With its boxy, modern frame and gorgeous windows, De Leest cuts an impressive shape out of the corner of this sleepy village north of Appeldoorn in the Low Countries. Open since 2002 and helmed by a husband-wife team (Jacob Jan Boerma in the kitchen, and Kim Veldman running the wine program), De Leest won its first Michelin star in 2003, its second in 2006, and its third in 2013, which it has held since.
From interviews, it's clear that Jacob views his restaurant as a bit of an "outsider" in the Michelin world—they use all-sustainably-harvested product and target zero food waste, buying from local sources wherever possible. This leads to lots of vegetable-driven dishes, and Jacob's attempt is to strike balance with each dish without making it too rich. I found him to be mostly successful.
VAASSEN, NETHERLANDS (~1 HR FROM AMSTERDAM)
PRICE PAID: $260PP (INCL. WATER, CHAMPAGNE APERITIF, TAX, TIP)
FINAL SCORE: 7.0/10
The interior is neat, bright, well-lit, spacious, and modern. The servers' stands are perhaps a bit too pronounced; they occupy much of the landscape in the center of the restaurant which breaks up the long visual lines but the makes the room feel crowded.
Some delightful first bites arrived within moments of taking our seats; a parmesan cookie on a small ceramic pedestal (left) and some watermelon-tomato gel upon what looked like an egg-crate plate (left.) While not dry, the somewhat brittle cookie was savory and salty, contrasting nicely with the juicy watermelon and tomato combination. A nice mix of flavors and textures. 8/10.
Next, two small coppery spoons nestled on a bed of rocks arrived carrying some mini-steak tartare bites, along with a tiny sandwich of soufflé. The smallish grains of couscous underneath provided a nice textural contrast to the super-soft tartare and sandwich. A lot going on here, but an extremely pleasant bite. 8/10.
Next, a "Taco" with tartare of shrimp and small green shoot garnishment. Really more of a nacho in my opinion, but we'll go with taco. Fantastic flavors, and surprisingly rich; also surprisingly not-spicy for the heavy dose of red pepper it appears to have had. The shrimp is fresh but not exactly exploding with flavor; it's been in the fridge perhaps a day too long. 7/10.
Next, some eggplants, pan fried, with a foam of Parmesan and some puffed sweet peppers. We appear to be getting into the sultry end of the appetizers, because this dish is shockingly heavy. Eggplant is never my favorite vegetable, but the textures here are a high point. 7/10.
Next, some pumpkin curry with kaffir limes, also known as combava. Sweet and complex, I really like the combination of curry and lime; it gives the dish a Thai flavor profile. 8/10.
The bread is fresh and light, and the butter is rich and heavy so I'm definitely happy. 8/10.
In what must surely be the last appetizer course, some Gillardeau oysters with a green curry-saffron potato purée. Unbelievably smooth; the curry flavors go with the oysters perfectly. The shellfish themselves feel like they were just pulled from the ocean; neutral and fresh. It's not often you see curry tried twice in a series of appetizers, but this group makes it work. 9/10.
The first menu course came next, plated linearly: some North Sea crab, green herbs, and a frozen pastille of Buddha's Hand. The crab has been marinated wth green apple to balance the acidity, and some "sweet and sour" red beetroot adds color and depth to the dish. There's a lot going on here, and the large number of diverse and contrasting flavors feels like a traffic jam. Rising to the top are the delightful crab and green herb reduction. 7/10.
Good lord, more curry? Some roasted langoustine marinated with tandoori spice foam overtop, served with young carrots and curry. Underneath, a purée of smoked vegetables. The curry itself is based on vadouvan, an in-vogue curry powder that was actually invented in France—the base is garlic, shallots, and onions, with fenugreek (and, obviously, curry leaves). Toasted and blended carefully, it yields a subtle and almost sweet note to the curry, as opposed to the explosion of heavily perfumed cumin flavors in the previous dishes. It's delicious, but this is a lot of curry all in a row. 7/10.
