Jonnie and Thérèse Boer – Passionate memory makers
We are taking a very special journey to the northeastern part of the Netherlands, to the beautiful town of Zwolle, to explore the experience of dining with the venerable Jonnie and Therese Boer at their restaurant De Librije.
The old prison building that's now De Librije
No matter where you look for guidance on exceptional dining experiences, restaurant De Librije, continually stands out as one of the best fine dining destintaion restaurants in the world.
Awarded three Michelin stars since 2004. In 2007 and 2008 De Librije received a score of 19.5 and became Restaurant of the Year in the Dutch edition of Gault Millau. De Librije is also considered number 34 in ‘Worlds 50 Best Restaurants”, and number 5 on the reliable ‘Opinionated About Dining’ Top European Restaurants 2017.
There are so many things that I am very excited about on this little side trip. A train journey to the Netherlands from Paris is just the very beginning. As I am discovering, train travel in Europe more enjoyable than plane travel. The trains are comfortable, reliable and fast. We arrive at Europe’s busiest station Paris Gare du Nord where some 700,000 people pass through everyday. For cinephiles,the station was used as a location for the films, “The Bourne Identity” (2002) “Amelie” (2001) as seen below.
Scene from the film Amélie at Gare du Nord, Paris
With our little overnight bags rattling along beside us and thanks to the Schengen Agreement (a European treaty that saw internal border checks abolished) there is no passport hoo ha and we simply climb aboard the train to Rotterdam. We have picked up a few snacks at the train station for a train picnic and as usual we end up chattering about how even public transport food here is fresh and tastes really good. It’s like there is some unwritten rule that says if you are going to make food, make it good. There is no point making rubbish food here no one would tolerate it.
Paris to Zwolle, Netherlands by very fast train.
We whizz out of Paris and through picturesque countryside, little villages, changing architecture and colours along the way. The train rockets along and in only a few hours and one train change later, we are in North East Holland in the city of Zwolle, how fantastic! I am so amazed with the public transport in Europe, the trains are very comfortable, easy to navigate and fast. Here in the Netherlands the train stations are quite beautifully designed, also exceptionally clean and safe. They have it set up so you require a ticket before you can get past the front gate into the station, so once inside there are only paid clientele waiting for their trains.
Zwolle is a very beautiful mercantile city with a medieval centre, it is leafy with pretty buildings and rather and opulent feel. Our taxi weaves through it’s charming streets and finally brings us to our final destination the magnificent old prison building that has been transformed into a boutique hotel and more recently the new location of Jonnie and Therese’s De Librije restaurant.
Hostess, Sommelier, Creative Force at De Librije - Thérèse Boer
Husband and wife team Jonnie and Thérèse are passionate about everything they do. They started their careers together very young and are a prefect team of complimentary talents. Thérèse is a respected viticulturist who has her own, AWC Vienna International Wine Challenge, silver medal winning wine label, ‘Kiss of Thérèse’ and she is known as the first woman to be appointed Bourgondier (connoisseur) of the year. Jonnie’s passion is in the kitchen and after working at the original De Librije (in an old library) as a very young chef, he and Therese bought it for themselves in 1993 and allowing them the freedom to express themselves in a most dynamic contemporary and modern way. The Michelin Stars flowed swiftly and Jonnie and Thérèse’s dreams grew.
Behind the pots is one of the best chefs in the world today, Jonnie Boer
Their hope to add a hotel to their repertoire was realised when the opportunity to acquire the old Prison building presented itself. The building had a two hundred and sixty year history of being an operating prison from 1739 to 2004. For over five years Jonnie and Thérèse planned and then carried out an extraordinary renovation to transform it into an incredibly beautiful and unique boutique hotel. The new hotel was opened in May 2008.
It is breathtaking from the moment we enter. A first and lasting first memory is of the beautiful fragrance that fills the room. We are welcomed at the door and escorted to a stunning first Salon. Rather than restoration, the design has taken the monumental scale of the 18th Century building and presented it now in a very modern, Luxurious and creative way, I love love love it! I take a seat on the expansive sofa that wraps its way around the full length of two walls. The grey tones of floors walls and sofa are fabulously confettied with pops of bright orange and red; glowing candles, cushions, footstools and huge fantastic contemporary artwork. Then counterpoint to the all the modern, a sparkling traditional chandelier, dangles from the high ceiling.
