Posted on Nov 08, 2018
There’s a moment during the service at this fabulous restaurant when the owner Willem Hiele stands in the middle of the room and asks for silence.
Like a conductor in front of an orchestra, Willem cuts an imposing figure as he proceeds to explain the dishes to his audience.
Everyone sits transfixed by the stories behind his culinary creations.
Later, he will also go from table to table, again spelling out (in the language of the diner) what they are about to consume.
This, actually, is just one component of what Willem does at his restaurant, located very close to the Belgian coast.
Not only does Willem explain things in this way, he prepares the food, serves it - and isn’t too proud to then collect the empty plates.
There’s something deeply satisfying to see an individual so consumed and passionate about their work, as Willem clearly is, that they’re so hands-on in this way.
Willem is a big guy, the sort who stands out in a crowd. That’s entirely appropriate because this is relatively young Belgian chef who produces truly stand-out food.
For those yet to experience his work, evidence of this comes in the clutch of top awards that have come his way.
These include being voted “Discovery of the Year” in 2017 by Gault & Millau (the restaurant guide also gave him an impressive 15 out of 20 points for the quality of his food).
Willem is also listed by OAD in the 2018 Top European Restaurants.
Earlier this year, the Michelin inspection team listed his restaurant, Willem Hiele, in this year’s guide with a Michelin Plate, meaning that he “cooks great food with quality ingredients.”
Any visit here starts with the warm and welcoming reception one is given both by Willem and his charming wife Shannah.
Considering the sheer quality of what awaits it is reassuring to be put at ease in this way, something that contrasts with the stuffy and formal reception normally found at fine dining establishments.
The same goes for the décor and general ambience – the food may be top notch but there’s no sense of superiority here.
The food fest actually commences with some quite delightful small appetisers, including radish and a 24-month-old cheese, green cabbage containing braised pheasant and mussels in a beignet (batter). These are cooked in a local stout and squid, giving them a purple/black colouring.
Willem calls this dish “Purple Rain,” his homage to Prince, of his musical heroes.
On a Friday and Saturday, there is a menu comprising five starters, one main and a desert.
The first starter is oyster sourced from the Netherlands with burnt butter and fermented green cabbage while the second is a cerviche of haddock (marinated raw fish which is a typical Peruvian dish).
Next up is a shrimp soup served with a bowl of shrimps fished the same morning from the nearby North Sea.
Presenting the dish gives Willem a chance to tell the interesting story of how his ancestors, horse fishermen at the nearby Belgian coast, once used to fish shrimps and other North Sea fish.
A pristine black and white framed photograph of Pieter, his great grandfather and former fisherman, sits proudly on a table in the centre of the dining room.
The photo, dating to 1903,is a rather lovely way of connecting the food Willem serves today with his family history.
He points out that Pieter and other relatives were fishing in the North Sea as far back as 1832, which predates Belgian independence.
After this entertaining short interlude, the fourth and fifth starters are served, consisting, first, of scallops with a Japanese Saki gel and accompanied by a Japanese rice wine.
The final starter is sea bream which again gives Willem the chance to provide another masterclass for his customers.
The fish is cooked outside in the courtyard on a wood burner and people are invited to go outside and watch it being smoked, grilled and steamed. This is done with the aid of a blanket which, Willem explains, helps retain the taste and flavour of the fish.
If the appetisers and starters are something to behold then so too is the main course which, this being the game season, is hare.
Willem, unlike many restaurants in Belgium, sources his game, via a friend, from a supplier in the south of England.
As with the fish, he takes the trouble to show diners the pre-cooked item, before adorning it with his skill and love.
The dish is served with a tarte made with chicory and a mouse of apple and onion.
It is quite delicious as is everything else that has preceded it.
Willem makes good use of the wood burner for the final tasty treat – desert of Brussels waffle served with almond ice cream.
The 5-dish course, or “small trail” as it’s called, consists of 3 starters, a main and a desert.
At present, Willem serves seven courses per week but this will rise to eight from 1 January 2019.
The fabulous food here is very carefully paired with some wonderful wines and this is where the very friendly Shannah really comes into her own.
Her story itself is intriguing: educated at Gent University, she’s a philosophy graduate and former teacher.
She readily concedes that a career in education was derailed the moment she met Willem, saying, “He was so incredibly passionate about this work that I was totally infected by his enthusiasm.”
Effectively a self-taught sommelier,she very expertly explains the wines which include a lovely full bodied white from Slovenia, served with the fish, and (for the main course) an equally tasty Romania red.
Perhaps calling on her former job, Shannah likes to “educate” clients on the wonders of wines from places like Hungary and Austria.
The building is said to be one of the oldest in the area and has been home to a long line – eight generations, no less – of Willem’s ancestors.
Both Willem and Shannah come from Ostend but are now happily forging a great reputation for themselves from this beautiful restaurant.
Willem, still just 37, is a “North Sea Chef” – a kind of ambassador for promoting less popular fish – and is also a great believer in organic products with the aim of being self-sufficient.
The restaurant’s garden contains trees of no less than 19 different varieties of apple and it was here that the couple five years ago exchanged their marriage vows.
They call it their “la pomme d’amour” – apple of love – and there’s certainly lots of lovely food at this fine restaurant.
Pylyserlaan 138, Koksijde
0032 (0) 58 596221
Image: Lou Stekjal, an American foodblogster
Follow EU Today on Social media: