Dining with ghosts: Dinner at Hindsgavl
So, let me ask you this: When was the last time you ate a multi-course gourmet dinner in a restaurant named after an unruly and mischievous entity? No such luck? Well, then, allow me to tell you about my Friday night at our annual company Christmas dinner, which this year took place at the beautiful, historic and supposedly haunted Hindsgavl Castle.
Hindsgavl Castle dates back to the 12th century and sits beautifully on the outskirts of Danish seaside town of Middelfart on the island of Funen. I know, I said Middlefart, are we done laughing? Alright, moving on then! Hindsgavl Castle is surrounded by forest on one side, the sea on another and is nestled nicely on large grounds that hold both the castle itself, a large garden, a small park, a number of other buildings and some pastures green that are home to a large and, by now, rather famous herd of deer, some of which actually make it onto the plates of food served at Hindsgavl.
The castle is reached by a long avenue through the surrounding woods, the final stretch of which actually runs straight through the pastures on which the deer graze freely. It’s quite an impressive trip that can be done either by car or on foot. And I’ll be the first to recommend going by car if you plan to arrive after nightfall as we did last Friday. Lest of course you want to end up like me, struggling through an unlit deer-filled field on foot in the depths of night – after you’ve made it out from being lost in the woods, that is! It’s doable, of course, but let’s just say I was well pleased when I finally managed to flag down a cab containing several of my colleagues and was able to hitch a ride with them for the rest of the way.
But I digress. Having rescued our fair hero from out in the fields, we arrived by cab in the torch-lit courtyard in front of the Castle’s main building where we stood in awe for a while before making our way in. There’s something awe-inspiring about large, ancient buildings; be they castles, mansions or whatever, and Hindsgavl is no exception – especially not at night when the windows are all lit up, and torches light the courtyard. Aesthetics aside, it was fucking cold outside, though, so we rather quickly made our way inside where we were greeted by a friendly hostess and let to the beautifully restored bar area, where we gathered in sets of comfy chairs and sofas in a corner, chatting over a nice, crisp little glass of Cremant de Bourgogne while we waited for dinner to be served in the adjoining and somewhat cheekily named restaurant.
The White Lady of Hindsgavl
Hindsgavl is by no means the first castle I’ve wined and dined at. Neither is it the first supposedly haunted location I’ve spent an evening in. It is, however, the first place I’ve been to that has actually named their restaurant after the entity that supposedly walks its halls. Yup, that’s right, Hindsgavl’s cozy little 30-or-so seat restaurant takes its name, Den Hvide Dame (literally: The White Lady), from the White Lady of Hindsgavl; an unfortunate young bride who lost her life in a carriage crash on her wedding day centuries ago and has since been said to show herself to male guests at the stroke of midnight.
With our wining and dining experience set to last well into the night, who knew what might happen? All I could say for sure when we were led to our table was that the place generally seemed entirely un-spooky and decidedly warm and cozy: Within the last ten years or so, the castle has been beautifully restored with no uncertain amount of respect for the original buildings and their feel, yet with a more modern and timeless edge to it. It was obviously an upscale kind of place, but neither posh nor snobbish. In other words, a perfect place for the likes of Johan.
Having taken in the feel of the place, our little party of ten or so quickly found our places along a table in the far end of the restaurant and sat down to a beautifully set table with white cloths, napkins, silver dinnerware and all that jazz. At least from the looks of it, we were in for a pretty good dining experience and my suspicion was confirmed when a small army of waiters rushed in bearing our appetizers, the first of four courses that evening:
First course: Smoked local venison, mushrooms on toast and grape salad
I’m a huge fan of eating locally and of eating ingredients with character and a special story attached. And let’s be honest here, things couldn’t possibly get much more local and full of character than what first arrived on the table in front of us:
Wafer thin slices of home-smoked venison that until very recently had made their living grazing on the castle’s pastures, carefully rolled up and presented on top of a balsamic glaze, surrounded by mushrooms on toast, vinaigrette tossed baby greens and a salad of grapes and walnuts. On the side, we were served community plates of homemade bread and crispy grissini-like sesame bread-sticks accompanied by a pumpkin mayo and a bright green compound butter of sorts.
In my mind, you can tell a lot about a kitchen by looking at their starters, and with a starter like this, you pretty quickly realize that the kitchen is out to impress. But good intentions do not a appetizer make, and could they actually deliver? Well, I’m glad to say that on the subject of venison and mushroom toast, Hindsgavl delivers! The venison was melt in your mouth tender, slightly gamey and subtly smoky while the toast was crunchy and packed full of umami flavors from the mushrooms. The zing of the balsamic glaze cut through everything nicely and the salad added a nice freshness.
As for the sides, the bread was wonderful and the breadsticks crunchy and nicely salted. My only tiny complaint was that the mayo was a little forgettable. A little more salt and some acidity would have probably lifted it substantially. All in all, though, a very solid start which filled us with hope for the evening to come. The fact that what we were eating could until very recently be seen jumping around the back yard only made the experience a hell of a lot cooler and more real. How’s that for local?
Second course: Baked cod, crispy bacon, apple, lemon beurre blanc
Given the way the dining experience had been kickstarted, the second dish seemed pretty simple and straightforward – on paper at least. As it turned out, though, this particular dish was perfect proof that you don’t necessarily need to overly complicate things to create the perfect dish, and that sometimes simple is just better.
I’m not a big fish eater, really, but the second dish was easily the best dish of the show, and it was gorgeous in its simplicity, too: On small wooden plates, we were served a beautifully moist, flaky baked fillet of cod, on top of which was a generous spoonful of citrusy beurre blanc (white butter sauce) as well as fresh herbs from the castle gardens. On the side was a ring of crispy bacon as well as some gorgeous slices of baked red apple. Nothing less, nothing more!
