For Emile van der Staak, chef at De Nieuwe Winkel in Nijmegen, the key lies in fermentation. Joël Broekaert ate three top-quality dishes there.
The leaves of the Chinese mahogany tree contain an aroma of roasted onions, the chef pointed out at our table. “And when the tree was being pollarded, we discovered that the wood also has that aroma.” So he made a silky soft chawanmushi lightly topped with a layer of freshly pressed mahogany oil combined with Japanese walnut. “Because that one’s just a bit sweeter and creamier.”
This small exchange illustrates that chef Emile van der Staak has an enormous knowledge of ingredients. And that he’s skilled at refined (Eastern) techniques. It also reflects his eager curiosity about new flavors in their various manifestations. And his unbridled devotion: in his free time this man can be found trimming trees in the Food Forest in Groesbeek.
For many years now De Nieuwe Winkel has been renowned in Nijmegen and in culinary circles far beyond the city. We know Van der Staak to be a gifted chef. His style: modern, a focus on vegetables, and a healthy fascination with fermentation. He operates in the vanguard – an avant-gardist, sometimes with a hint of a frenetic alchemist. Four years ago he impressed the culinary world with a vegetarian menu that included just a single carrot that had been basted with goat butter in the oven for two and a half hours. The result was a wonderful, slightly dried-out, fleshy texture with an interesting, rustic, animal undertone.
This year he moved his restaurant to the former orphanage on the Gebroeders van Limburgplein – a handsome building with a tall tower, an entrance dating back to 1640 and even older monastery vaults inside. A great move. In good weather, we can enjoy an aperitif at the distinctly un-Dutch, picturesque square. The interior design is sleek. The kitchen is so open that the workbenches seem to be in the restaurant.
Back to the chawanmushi, that savory Japanese egg custard that was so perfectly created: just stiff enough not to be fluid, a sneeze would make a hole in it. A small, plush cushion tasting of mushrooms covered with that thin layer of mahogany oil like the droplets of grease on my grandmother’s chicken soup. A moving experience. This is one of three dishes that simply blew us out of our chairs.
The miso soup is a very solid construction: a bitter foundation of rettich, the miso of old sourdough bread as the strong wooden beams, the intriguing licorice-like flavor of the stem lettuce as a lovely parquet floor, stylishly finished off with a small daylily flower. At the same time, it’s a swirling wave pool of delightful flavors in which, now and again, an ingredient in a brightly colored bathing suit is pushed upwards but in which they are all having a tremendous time together.
These three dishes are absolutely world-class. Period.
This doesn’t mean that everything was perfect. There’s a fairly extensive list of beers with quite a few wonderful sour beers, but unfortunately we saw little of that in the menu. I would have chosen a sake or a sherry with the mackerel, although you might disagree. But the Malbec from the Loire was definitely a very unfortunate choice.
The main dish was also a bit out of tune, even though the chicken was beautifully cooked. The marinade of apple and brown beer sounded interesting and the combination of yeast-beurre-blanc and malt syrup was excellent but it all danced a bit uneasily together – like Theresa May shaking her hips to ABBA.
All of the ingredients are local
The first course got off to a slow start. First a softly poached egg with dill, sour cream and horseradish. Technically fine – but they were also doing that back in 1973. Next please. Another egg, this time with zucchini and Spanish almond soup. Once again, fine, but why fill me up with barely memorable eggs when you’re about to proceed to kiss the stars. What would Marie Kondo say?
But then again, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. The core of the message is that you absolutely have to dine here. Emile van der Staak is one of the most exciting Dutch chefs at the moment. The menu is filled to the brim with Eastern ingredients and techniques, but I’d prefer to call it truly new-Dutch. All of the ingredients are local, and the chef transcends the origins of their methods of preparation by making them part of his own very unique style. The key is fermentation. Controlled decomposition under the influence of microorganisms or enzymes. Originally techniques for preserving food, which can produce an endless exuberance of flavors. Van der Staak has clearly become highly skilled in this in the past few years. This is reflected, for example, in the arrangement of juices – fermentation gives zucchini and chamomile the flavor of the apricot jam that’s brushed over the apple pie. And in the split pea-tempeh in the vegetarian main course it process creates a delicious, fleshy structure and a pleasant savory and fresh straw-like flavor. That sways with the yeast-malt sauce like Patrick Swayze and, god, what was her name again?
Stem lettuce, celtuce or sometimes called asparagus lettuce is a special sort of lettuce that’s not grown for its leaves but for its core or stem, which has a wonderful, slightly nutty flavor. Stem lettuce is especially known in China, where it’s used in many hot dishes.
Lettuce has been cultivated for at least 5000 years. In most of the modern sorts, we’ve almost completely bred out the taste of the crop. The original lettuce must have been a very bitter plant that was prepared with a large amount of salt. Thus ‘salad’, which derives from the Latin ‘sal’ for salt.
These dishes are intellectual compositions as well as comfortable, simply delicious to eat. That same clever balance is found in the mackerel ripened in kombu under a thin layer of black garlic and the restaurant’s own garum (a fermented fish sauce traditionally made from fish guts). The lukewarm fish is viscously savory, almost sweet, the layer of fermented garlic is almost fruity. Once again, just simply perfect.