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A Saucier and his Apprentice

I SIP HOUSE-MADE RIESLING, BUTTER MY ROLL, AND SCAN the 17th-century Flemish tableaux in the dining room at Scholteshof, a gem of a country retreat tucked away in the dowdy Belgian province of Limburg, an hour east of Brussels. The canvases around me bustle with traders handling corseted maidens, market women cradling giant North Sea fish, bubbling pots, dangling spoons, baskets brimming with overripe fruit. The exuberant bounty of these northern European genre scenes offers a clue about what to expect from a weekend at Scholteshof.

For years I've been curious about the Belgian chef-hotelier Roger Souvereyns, Scholteshof's owner, a man obsessed with his garden, his paintings, and his trove of precious objets. A former antiques dealer, he opened Scholteshof in 1983. But even after earning two Michelin stars and a devoted following among European gourmands, Souvereyns is still considered a maverick by the establishment. An open kitchen?No cheese cart?No froufrou?No third star!

It was the recent rumors of the 60-year-old Souvereyns's plans to retire—and his anointment of a brilliant young Dane as his protégé and successor—that finally convinced me to book for a night in September. I was searching for my last great meal of this millennium in a place that might get even better in the next.

Nudging my Peugeot through the electric gates that enclose Souvereyns's Eden, I parked in the middle of a showroom of Mercedes and BMW's and made my way into the rambling, stone-and-brick 18th-century mansion. Instantly I fell for its mix of modern comforts, château ambitions (understated antiques, museum-quality paintings), and farmhouse familiarity (pumpkins in doorways, sunflowers on tables). The whole translates into the ideal contemporary bourgeois inn, so perfect, in fact, that Scholteshof's 18 guest rooms and suites are reserved months in advance.

My snug, narrow suite—loved the cozy quilts and the grand bathroom—faced the estate's lawns, parterres, and hedge mazes."Ma Rolls-Royce"is how Souvereyns refers to his extravagant 25-acre garden (this from a man who owns a cherry-red Jag). You can lose track of time and direction ambling amid the herb beds and ornamental shrubs; lingering in formal French allées and wild English-style meadows; playing hide-and-seek among the statuary, topiary, gazebos, and ponds; and surveying the small vineyard, the flocks of chickens and ducks, the endless ranks of vegetables—all the while dreaming of dinner.

The restaurant's open kitchen, with its brass pots, hanging spoons, and ornate antique stove, feels like a 3-D extension of the art on the walls. Souvereyns, bearded and silver-haired, assembles plates behind a long marble counter, aided by a tall blond assistant who seems to do nothing all night but transfer salsify from skillet to plates. Compared to the razzmatazz of American show kitchens, Scholteshof's dinner theater is more Brecht than Broadway. Still, the energy here sure beats the shoe-squeaking, pearl-rattling ennui one endures in the name of haute cuisine at other European top spots.

In Souvereyns's kitchen the relationship between flora and food is sophisticated and simple: no hyper-regional herbal concoctions à la French chef Marc Veyrat, no California fetishism. Souvereyns makes no apologies for the carrot tasting just like itself (it's lovely in the velvety chilled carrot soup). In his signature dish, sautéed Belgian endive is specked with diced truffles and topped by a foie gras carpaccio slightly melted by the heat of the plate. The surprise here is that—true to the location—it's the endive, not the foie gras, that carries the dish.

Another Souvereyns classic rhymes plump langoustines and chunks of chard stems in a light sweetish nage(broth), infused with lemon balm and a bit of vanilla to coax out the chard's delicate sweetness. Even a die-hard carnivore will adore thecroquant de légumes, a modern-day Flemish still life of tiny onions, beets, eggplant, puréed pumpkin, and celeriac—all touched with an orange-anise reduction. When was the last time an onion sent you into ecstasy?

If Souvereyns's approach is voluptuous and earthy, the dishes developed by his disciple, 27-year-old Kasper Kurdahl, are a lesson in subtle suggestion. Before working with Souvereyns for five years, Kurdahl apprenticed in the world's premier kitchens (El Bulli, Alain Ducasse, and Jean Georges, among others), and emerged filled with ideas. In his lush, quivering lettuce-and-potato mousseline dabbed with a caviar cream, a sweet, haunting note of chartreuse-infused oil is the touch of genius that rounds up the rich, mellow flavors. One of the most inspired dishes I tasted this year was Kurdahl's deceptively simple plate of rouget(red mullet) accompanied by a gossamer wafer stacked with mascarpone. There was a whisper of licorice in the fish's glaze, an insinuation of Thai curry in the green-tomato-and-rhubarb chutney, a hint of basil in the sauce. But all these little complexities added up to a stunningly calibrated palette of flavors.

A few interesting finds stand out on the patrician wine list, and the desserts play up the garden theme in whimsical ways: a crème-brûlée made with tomato-and-grapefruit confit; sautéed zucchini flowers filled with diced pear, accented with rose vinegar, and served with bee-pollen ice cream.

Over a breakfast of Ardennes ham and perfect pâtisserie, I asked Souvereyns about his plans. His retirement date isn't written in stone, but—having worked 18-hour days since the age of 14—he feels that in a year or two he'll deserve to finally shelve the sauté pan: to rest, travel, see more gardens, collect more of his beloved antiques. And he has complete confidence in Kurdahl's ability to take this remarkable kitchen into the 21st century.
Scholteshof 130 Kermtstraat, Stevoort, Belgium; 32-11/250-202, fax 32-11/254-328; doubles from $150; prix fixe menus from $100 per person. Open year-round.

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