Michèl Kagenaar spent years in the kitchen slicing, sautéing and poaching his way to one of gastronomy’s highest awards: a Michelin star. In 2004, six years after opening De’n Dillegard in Nuth, Netherlands, he got it.
If reviews are to be believed, the food at Dillegard was fantastic; the ambiance magical. The place was perpetually packed, even as prices went through the roof.
But the good times wouldn’t last.
In 2008, the global economy tanked and “suddenly, people realized 200, 300 euros — that’s a lot of money for two people to eat out,” said Frank Lion, a longtime maitre d’ for some of the top kitchens in the Netherlands’ Limburg province.
In Maastricht, the provincial capital, diners began spurning the city’s five Michelin star-rated restaurants for its 400 unrated but decent joints, Lion said.
Dillegard, a small restaurant in a blip of a town half an hour outside Maastricht, struggled along with its big-city peers, he said.
But while Maastricht’s star restaurants opened cheap bistros to bankroll their flailing luxury kitchens, Kagenaar did what many restaurateurs would consider unthinkable: He gave his star back to Michelin and started over.
After a quick remodeling, he re-opened in early 2009 under a new name: Eten Bij Michèl.
“Michelin was not amused,” said Lion, now maitre d’ at Michèl. “They’re not used to that. They’d rather take (a star) away than have you give it back.”
These days, a Michelin Man statuette hangs in the kitchen as a reminder of the caliber to which the restaurant still strives. Yet the dining room’s atmosphere is relaxed enough that you can roll up your sleeves without feeling self-conscious. The plush white seats and fancy white tablecloths that gave Dillegard an air of formality have made way for wooden tables and chairs. The once-white walls are now dotted with edgy works of art.
To keep prices down (though not exactly low), Eten Bij Michèl now employs a more casual menu to match its loosened-up atmosphere. Posh ingredients such as caviar and lobster are out; merely expensive ones such as scallops and veal are in.
While similar fare might be found in the expensive section of other menus nearby, the quality of ingredients and the care with which dishes are prepared and served at Michèl are a cut above its non-star peers.
This starts with Lion, whose recommendations and descriptions are delivered with breathless ease in English as well as Dutch. Take advantage of his wine tips — after some 30 years working the top end of the Dutch culinary scene, he knows what he’s talking about.
Listen as well to his effusive descriptions of Michèl’s seasonal menu, which changes frequently as fresh ingredients hit the market. Because Michèl’s standard menu isn’t particularly deep, the seasonal offerings keep the place interesting.
The full, four-course seasonal menu is a relatively steep 45 euros a head, not including beverages. Drop the pasta course and the bill falls to 35 euros per person for an appetizer, main course and dessert.
In mid-December, the less ambitious version of the seasonal menu started with an appetizer of sauerkraut, sweetened with raisins and apples, served on a thin slice of rare, tender venison, capped with a silver onion bathed in balsamic vinegar and sprinkled with sauce simmered from the juices of the deer.
That was followed by roast filet of boar so soft you could cut it with a fork, served on a bed of red cabbage alongside Brussels sprouts with bacon, a torpedo of mashed potatoes and crispy mushrooms. Apple pie — not a slice, but a cupcake-sized pie — next to a scoop of vanilla ice cream ended the meal.
One last bit of advice: Don’t be in a rush, because good food made to order takes time. Without a dinner companion in tow, it took more than two hours to saunter through the three courses. But it was worth it.
Compared to the average restaurant, it is expensive, but not out of reach for those looking for a star-level experience without breaking the bank.
“Just fresh ingredients prepared to the same star standard, but payable,” Lion said. “That’s the goal.”
Eten Bij Michel
Location: Dorpstraat 89, 6361 EK Nuth, Netherlands
Directions: From the main gate of Joint Force Command Brunssum, head west on Rimburgerweg toward Beekstraat. Continue straight as the road changes names to Prins Hendriklaan, then to Bodenemplein, then to Karel Doormanstraat. At the traffic circle, take the second exit onto Emmaweg. Continue straight through three more traffic circles; at the fourth, take the first exit onto Akerstraat Noord. After a half mile, turn left onto Patersweg/N298; two miles later, turn left onto Van Eijnattenweg/N298. A half mile later, turn right onto Dorpstraat, then turn left to stay on Dorpstraat. The restaurant will be on your left across from a church.
Hours: Wednesday-Sunday, 5-10 p.m.
Food: Mediterranean and Dutch cuisine; well-known for its pasta.
Prices: Appetizers from 16.50 euros; ravioli stuffed with ricotta and fresh scampi served with a basil bisque, 16 euros; wild sea bream, fried skin-on with ratatouille and potato mousseline sauce with fresh herbs, 24.50; children’s menu from 10 euros; desserts from 9.50 euros.
Dress: Smart casual.
Information: Phone (+31) (0) 45-5245594; website www.etenbijmichel.nl.