After a long train journey my love is keen to make use of the bathroom facilities and swiftly heads down the hall way. A few moments later he’s back “Love, you have to go to the loo!” he says. “No I can wait” I say. “No, no, no love, you HAVE to go!” he says flapping his hands to shoo me off. Oh I get it and he is so right. This bathroom is divine. Turning into the hallway to the bathroom is simply wow! Black floors, black ceiling, delicious lipstick pink on the lower wall up to the dado rail and gorgeous gold textured wall paper on the top half. The focal point at the end of the hall is a stunning black velvet, gilded Louis the fifteenth chair. Then what looks like a huge floral painting, large scale pink blooms on a black background, are actually the doors to the loo. And it continues inside, more scaled up florals black backgrounds and black and pink tiles. So very glamorous and enticing. This space designed by Ingrid Van der Veen is inspirational. I don’t think the idea of sitting in the hallway to the loo has ever felt so sexy!
Back in the welcome salon we are served a little welcome drink and nibble before being shown to our room. The room designs here are all different with personalities each of their own. Ours is creamy white elegance with large bowls of white phalaenopsis orchids on plinths, silver candlesticks and long silver vases on the curved bed head. It is a beautiful, elegant room. We relax and enjoy the quiet elegance of the room before getting ready for dinner.
Restaurant De Librije - The garden of pleasure
For many successful years, De Librije enjoyed its library location, with Jonnie and Thérèse taking the approach of refreshing the interior decor every seven years to keep it fresh and aligned with where their creative energy was at the time. In 2014 they made a big decision, rather than simply renovate the old premises they chose to bring De Librije restaurant into the hotel premises and to move the then hotel restaurant Zusje to Amsterdam.
Designer Eric Kuster collaborated with Thérèse and Jonnie to design the new De Librije venue in the central courtyard of the hotel, which was historically the exercise yard for the prisoners. Without knowing what was intended in his design, the feeling I found in the space was an elegant and somewhat surreal sense of the organic. The entire courtyard was closed in with a stunning erection of metal frames supporting a glass ceiling. The base of the metal structure was wrapped in greenery somehow transforming it into a huge abstract geometric tree canopy. Trees still grew out of the ground from when the space was an open courtyard and the tones and textures of the furnishing all make it feel still very outdoors and alive.
Around the sides of the courtyard there are tables where tall seat padding continues high up the walls, to me creating the sense of palatial thrones carved from stone within a garden of pleasure. We are seated at a fabulous table, backed by one of the thrones, we have a lovely vista of the restaurant while being happily separated from other guests making the experience easily very private and special.
We are the first to be seated and an early visitor to our table is Jonnie. What a warm genuine down to earth fellow. He is tall with a strong, clearly centred presence, his energy immediately gives me confidence that we are in very good hands. With a big warm welcome, he tells us he will be preparing our dishes and that he hopes we will enjoy.
There are a fantastic parade of little nibbles to start. Including crispy Dutch shrimp, little puffs of fabulous flavour with tiny little grey shrimp on top. Mangalitsa, a puff of pork from a fascinating breed of pig also known as the Hungarian Wooly Pig. They are crazy looking wiry wooly things, so cute I can’t make my mind up if I want one as a pet or a doormat! As a meat product it is highly prized. Then a little waffle that has been both baked and fried and served with goats cheese. Fantastic little bites!
Now the friendship ring, a playful bit of fun, a pottery ring crafted with a teeny tiny plate as the top of the ring. Thankfully the ring did not inspire any kind of proposal. Both of us are well trod and battle weary of the tradition of marriage and romance for us is in no way tied to the old marital concept of bondage. We celebrate freedom, we cherish the individuality each of us brings and how it aligns in the creative, expressive union that is us. So for us the friendship rings, interestingly each quite different, inspire a much deeper reminiscence of love than perhaps intended.
And then passion fruit, well what looks like passion fruit but with a twist. The golden juice filled beads are in fact trout roe. A wonderfully surprising and refreshing dish.
Thérèse comes to welcome us and talk wine. We have a very special wine pairing this evening that she has designed to compliment Jonnie’s menu. Thérèse is wonderfully warm as are the whole team here. Filled with that special friendly disarming and welcoming energy that the Dutch people seem imbued with. We chat for quite a while and she makes us feel like we have been welcomed into her family home. We chat about their Amsterdam restaurant Zusie and their newest venture, a Caribbean beach restaurant on the island of Bonaire, off Venezuela’s coast. Funnily enough the island is actually a municipality of the Netherlands.
