If Claude and Livine de Beyter weren't so busy being first-class hoteliers, the Belgian government might consider putting them on the payroll as guardians of state secrets. Just look at how successful the couple have been at keeping their Hostellerie Shamrock under wraps.
The five-room auberge has been in operation for 31 years, yet has anyone ever heard of it?I know people who make a sport of sleeping and eating their way through the Relais & Châteaux catalogue (the Shamrock is a member), but when I ran the name by them, they all looked at me with an expression that said, "If it were that great, we'd know about it."
My discovery of the inn comes not a second too soon. With the shuttering last year of the landmark Domein Scholteshof, I was robbed of what had been my most compelling reason for visiting the Belgian countryside. Call me a floozy with my affections, but now the Shamrock is. Scholteshof has ceded to the Shamrock its mantle as the Low Countries' best country restaurant and most stylish, original, and civilized inn.
In cultivating an exquisitely low profile, the De Beyters are only honoring the Shamrock's distinguished pedigree. Hidden on the fringes of a handsome village in the wooded Ardennes plateau 35 miles west of Brussels, the half-timbered, two-story manor house was built in 1928 as the hunting lodge of a baron from Ghent. The architect was clearly besotted with the great Arts and Crafts country houses Edwin Lutyens designed in England in the late 19th century. Original to the residence is an enchanting Orientalist salon where Madame de Beyter serves afternoon tea. In a touch typical of the rather stern proprietress, tea is poured from squat Japanese iron pots into sprigged Limoges porcelain cups.
The De Beyters, who live on-site but magically seem to be around only when you need them, gave the building the formal setting it had always deserved. The rigorously structured garden designed by Jacques Wirtz—one of the half-dozen or so most important landscape architects working today—is not one you have to be a garden lover to love. The payoff is as great for the botanical naïf who simply wanders the "rooms" defined by tall beech and hornbeam hedges as it is for the plantsman who can rattle off all 12 species of lavender. Wirtz, whose public projects include the Tuileries in Paris and who numbers among his private clients Catherine Deneuve, sees his designs in musical terms, likening the creating and releasing of tension in his gardens to that in a classical fugue.
Wirtz's plan includes a potager that supplies Claude De Beyter, Shamrock's chef, with the turnips he slices and drapes like leaves of pasta over lobster. De Beyter's idea of a vacation is to fuel up with inspiration and sharpen his skills for a few days in a three-star kitchen, as he did once at La Côte d'Or in Burgundy. Like many top Belgian chefs, he cooks as if decadence were its own reward, with foie gras and truffles cast in prominent roles. Service in the restaurant and throughout the auberge is professional, if a little icy. When a waiter neglected to describe the amuse-bouche, the glare Madame shot him across the dining room suggested a felony had been committed. It's not just her fist that's iron; it's her glove, too. I wonder whether that waiter still has a job.
Don't be surprised if the prettiest hotel room you might stay in this year is one of the Shamrock's. Garden views that will have you marooned for hours are a feature of all the accommodations, which have pleasing lead-mullioned windows and are appointed in a deceptively simple idiom. A couple of swing-arm wall lights, a bit of chintz, a marble-topped pedestal table, an oil of dahlias and gladioli that echoes the chintz—seems easy, right?
Try it, then call a professional decorator.
148 Ommegangstraat, Maarkedal, Belgium; 32-55/215-529; www.relaischateaux.com; doubles from $190; dinner for two $180.