was topped with a cloud of truffle mousse, to add just a hint of that unique, earthy and indefinable flavor. Stunning, and paired perfectly with a fresh, light white wine. Carel and I grinned at each other in absolute delight, and our second course was served.

(This particular dish *is* on the website, with a much, much better photo. Really, go look, it’s worth it)

It was set before us with a flourish, and the accompanying wine was served – a medium bodied red, flavorful but not heavy, and an excellent complement to the dish. Their sommelier was masterful, no question whatsoever. This course was slender strips of pigeon interlaced with strips of foie-gras, dotted with caviar and a tiny pickled beet roll, gorgeously decorated with flower petals, creme fraiche, and little black dots of olive-essence mousse. Alongside it was a small bowl of pigeon bouillon, in which floated tiny cubes of foie-gras. Dear god, it was sumptuous. I just let the foie-gras melt on my tongue, the richness of it cut by the salty tang of the broth, and then the main dish itself…oh, heaven. I tried different combinations of the meats with the various accompaniments, and decided that my favorite was a little cloud of crunchy thing that tasted of herbs, which was just perfect with the meat. The wine definitely added to the experience as well; it had been given time to breathe and ripen, and brought out the flavors of the food in a most wonderful way. A deep, happy sigh and a little water, some time to chat, and then the next course arrived.

The presentation on this one was a little lacking, in my opinion – since the course was fish, and therefore white, I think it should have been served on a contrasting plate, but that is a quibble. It was cod, wild-caught and local (the chefs are very much into using local products as much as possible), served with a lemongrass sauce, asparagus, and tiny pickled mushrooms. It was very light, very delicate and quite delicious. When I’d finished mine, a waiter came by with a pair of tongs and told me he had a surprise for me…and removed the pierced plate, revealing underneath it some more fish, swimming in the sauce that had been poured over the top layer and trickled down. Cheek, chin, and tongue, he said, and such was my faith in this chef that I actually ate it. The tongue was a mousse, so airy it dissolved in my mouth; not at all what I expected. The wine with this one was a white, the hotel’s own vintage – young, crisp, a little grassy, and perfect with the fish.

At this point we were in a state of luxurious delerium, and so what happened next seemed both entirely surreal and quite natural at the same time. Carel glanced up and his jaw dropped, and a young man came rushing over to our table. A spate of rapid Dutch followed, interrupted only by the introduction of me. It turns out that the fellow, who was the restaurant manager, was a school friend of Carel’s; they hadn’t seen each other in 13 years or more.  I think he brought us the next course himself.

An assortment of lamb prepared in different ways, it was presented with a wine so wonderful I asked the sommelier to come back and let me write down what it was – Cotes du Rhone Village Rochegude, Domaine Chapoton (I had strategically flirted with him from the beginning). He seemed very pleased with us and had poured us an extra glass here and there and I was extremely happy that he gifted us with a second one of this stuff – “life is too short to drink bad wine!” he said as he poured it. Oh. Oh. It was so very, very good. Dark ruby red, heavy, fruity, sensuous, powerful and a perfect backdrop for the lamb which was served with a little pickled cucumber-wrapped roll of creamy chevre, a dollop of creme fraiche, and a rich sauce that I can’t for the life of me remember the specifics of. The small tube at the top of the plate was yet more tongue, and yes, I ate it…and it was excellent. The combination of flavors was superb, and the decoration of the tiniest carrot I had ever seen in my life was enchanting. We lingered over the second glass of wine, basking in the glow of the food, the ambiance, and each other. After a time, dessert was served.  The woman set down two plates of artistically arranged…something…and another plate upon which was a banana, surrounded by chocolate crumbles and a puddle of chocolate sauce. She said she’d be back to explain, but the minutes passed and she did not return.

Well, now. It certainly looked like a banana, down to the little brown spots and streaks of impending over-ripeness…but the Apple Experience left us wiser, and so we cut into it: Not A Banana! It turned out to be another gorgeous fake – the “skin” was made of mango mousse, the interior was a creamy banana-vanilla-y stuff over a shortbread cookie. Wonderful! The “something” proved to be vanilla ice cream and some fruit jellies that were light, tart, and just sweet enough. The wine was also fabulous, sweet without being cloying, with a complex fruity flavor that I loved.  Replete, we sat and talked for a little while, and then the hostess asked if she could take our picture, indicating my phone. I was too full and too blissfully happy to be embarrassed about being so obviously idiotically in love that she would suggest such a thing, and handed over the phone.

We sat and sipped and talked for a while longer, and then when we felt like we could move, Carel’s friend escorted us back downstairs to the bar to where Samuele awaited us.

(…)

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