Next, some codfish, parsnip, butternut squash, and - mother of God - yet more curry. All in a vinaigrette of curry. Once again, I'll admit that this light yet flavorful dish really brought out the best of the codfish's oily flavors by correctly balancing the acid of the citrus and the spice of the curry powder. It's a beautiful dish. But my palate is getting burned out on curry here. 8/10.
Next up, some trout, fennel, fermented vadouvan foam (I give up. Every dish will have curry. It's fine.) And lastly, caviar. The trout has some delightful beurre noisette flavors underneath. Unreal that such a lean fish can be presented in a way that makes it feel so rich. 7/10.
Lobster with celeriac, vinegar, potato, shiitake mushrooms, chorizo, and sauerkraut. Very strong celery/mustard flavors; this winds up feeling like a Germanic dish in contrast to the South Asian feel to the rest of the menu. The caviar pops with freshness and the lobster is as good as if we were sitting on the dayboat that brought it up. 9/10.
Next, an artful dish of duck liver, hibiscus flower, and papaya. The colors are the all-star of this dish, as is the moon-surface plating. Some light flavors of jasmine flower and sherry; the papaya and foie gras flavors contrast nicely. 7/10.
And finally, on to the last main dish: Pheasant. Delightful flavors of chicory, gravy, Jerusalem artichoke, and red beetroot. A hint of truffle in the gravy really moves the dish forward a few paces from its already pretty awesome presentation. 8/10.
Check out this plate's color—the deep green really emphasizes the pale yellow hues of the cheeses; a subtle refinement. The restaurant features regionally-produced cheeses, and here were the standouts:
At bottom right is a very uniquely-made type of blue cheese called Grevenbroecker. The cheesemaker, Peter Goonen, is an award-winning family farmer based in the Limburg region who has won many awards for his work. By not artificially inoculating the cheese with the microbes that will form the penicillium and instead letting the curds naturally clump and form their blue veins, the taste ends up richer and more natural. The farm for generations prior made only butter, and the soft texture and butteriness of this cheese recalls that history.
Another honorable mention- the cheese at the bottom of the plate at 6'o'clock is called "Svallow," like the bird. Made from cow's milk in an agricultural community in the Southern Netherlands called Lievelde, the cheese is a Dutch version of Camembert. Earthy, creamy, and with an extremely delicious taste of hay and fresh grass. The cheesemaker, Hermiene Makkink, says she makes cheese because of her love and respect for cows and nature.
A nice selection of goat's milk cheeses from the Loire region and a few other cow's and sheep's milk cheeses round out the batch. 9/10 overall, a great diversity of flavors and all from interesting, top-quality producers.
Moving on to the desserts, a sorbet of sorrel and dried apple. The overwhelming flavor of the dish is that of wheatgrass; a nice palate cleanser. The apple adds crunch to the texture. 7/10.
The second dessert is a creative pairing of blueberries with basil, along with what tastes like rose petals. The blueberries appear in several forms—a sauce on the right, cooked berries sitting atop the basil cream, and freeze-dried on the left. A deliberate diversification of textures that works really well. 8/10.
A tropical mix of mandarin oranges, coconut, grenadine, and jasmine flower juice arrived next. Beautifully shaped circles of fruit and sugar pastries adorned this gorgeous ceramic plate. I loved the geometric juxtapositions and carefully handcrafted architecture of this dish, the three-dimensionality of it. The taste, though, was a little plain compared to the exhaustive construction. 7/10.
As we get close to the end of the desserts, some lovely lemon-imbued milk and yogurt pucks with caramel and hazelnut. Quince ice cream. A little dairy-heavy but a satisfying dessert nonetheless. 7/10.
Last but certainly not least, a collection of stone-shaped plates are carried over one-by-one in many trips by the service staff. Exquisitely made and showing off the precision of the pastry chef, the desserts themselves (some macarons, marzipans, and marshmallows) wind up emulating the style of the plates themselves. Bright, crispy, sugary flavors throughout (especially in the Pâte de fruits at center, which are blackberry). A stylish finish to the meal. 9/10.