Tanned and sporting a six o'clock shadow, his angular features with piercing hazel eyes give him more the look of a Hollywood matinée idol, while a fashion model/TV presenter wife completes the picture. His self-published multimedia "art-object-book," 'Sergiology,' "relates to everything that made me what I am today," and he even has his own magazine, 'Sergio,' where you can read articles about Sergio's childhood and what he likes to eat and drink during the day (a jitter-inducing eight espressos if you're interested).
I can guess what you're thinking, but it's not at all what it seems. For this bravado turns out not to be misplaced, and can certainly be forgiven as soon as you taste one of Sergio's dishes. For here, in a lesser-known corner of the Netherlands, virtually straddling the Belgian border, Sergio has succeeded in creating one of the world's most remarkable restaurants.
It was Sergio's grandfather, Georges, who first opened Oud Sluis some 50 years ago in the small Dutch town of Sluis as a simple café-bistro, where an omelette or croque-monsieur would have been the order of the day. Twenty years later Georges' daughter and son-in-law, Ans and Ronnie, took over and the place soon garnered quite a local reputation for seafood.
Then in 1991, the baton was passed to their 21-year-old son, Sergio, who began the radical transformation of the restaurant into the culinary powerhouse it is today, a transformation that would alienate previous guests yet put the small town of Sluis firmly on the maps of food-lovers around the world.
Although Sergio had some previous experience working with the well-known Dutch chef Cas Spijkers at his then two Michelin-starred restaurant De Swaen, as well as a stint at El Bulli (years before everyone did a stint at El Bulli), it was Sergio's father Ronnie that would most shape his son's culinary outlook:
"The single most important person in my life is my father: he taught me most of all, he literally pounded every flavour and sauce into me. He was my greatest critic. Now I know why and I will forever be grateful to him for it. The rest I did and invented myself, with blood sweat and tears. Lots of tears," says Sergio.
Those tears paid off and Oud Sluis gained its first Michelin star in 1995, followed by a second in 1999. In 2005 Michelin awarded the restaurant its highest accolade of three stars and it has achieved a rare 20 out of 20 in the fabled Gault Millau, one of France's most influential guides. In addition, Oud Sluis has featured in Restaurant Magazine's "World's 50 Best" list for the last eight years running. Sergio's position at the top of the fine-dining world was secure.
But then, in June 2013, came the news that Sergio was to give it all up and take a step back from the brutal hours at the coalface of Michelin-starred cooking. He had achieved all he wanted to achieve at Oud Sluis and now was the right time to bring this chapter to a close. Although this had been on the cards for a while, the news still came as a shock to the restaurant world. It was now official: at the end of 2013, Oud Sluis would shut its doors for good. Presumably leaving Sergio free to gallop off into the sunset – admittedly a fitting Hollywood ending.
However, Sergio plans to stay busy with his other two restaurants, the Michelin-starred Pure-C on the Zealand coast near Sluis, and the soon-to-open La Chapelle across the border in Antwerp, which he will still be involved with, although presumably on a more hands-off basis. He also aims to focus more time on his burgeoning culinary publishing house, Minestrone. But for Oud Sluis the clock is ticking, and the last coffee of the last meal there will be served on 22nd December 2013.
By a small stroke of luck I had managed to book a table before the news broke, bringing with it a flood of reservation requests that would fill the restaurant for the rest of the year. So it was that I found myself standing in Beestenmarkt square in the centre of Sluis – a busy, but pretty shopping town of some 24,000 with, it seems, a surprisingly large number of sex shops for a town of this size.
The restaurant is located in a former ancient farmhouse with whitewashed walls and terracotta tiles. Inside, the twee exterior gives way to something altogether different. A modern and neutral design of beige, white and black gives the dining room a fairly generic style, and it feels like you could be at any number of the 'modern European' restaurants that seem to abound in cities like Dubai, Las Vegas, and Moscow. A jarring Euro techno soundtrack playing over the speakers further reinforces the feeling of eating in an anonymous bachelor pad.
Thankfully, the food when it arrives is anything but anonymous. And arrive it does. Each course comes in waves of plates containing a myriad of ingredients, flavours, and textures. It's an intense, and at times overwhelming marvel of modern cooking. It is simply astounding.
Amuse Bouche 1: We begin with a neat amuse of parmesan, black olive, fermented anchovy, fennel, and basil sorbet served on a cold polished stone. It's a one-bite wonder full of the powerful, sweet, spicy notes of the Mediterranean. This was a bold opening statement – if you were expecting the ultra-local/foraged brand of cooking then Oud Sluis is clearly not that sort of place.
Amuse Bouches 2 & 3: The next two courses arrive together and comprise of a "crazy mushroom" (we are in Holland after all) made from avocado cream served with toasted brioche, macadamia nuts and sour cream. The second bowl contained a refreshing and cooling vegetable ceviche.
Amuse Bouches 4 & 5: From the Mediterranean to Japan in one course. Here, sweet, creamy Zealand eel had been lightly smoked before being grilled and glazed with miso, and was served with crisp winter radishes – a wonderful combination of flavours, textures and temperatures. Alongside this was a dish of squid, beautifully charred, served with elderflower and rosemary. I counted about ten different elements in each dish – so complicated, yet so divine.
Amuse Bouches 6 & 7: Next came one of Oud Sluis' most famous dishes – a duo of oysters. A pillowy steamed Cantonese-style bun was filled with pork belly and dusted with bits of crisp bacon. This was served with a flat Zealand oyster encased in jelly and tiny ice-cold spheres of oyster emulsion. A 'surf and turf' like no other – I adored this dish.
