Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Our first full day in Maastricht

A lone bicyclist in Maastricht. Photo: JH.
The walk. One thing that makes this place seem more like a town than the city that it is, is the paucity of cars on the streets. Oh, there are lots of cars, but somehow they are strangely mainly absent in this part of the city which is the old town of Maastricht. As a result people walk to any destination within a mile or three.

Many of the local citizens, especially the younger ones, bicycle. Although there are inclines, there are few steep hills, so it looks relatively easy, exercise-wise. Unlike the cyclists we are used to in New York who are aggressive and even threatening when you’re in their path, be they delivery boys or exercise freaks, the cyclists here are gentle and seem to almost glide effortlessly by as they move along the narrow lanes.

The streets. The sidewalks are often bricked and the roadways are neatly cobbled. Because there are so few cars passing through (none parked on the streets themselves), pedestrians, especially tourists like myself who are less aware of the lay of the land, often walk in the roadway. It is necessary to watch out for oncoming bicycles, but it doesn’t seem risky or hazardous.

Yesterday at lunchtime we went down to one of the main squares in the old part of the city not far from the Kruisherenhotel where we’re staying. When I say “old,” I refer only to the age of the buildings. Most are brick or stone and date back to the 17th century and further. They are mainly narrow -- 15 or 20 feet wide, with two or three stories, and look beautifully solid and well maintained. Many have businesses on the ground floor -- shops, restaurants (a lot of little restaurants), clothing and shoe stores, etc., and above are apartments.

In the main square, which looks to be the size of a New York City block, is a cathedral dating back four or five centuries, and occupying most of one side. In the center there is only an empty bandstand. The other three sides are business thoroughfares occupied mainly by restaurants and cafes, one right after the other.

Although it was chilly (not cold) yesterday afternoon, the cafes were set up for business outside, warmed, under tents by overhead electric heaters which can be warm enough so that, like JH yesterday, you can’t sit under them for long.

After an unremarkable lunch (I had a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, JH had some kind of chicken with hot sauce and chopped vegetables concoction), we took a walk down some of the many narrow cobblestoned streets (no cars allowed at all) in the shopping district. Again many many restaurants, clothing stores (Hugo Boss, Tommy Hilfiger, Max Mara), shoe shops, camera shops, women’s boutiques, more restaurants, cheese shops. And lots of shoppers out strolling. We stopped to watch a man roasting coffee beans in the window of one.

And then we came to the river where many of the buildings looked like small private apartment houses with views of the newer part of the city across the way.
Left: Beginning our walk in Maastricht.
Lunching at an outdoor cafe; walking the streets; Roasting coffee beans in the window of a local shop.
Above: DPC digging into his onion soup and washing it down with a Grolsch. More eating and drinking (below, left) and immersed in reading (below, right).
An ice scream break.
A vast collection of bikes along the Maas.
A construction worker with a killer view.
Walking back to the hotel to freshen up and prepare for “Sculpture Highlights Maastricht” at La Bonbonniere later that night.
We started out the night at an exhibition of sculpture galleries called “Sculpture Highlights Maastricht” at La Bonbonniere, the oldest theatre in the Netherlands, which had been transformed into three floors of galleries occupied by dealers from France, Belgium, Spain, Germany and one from New York (and Paris), Galerie Vallois. The official pamphlet advertised “plenty of parking space within walking distance.”

“Sculpture Highlights Maastricht” at La Bonbonniere.
Most of the works dated from Greco-Roman and Asian up through 18th century European which were mainly religious. The place was very crowded and not unlike gallery exhibitions in New York with waiters in white jackets holding trays of glasses of orange juice and champagne. The champagne was exceptionally light and mild compared to what we get in America.

We met dealers from Germany and one, Peter Hardt who also has a gallery in Santa Barbara. Several had recently been in the art and antiques fair in Palm Beach and others were soon heading out to New York to the Asian art fairs in New York. All of it was a prelude leading up to the Big Number, namely, Maastricht which opens tomorrow.
Tobias and Peter Hardt of Gallerie Peter Hardt
Scenes at Antigüedades Linares, Madrid Spain.
Left: Christian Niederhuber and Oliver Habel of Numisart-Ancient Art, Munich.
Peeking through the window of Cafe Bonbonniere.
More sultry dinner scenes from Cafe Bonbonniere; Walking to catch our taxi to Beluga.
After a look around and JH’s glances with the Digital, we called for a taxi to take us to dinner. Dinner was at a restaurant called Beluga. We first heard about it from Mildred Snacker, the hospitality manager at the Kruisheren. She spoke of it with pride and enthusiam, the only restaurant in Maastricht with two stars in the Guide Michelin. As a result it is not so easy to get a table, at least last minute. Mildred tried to no avail to make a reservation for us early in the day. However, late in the afternoon, she learned that they had a cancellation and could take us about quarter to nine.