Heart of veal, chicken liver, North Sea crab
Thérèse pours for us a glass of ‘Klostersatz’ Grüner Veltliner, Pichler-Krutzler 2015 Wachau, Oostenrijkto, to pair with our first course. Heart of veal, chicken liver and North Sea crab. At first this seems like quite a strange combination of things. A chicken liver pate, the veal heart tartare and then delicate crab meat hiding beneath a cherry leaf. Poultry beef and seafood all on the same plate, the absolute antithesis to the vegetarian sensibility. Yet it is the plant element, the smoky, grassy, peppery, olive oil that harmonises the plate and brings all those separate elements together so very beautifully. The full bodied richness and green peppery notes of the wine sit perfectly with this plate.
Langoustine, kombucha, seaweeds
The next dish is Langoustine civiche in kombucha (a Japanese fermented sweet tea) and seaweed. Along with the plate the waiter brings the jar containing the magic brew to show us, explaining that the langoustine had been inside it marinating for four hours. The langoustine is absolute perfection. Just the very outer edge of the flesh has changed to a pearly white, the inside of the langoustine remains perfectly translucent. It is served with cabbage and a seaweed juice gel.The texture and flavour is so sweet and delicious and I just love the plate chosen as well. It’s rough broken edge is reminiscent of an oyster shell.
Paired with Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon ‘Resonance’, Newton Johnson 2015, Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Vallei, Zuid-Afrika that’s a brilliant choice. Lifted aromas of white flowers and mealy pollen, deepening to honeyed tangerine. Generous and slightly grippy texture, with clean acidity and grape tannin holding the flavour long in to the finish.
Saibling, pumpkin, lovage
Our lovely waitress brings a striking black plate with three most exquisite bites. She tells us all about the fish we are about to enjoy. Saibling is a sweet water trout, they only live where there is a really high level of oxygen in the water and are particularly sought after and delicate fish. Served raw with raw pumpkin marinated in salt (think a little pickle) and mushroom, coconut and a beautiful sherry cream. And a final fresh flourish of lovage oil that gives a special celery like herbaceous fragrance to the plate.
The presentation is simple but clever and the combination of flavours and textures is so very good. And a fascinating little wine to match – Sherry ´Tosca Cerrada´ Palomino Fino ‘En Rama’, Mario Rovira 2015
Vino de la Tierra de Cádiz, that has a pretty colour, nutty apple nose a full flavoured bold palate and a nice dry finish.
Palomino is a white wine grape from Andalucia, southwestern Spain. It is the grape variety used to make Sherry, and occupies almost 95 percent of the total vineyard area in Jerez. The name Palomino is said to be that of Fernan Ibanez Palomino – a military officer of some importance during the Reconquista, when European (Christian) armies fought to take Andalucia back from the Moorish invaders.
Codfish, blue cheese, tulip
When I mentioned we were heading off to the Netherlands our gorgeous house sitter Ros said it was a shame it wasn’t tulip season. Well guess what, we are here and we still get to enjoy the tulips, just on a plate! The Dutch history of eating tulip bulbs is interesting but not terribly romantic. In World War Two in 1944 northern Netherlands experienced a terrible famine where more than 20,000 people died. Those that survived did so, in part by resorting to eating tulip bulbs. One of those was apparently the beautiful Audrey Hepburn. What a crazy history the beautiful tulip has had, from being one of the most coveted and expensive items in the world in the 17th century with a single bulb costing more than ten times the average annual income of a skilled craftsman; to being food for the starving in World War Two.
Delicate translucent little pieces of Cod fish and blue cheese, topped with thin slices of tulip bulb and spruce tips. The fish was mild and fresh flavoured and the tender slivers of tulip were interesting, a flavour that is a little hard to describe, creamy, legumie, very fresh vegetable or salad kind of a thing and the spruce tips offered a fragrant citrusy zing. The use of blue cheese was very restrained with subtle hints of saltiness and minerality that serve to perfectly season the fish. Combined, the flavours make a divine mouthful of pleasure.
A delightful Portuguese white blend with citrus minerality that echos the dish nicely is a fun pairing. ‘Contraste’ Rabigato / Códega / Arinto, Conceito 2015 Douro, Portugal. Fresh lemony, toasty nose. The palate is bright with a hint of mineral reduction as well as some nice oak use. Really nice barrel-aged style. Nice one.
And now the golden egg! Jonnies little egg sprayed with gold, a soft golden just set egg yolk topped with creme fresh, potato chips and caviar. The best little thing, salty, creamy, crispy and rich. There is nothing more to say, Yum! Paired with a lovely little glass of pink French bubbles by Champagne F.Barbier. A champagne with red fruit aromas and a delicate and light aftertaste. This is according to F. Barbier, Rosé champagne with a romantic touch. Elegant and yet full of flavor.