Alongside this was a sea bass tartare with lime, bergamot and jalapeño served in a hollowed out lime. Clean tasting and sparklingly acidic; this was a great dish.
Course 1: For the first course proper, four different dishes arrived. The first was a beautiful sweet and bitter crab salad with sea buckthorn and jalapeño sauce. This was served with a small side dish of crab, radish and bergamot vinaigrette and a thin pumpkin and pumpkin seed crisp. The real star of this course, though, was a small pot of an unbelievably rich and heady crab bisque, with flavours of crab and shellfish that were so intense that it was all I could do not to lick every last drop from the narrow, deep jug – I could quite happily have bathed in the stuff.
Course 2: Then came a little one-bite dish, echoing some of the flavours of the previous course. Smooth foie gras mousse layered between crisp discs of pumpkin and sea buckthorn, finished with a puck of bergamot ice to cleanse the palate as we get ready for the next dish.
Course 3: Again, another visual masterpiece, painstakingly constructed, of fat pieces of gently smoked Oosterschelde lobster, Parmesan, dried egg yolk, grilled artichoke, Ibérico ham, white asparagus, morels, and artichoke risotto. This was a real highlight of the meal; a myriad of flavours all perfectly balanced and just a joy to eat. Stunning!
Course 4: "Glimpse of Spring" arrived in a large petri dish-like plate looking every bit like a piece of culinary art. It was just so beautiful. We were told that the left side of the plate represented winter and contained root vegetables like turnips, radishes and beetroot. As we moved clockwise around the plate the flavours gradually gave way to spring, with vibrant green peas, broad beans and wild herbs. Polenta crisps added texture, while a fresh goat milk yoghurt, tapenade and capers in the centre bound everything together nicely.
Course 5: A double header next and the first of our sojourns to Indonesia. Indonesia used to be a Dutch colony and some of the best Indonesian food I've had has been in Holland. This dish was served in the form of two separate servings. The first was Indonesian spiced brill served with oyster jelly, razor clam, smoked eel, and 'Serundeng' (an Indonesian accompaniment of sautéed grated coconut). The second bowl contained a crisp vibrant salad of young leeks, germ seeds, and fennel with a kaffir lime oil dressing.
Course 6: "Sergio's Fish Soup 2013." Next was a dish whose recipe came from Sergio's grandfather. Brill, langoustines and a flat oyster provided the sweet iodine taste of the sea, while an intense shellfish broth was poured over the top. This was perhaps my favourite dish of the evening – rich, heady and full of the sparkling flavours of the ocean; this was such a wonderful course.
Course 7: "Holstein with skin & bones." The next course comprised of no less than four separate servings. A dish of beef tartare with beetroot was silky smooth and cooling, while a small bowl of fragrant beef rendang was a creamier and soupier version of this Sumatran classic. A small black spoon contained bone marrow with shallots and pasta. However, the main attraction was a piece of roast Holstein beef that was impossibly tender, with a deep meaty savouriness to it. Another wonderful course, but at times it just seemed like too much to take in at once.
Course 8: A dessert of chocolate with smoked tea and blood orange looked achingly beautiful on the plate and had a great contrast in texture.
Course 9: A second dessert of green apple mousse was served on a biscuit base with aloe vera, wheatgrass and a 'snow' of fresh yoghurt. This was a very unusual dessert; the vegetal, grassy notes of the aloe vera and wheatgrass at times jarred with the sweetness of the other components. I think it would have been better to have served this one before the chocolate; its cleansing freshness would have been more suited to following the fatty richness of the beef.
Course 10: "White Rosary." A playful dessert of a sweet gelatinous 'rosary' (sorry I can't be more specific) surrounded grilled pineapple, coconut, vanilla, and passion fruit.
Course 11: "Face in the Box." Finally we are served what the waiter cheerfully describes as "Sergio's face in a box." Atop a porcelain box are three sculptures of a tongue, teeth, and an ear. We're told to lick the 'ear,' which turned out to contain various forms of pineapple, yoghurt, tonka beans and kaffir lime. On top of the 'teeth' was a chocolate starfish (ahem) with passion fruit, while the 'tongue' held an unknown, but tasty "bitter, sweet, sour, salty" concoction. Inside the porcelain box was a 'face' made from gels of black sesame, hazelnut, violets, and roses that we could also eat. This was a really fun, if a little contrived, way of serving petit fours and it certainly brought smiles to the table.
We left Oud Sluis that night in awe, yet a little dazed. That we had witnessed a master at work was in no doubt. To be sure, this is confident, bold cooking of the highest calibre. This is food from one of the world's leading chefs at the peak of his form. Yet at times it felt like a full-on assault of the senses and the risk is that you can become overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of the dishes. Each dish is an immensely intricate affair with a multitude of components that are often different expressions of the same ingredient designed to be eaten in succession. This is about as impressive as cooking gets, but sometimes I found myself yearning for a little respite – a little familiar toehold that I could grab and take a breather while processing this torrent of extraordinary dishes.
Sergio's brand of ultra-refined cooking, with its roots in Zealand, along with a few detours to Southeast Asia and the Mediterranean, is simply a stunning tour de force. Dinner here is not so much a meal as an intense study of modern gastronomy.
I'm still not entirely sure what happened for those few hours inside the four walls of this old farmhouse in Sluis, but I do know that I had my mind completely blown. It's the end of an era for this three Michelin-starred restaurant, and Oud Sluis and the level of cooking that Sergio brought to it will be sorely missed.
Food: 10 / 10
Service: 9 / 10
Ambiance: 6 / 10
4524 EA Sluis
Tel:+31 117 461 269