Beluga is located on the other side of the river from the old town, in what is a very modern and corporate part of the city. The restaurant itself is sleek and glass and steel modern also. We were met at the entrance by a very pretty and serious young blonde woman in a black pantsuit named Daniëlle de Boer. She and the chef, Hans van Wolde are partners (and formerly married) in the restaurant which they started almost six years ago.

All of the waitstaff, men and women, were dressed in black suits. Once seated we were brought two menus -- the tasting and the bill of fare. We ordered champagne (Charles Heidseick) and water. Shortly after our champagne arrived we were brought a tasting of small morsels on small rectangular plates. I cannot tell you what it was, (although it was explained), except for the first morsel, which was green (powdered herbs, caked, with a powdered beet covering). Taste? Fantastic, subtle, surprising. Each item was wildly creative to this stodgy bourgeois palette, and just enough to wish for more which was sated instantly by the next surprising morsel.

As we were eating, the chef suddenly appeared at table with menus and greeting. Van Wolde is very friendly fellow, with a bearish frame and the earnest demeanor of a good ambassador. He briefly explained the menu which was specially named Menu Tefaf.

The tasting menu (5 courses without lobster for 125 euros and 6 courses for 140 euros):

Turban-shaped pie of goat cheese and ginger with marinated coquilles St. Jacques, spring vegetables, sour tomato surrounded by roasted rice and a light lavendar vinaigrette.

Pink pepper and caramel shell filled with spider crab, crab liver, Ocietra caviar and light iron wort mayonaisse.

Medallions of lobster accompanied by asparagus, preserved raisins, capers and a clear lemon leaf sauce with star anise.

Asparagus from Venilo with wild turbot, oyster dumpling pickled pumpkin and an asparagus and camomile sauce.

Wieden Lamb from Giethoorn, in different preparations.

Two springtime desserts.
It is rare that you go to any restaurant, fancy or simple, where you’re paid a visit by the chef. It has occasionally happened to us because they might know that we are from the NYSD and will write about it. But otherwise, it is a rarity. Not at Beluga, we noticed during the course of the evening.

We ordered one tasting menu and one a la carte dinner of medaillons of lobster followed by Limburg (the province of Maastricht) chicken, none of which was prepared or served like an ordinary lobster or chicken dinner, and all of which was profoundly and wildly delicious. This was interspersed by a few small tasting items sent with the compliments of the chef.

I am not quite a finicky eater, nor a gourmand, so there can be a lingering suspicion about the delicate and intricate food preparations offered up by a very special restaurant like Beluga. That said, I must say that everything was excellent, full of surprise and delight and all as welcoming as chef himself. At tables all around us could be seen the same expressions of delight and satisfaction with what was put before them. The service, which I must say is characteristic in my experience of the Netherlands, was friendly and efficient.

After the main courses we visited the kitchen to get a picture of the chef and his staff. It is an open kitchen and in full view of certain tables, all of which were occupied at the time. The staff all got together in what looked like full cameraderie for us, and the guests looking on from their tables seemed to enjoy their posing for JH as much as they did.
Compliments of the chef: Eggs prepared in three diffferent ways with pureed carrots and apples (right).
Turban-shaped pie of goat cheese and ginger with marinated coquilles St. Jacques, spring vegetables, sour tomato surrounded by roasted rice and a light lavendar vinaigrette.
Top left: Crisp shell of caramel and pink peppers filled with crab liver, Ocietra caviar and light iron wort mayonnaise. Tight Preparation and spooning.
Medallions of lobster accompanied by asparagus, preserved raisins, capers and a clear lemon leaf sauce with star anise.
Asparagus from Venilo with wild turbot, oyster dumpling pickled pumpkin and an asparagus and camomile sauce.
Wieden Lamb from Giethoorn, in different preparations.
Hans van Wolde (second from left) and his spirited team.
Clockwise from top left: Two springtime desserts; Hans van Wolde and Daniëlle de Boer; The dining room at the end of the evening.
JH and DPC back at the Kruisherenhotel.