Dinner - Peter Goossens' Hof Van Cleve

Located about a 50 minute drive northwest of Brussels, in what appears to be a serene cow pasture, is the tiny culinary paradise of Hof Van Cleve. I had heard fabulous things about this restaurant, so I could not refuse an invitation from good friends/subscribers in Belgium. It's hard to find as it's off the beaten track, but the chef's dedication is apparent upon entry, as the kitchen is as big as the entire restaurant (which seats only 35 or so people). The cuisine was extraordinarily refined, creative, and both hedonistically and intellectually satisfying. Thirty-nine year old Chef Goossens is indeed brilliant. This was the most sophisticated and creative meal I have enjoyed in Europe in several years, surpassing many Michelin three-star French restaurants. The courses ranged from brilliant to sublime. The extraordinary array of hors d'oeuvres set the stage for a fabulous evening. I loved the coquilles St.-Jacques and the hops with the grey shrimp from the Belgian coastline. The first asparagus of the season (the Belgians only eat white asparagus) were to die for. Their explosive flavors made me, a diehard meat eater, believe I could actually be a vegetarian if all vegetables were this good. That was followed by the only course I thought missed slightly ... a combination of the famed blue lobster and cheeks of beef. They are two of my favorite foods, but the combination did not work as well as the chef's other dishes. I have eaten a lot of pigeon in my life, but the greatest has been this creation of pigeon stuffed with truffles and little crispies served on a bed of creamy mashed potatoes made in the style of the famed French chef, Robouchon. When the chef came to our table after the meal, I asked him why Belgian pigeons taste so much better than French? He laughed and said, "Because it flew here from France." This was an extraordinary meal. I was pleased to read in the new Gault-Miliu Guide, it received a 19.5, the highest rating of any Belgian restaurant. For some reason, the Michelin Guide has not seen fit to award it more than two stars, although it is clearly as good, if not better than most French three star establishments in which I have recently eaten.

As for the wines, we had a corked bottle of 1988 Krug Clos du Mesnil, but the extraordinary performance of the 1981 Krug made up for that. I disagreed with the majority and thought there was a trace of oxidation on the 1992 Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Françaises, but I enjoyed its full-bodied, powerful palate feel.

The white wine flight was dominated by the extraordinary 1992 Domaine Leflaive Bâtard Montrachet. What a great vintage 1992 was for Leflaive! This offering was pure nectar. The 1995 DRC Montrachet is still young, and I would not recommend opening a bottle for another 4-5 years. While it is powerful and concentrated with an extraordinary underlying minerality, it remains very backward. The third wine was served blind, and I thought it was a 7-8 year old top flight California Chardonnay. It turned out to be the 1996 Marcassin Chardonnay from the Marcassin Vineyard. This particular bottle seemed more loosely knit than I remember it from my cellar, but then again, coming after the tightly knit, structured DRC Montrachet may have accounted for the way it tasted. It certainly was not embarrassed by its two predecessors, and clearly held its own.

The next two wines, the 1947 and 1948 Vieux Château Certan, have, on occasion, hit the magic 100-point score, but neither of these bottles, which were brought to the dinner by Jacques Thienpont (the owner of Le Pin), reached that peak. Nevertheless, they were fabulous wines, with the 1947 revealing a hint of balsamic vinegar along with wonderful port-like flavors, rich fruit, and loads of body as well as intensity. The 1948 Vieux Château Certan exhibited drier tannin and a more Médoc-like style with the Cabernet component showing through.

The next flight was one of the most fascinating tastings I have done in twenty-five years. It included the château-bottled 1947 Cheval Blanc (long regarded by most wine commentators as one of the two or three greatest wines of the 20th century) and the Belgian-bottled 1947 Cheval Blanc (bottled by the famous firm of Vandermeulen) There is a lot of speculation about what Vandermeulen did, but the bottles were top-flight. The rumors about the two brothers who run the firm adding a bottle or two of vintage port to each of the barrels has been confirmed by more than one source. In any event, after a long speech by the owner of both of these wines that the Belgian bottling was clearly the better wine, sure enough, the château bottling performed better on this evening ... but both wines were stupendous. The château bottling was pristine, pure, and incredibly vigorous and young, with only a slight degradation of color. It offered magnificently broad, expansive aromas and flavors. Very simply, it was a wine to die for! The Belgian bottling started off sweeter and more clumsy, but by the time I had my last drop, it had taken on weight as well as definition, and I wondered if it was just more retarded in its development? The other 1947 in the flight was Mouton Rothschild, one of the top two Médocs of this vintage (the other being Calon Ségur). One of the funny side stories is that one of the guests, after tasting the two 1947 Cheval Blancs said, 

"I've got a bottle of the 1947 Mouton Rothschild outside in my car. Would anyone like to taste it?"

 One has to love the generosity and hedonism of the Belgians!

The next flight included a monolithic (I always seem to find it that way) 1959 Petrus, and a just beginning to decline but still profound 1955 La Mission-Haut-Brion (another wine that can hit the century mark in points).

We then switched gears, moving into Burgundy. There was a tough competition between two 1990s that I had originally rated 100 points. I have said many times, and still believe it in spite of what happened at this particular tasting, that the 1990 DRC La Tâche is the greatest young Burgundy I have ever tasted. It was again magnificent. Although not perfect, it was a young, vibrant, and extraordinarily complex, brilliant wine the likes of which are nearly impossible to duplicate. However, the wine of the flight was Claude Dugat's 1990 Griotte Chambertin. Even the diehard DRC collectors found it hard to believe that a newcomer like Claude Dugat could have produced a wine that outperformed the DRC in richness, aromatic complexity, and extraordinary depth of flavor. I was even surprised. These are both profoundly great red Burgundies, and anyone who owns them has true treasures in the cellar.

The 1942 DRC La Tâche was a very old, delicate wine, yet it still retained that marvelous sweetness offered by ripe Pinot Noir. Somehow the 1981 Le Pin just got lost after the series of three profound red Burgundies.

I looked forward with great anticipation to the 1921 Y'quem (probably the greatest Y'quem I have ever had), but when the color looked like Coca Cola, I was skeptical. The wine was shot. What a shame! That disappointment quickly faded with the extraordinary 1795 Madeira Terrantez Barbeito. I have reviewed this wine in the past, and it is a magnificent Madeira that will undoubtedly last another 50-100 years. It was an incredible finish to an incredible evening of great food, great wine, and the fabulous generosity of my hosts, a group of extremely knowledgeable Belgian wine enthusiasts.

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