Pike perch ‘’kruutmoes’’
The next nod to Dutch tradition is Jonnie’s take on a local provincial dish from Overijssel the provence of which Zwolle, where we are, is the capital. Kruutmoes is known as a farmers dish. Originally a barley, buttermilk, bacon, smoked sausage and herb thick soup, intended to warm and nourish farm workers.
Jonnie’s version is elegant and refined yet celebrates the heritage of the dish. Served with a slice of pike perch, a sweet water river fish accompanied by smoked sausage, apple and smooth thick buttermilk soup. The fish is lovely and sweet and all the other elements come together to create a surprisingly complex and clearly very considered dish.
To complement this dish we enjoy a splash of a lovely purple wine, it reminds me a little of an easy Pinot Noir. It’s an St Laurent, Weingut Heinrich 2013 Burgenland, Oostenrijk, behind all the elegance there are blossoms, hay, herbs and berries that delight the nose and palate, not something I have tried before but definitely one to remember.
Venison, fermented green peas, sauce royale
Our meat dish this evening is venison, with fermented peas and sauce Royale. A very enticing dish with a venison medallion generously anointed with dark, chocolate coloured, rich sauce Royale and opposing vivid pea green that pool together at the base of the medallion like marbled inks. Tiny little pink flowers provide a very pretty final touch. The meat simply falls apart and melts in my mouth, it is so very tender. And with the deep venison flavour. With the rich sauce and the vibrancy of the fermented peas this plate is beautifully balanced and with luxurious mouthfeel.
Sips of ‘Gilda’ a rare blend from Portugal is a match made in heaven, it is every bit as rich, expressive and lively as Jonnie’s venison dish. ‘Gilda’ is a blend of Barroca and Castelão, and Merlot, which comes rom clay soils in the Portuguese wine region of Bairrada. Vinified in lagar and aged in used french oak, it’s a friendly and cheerful wine. In nose it’s all blueberry, with captivating animal notes and leather hints. Juicy, gentle, crunchy and nicely balanced between softness and freshness.
Jerusalem artichoke, hazlenut, apple, ice of brown butter
and tea of Jerusalem artichoke flowers.
The next plate is a combination of flavours that is hard to describe in usual terms. It is a dish that I feel more than taste if that makes any sense at all. I feel warm and comforted by this dish, the warmth of jeruselum artichoke and hazlenut contrasts with the fascinating iced brown butter and the sweet apple. Artichoke flower tea is such a delicate thing that ties the whole combination together. I just love it.
Fried goose liver with Litchi, sambai vinegar, cream of apricot seed oil
A pretty little plate, a triangle of fried goose liver topped with a decorative arrangement that reminds me of the stamens of a lily. Litchi or as we spell it lychee is a very refreshing combination and the sambai vinegar (fragrant Japanese sushi vinegar) cuts the richness of the liver. The final little touch of genius is the cream of apricot oil, its creamy nutty flavour is just divine.
Dalfsen / Bangkok
Dalfsen / Bangkok is the next plate, a little bit of Dalfsen and a little bit of Bangkok. Dutch carrots from Dalfsen with flavours from Bangkok. Three bowls are placed before us each celebrating this concept in a different way. There are three sizes, like mamma, poppa and baby bear portions, except every single one is “just right!”
Each plate is unique and distinctive. Fried banana and coconut – sweet caramelised flavour of banana in sticky black rice, discs of carrot and a light creamy coconut “soup”. Then yellow root and ginger, a creamy quenelle of gorgeousness, slightly herbaceous fascinating flavours of turmeric with lemongrass and spiced up with warm comforting spiciness of ginger. Finally fragrant aromatic pandan and invigorating kaffir lime leaf.
All the senses are enlivened with the exciting and invigorating flavours of these plates. I just love that our meal has finished on such a refreshing high. No sticky rich pudding here!
Wonderfully paid with Furmint / Hárslevelü ‘Pallas’, Füleky 2013 Tokaj, Hongarije Late Harvest wine, fresh with notes of lemon grass, orange peel, cut grass and honeysuckle. Tasted ripe, but not overly sweet, nicely balanced with a refreshing acidity and a hint of bitterness in the finish.
Where the magic happens - Kitchen De Librije
To complete the evening I was taken for a tour of the kitchen. Just at the back of the restaurant, there is a long table where the kitchen team are finishing the plating of final dishes, they were focused and organised. Through the door the kitchen was vast, shiney and clean. Adjacent to the kitchen there is another large area, the atelier where people can come for lessons.
Old meets new in De Librije art for sale
A slow walk back through stunning hallways filled with fabulous artwork and finally back in our beautiful room we collapse into our big comfortable bed. As I drift off to sleep visions of Jonnie’s plates dance in my head.
Hotel De Librije
The De Librije Breakfast Spectacular
Breakfast Room De Librije - The red matched our eyes perfectly
The next morning we are escorted to a different dining room for breakfast. It is dark and candle lit and beautifully decorated, not feeling at all like what I imagined a breakfast room would be. Lightly crumpled red satin is artfully arranged beneath clear resin table tops. Tables are fully set including beautiful wine glasses, in the centre, a plate with a pine cone that holds a few triangles of pastry forms an unusual sculpture. Our glasses are filled with our choice from a wide selection of interesting juices including apricot or rhubarb juice. Out waiter then arrives armed with tweezers and as he selects tiny slivers of cured meat and drapes them over the pastry triangles wedged into the pine cone and explains “today we start with our first amuse bouche”…..and it suddenly dawns on us that we are in for another little tasting menu. How exciting, a wonderful surprise and absolutely a first as a breakfast.
And so it begins, a series of little bites arrive one after the other and to my delight, many are not reminiscent of anything breakfast like. A tiny hamburger is fantastic! There is smoked and dried meats, raw meats, cheese, bread. The only one that really threw us was a tiny beef tartare. The dish itself was delicious, the plating though was confronting and we almost said no. Asked to lay our hands on the table the waiter begins to layer up the components of the tartare right on the back of our hands and we are left to lick it off. Not a fan of eating with or off my hands and my love is particularly thing thing about such things. The only time we have every really resorted to licking consumables of our hands involved salt, lemon and the promise of lots of tequila!
We were offered a choice of eggs and opt for the most interesting sounding baked egg with smoked eel. When it arrives it is a great surprise, it’s actually a crumbed egg that when cracked open has a perfectly runny yolk. Spoonfuls scooped up with some of the smoked eel, the whole thing is sensational.
For the final touch Jonnie’s Golden Egg makes another appearance, this time sweet. Fragrant spicy pineapple with a light creamy zabaglioni and the best bit….a piece of crispy chicken skin! A stunning finish to the most spectacular breakfast I have ever experienced.
The entire experience here at De Librije has been filled with so many of the things that appeal to me, from the interior design to the dining experiences. It is clear that a great deal of energy has gone into and continues to be invested on a daily basis, creating an experience that feels alive and imbued with Jonnie and Therese’s very present energy. From the moment I arrived I felt immediately centred and focused on the moment I was in, right there and then. The first impression of wonderful fragrance that made me pause for a moment just to delight in it. Stunning art work through out the property, that is changed regularly to keep the energy vibrant fresh and new. Each piece unique and interesting. I love the giant sized baby elephant sculpture! And the toilet! Who can forget the amazing toilet?
The very Dutchness of it all is brilliant! The Dutch people are relaxed, liberal, fun loving people and De Librije is filled with the essence of this culture. From the special black box of toys in the hotel suite to the after dinner spliff! …..It’s really a mint chocolate made to look a big fat joint!
I understand that Jonnie’s menu is also something that continually evolves and changes, not only seasonally but creatively. His cooking to me feels like sublime perfection, yet somehow filled with a confident ease and a very passionate flair. The food we have enjoyed here has been exciting, playful and definitely inspirational. No tricks, just an exemplary understanding of his produce, a commitment to source locally and celebrate the heritage of the area’s cuisine while bringing a modernist creative approach to it.
Jonnie and Therese are more than 20 years into their journey and it is is powerfully obvious that they have chosen not to stand still but to keep moving forward. Some of the renowned 3 Michelin star restaurants maintain their place and their reputation through relying on nostalgia, remaining fixed in the past, continuing to serve the chef’s classics that first earned them a Michelin star 30 years ago. They found a winning formula and are sticking to it. I can be assured of getting the same dishes again should I choose to come back.
Jonnie and Therese’s winning formula is change. To me there is a bravery and an honesty in that, to risk change for the sake of new discoveries. It is a testament to their skills, passion, style and creativity that they are able to allow themselves to move forward, following new inspirations. Here I am assured that I will get another whole new experience next time I come back, and that excites me. I want to come back again and again and again!
There is a powerful connection for me in the energy of De Librije. I am personally on a journey of taking risks and exploring new discoveries. I am so very grateful to have discovered Jonnie and Therese’s very special hospitality and to have had a wonderful Dutch reminder to relax, laugh, be free and have fun!