Like I said, I’m not much of a fish eater, but I have had some memorable fish-related dining experiences. Out of these, this dish definitely takes first place. Not only was the cod fall-apart tender, it was also bursting with flavor to a point where it actually killed conversation around the table for a while – and shutting me and my colleagues up is hardly an easy task! In the grand scheme of things, the sweetness from the apples and the acidity of the beurre blanc helped further elevate the dish and the bacon, well, it’s bacon for crying out loud! Seriously, though, the salty smokiness helped add even more dimension to the dish. You don’t need to reinvent anything or have ten contrasting flavors on a plate to earn high marks, just look at this perfectly simplistic dish. If you’re going to pick just one dish that made the whole fumbling around the woods and a dark field seem strangely worth it, go for this one! This made my evening!
Third dish: Medium-rare duck with variations of scorzonera and Sauce Mystique
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a fan of duck. I don’t care much for neither the taste nor the texture or the fattiness. For years, I steered clear of ducks altogether. Recently, though, I’ve grown up a bit, have forced myself to try duck on a regular basis and while still not a big fan, I have actually had a few positive experiences. So strangely enough, on this evening, the way things were going, I was actually starting to get excited about the third (and main) course of the evening – even if said course was duck.
My excitement only grew as the kitchen obviously aimed for the climax in our eating experience, sending out our main dishes by a small army of servers and kitchen staff along with the head chef himself. Each of us was presented with a serving tray complete with silverware serving dome and all, which on cue was lifted to reveal this rather ambitious presentation of crispy skin duck and various renditions of scorzonera root.
I should point out that the presentation actually was prettier than my low light iPhone camera capture may hint – except for one thing: I’ve absolutely no idea what the pool of pink juices was doing in the purée. I can only assume it was there intentionally as the pink pool appeared on all plates. Appealing and appetizing it was not, though. That being said, everything else looked very nice and presentable.
Sadly, though, the errors in presentation were apparently to be an indicator of things to come. While flavors were very concentrated, the duck was tough and chewy and required quite some effort to chew through. While I’m obviously no expert on the topic of ducks, I’m reasonably certain this wasn’t exactly intentional. A crying shame, really, as it was a heavy dent in an otherwise almost spotless experience. It’s an unwritten culinary rule, really, that you must get the main component of your main dish right no matter how perfect the other elements, and the other elements were actually very good!
But at least the sides were good. I don’t exactly have much experience in eating scorzonera, but this dish somewhat compensated for my lack in upbringing as it contained several preparations of the edible root; fried, baked and puréed. All were tasty and seemingly well done, but as I have no previous experience, I can’t well compare them to other scorzonera preparations.
As for Denmark’s favorite vegetable not to feel outdone, the plate included a slice of potato flan as well, and a so-called Sauce Mystique, the ingredients of which shall remain mysterious, I guess. It was nice and flavorful, however.
All in all an ambitious and complex serving that some would maybe consider a little too complex with too many elements on the plate going off in too many directions. For me it was on the borderline. And the duck is a do-over! At this level of dining, the duck should have been done perfectly and had I been eating a la carte and paying for my own meal, I’d have sent this one back! Sorry!
Fourth course: Cherry Mazarin, almond tuille, cherry coulis and yoghurt parfait
Maybe a few explanatory words are required for our international readers here: A Mazarin is a sweet, Scandinavian, marzipan-based sponge cake, usually served with a bitter-sweet chocolate coating. In this preparation, the chocolate coating had been left out, and, in an equally untraditional move, the Mazarin had been stuffed with sticky, sweet and sour cherries, offering a nice contrast in taste and texture to the usual crunchy and crumbly Mazarin experience.
The Mazarin sat on a plate accompanied by an almond tuille (a fancy French word for extremely thin wafer) and an attractive pattern of sticky and flavorful cherry coulis.
Nicely offset on the other side of the plate was a scoop of beautifully tangy yoghurt parfait which provided a nice contrast in texture as well as a nice sharp bite (buttermilk?) that cut through the otherwise overpowering sweetness and heaviness of the other elements, creating a very nice and enjoyable overall balance in the dish.
Once again, there were quite a few things going on around the plate and in theory I didn’t really see it making any sense. I mean marzipan, cherries and yoghurt? Much to the credit of the chefs at Hindsgavl, it all came together beautifully on the plate and made for a nice save from the slightly unsteady effort that was the main course.
This dish was so good, in fact, that I found myself thinking I was hallucinating half way through eating it when I glanced over to another table and saw who I believed to be one of the absolute wealthiest people in Denmark sitting there, sipping red Burgundy while having some of what I was having. It eventually turned out I wasn’t when my boss, too, acknowledged the existence of our famous co-diner. It did, however, help confirm my suspicion that both the food and the settings at Hindsgavl were rather special when I noticed that our fondness of the place was apparently being shared by the ultra rich.
In short: Great show on the dessert. After the baked cod, this was my favorite dish of the evening. To such an extend, actually, that I came close to stabbing my fork at our friendly waiter when he arrived to clear the plates off the table. I was full, but I wanted more!
What, no ghosts?
After a warm and lovely evening in great surroundings, we eventually left “The White Lady” at around 1 AM without even once running into the entity after which the place was named – and this despite having had several refills of our wine glasses during dinner, a generous Cognac to go with our after-dinner coffee and a few potent drinks at the bar including a Zacapa 23 year-old rum (why settle for less?).
What we did run into instead of an apparition, was a skilled kitchen staff, a generally very friendly albeit at times slightly confused waiter staff and some very tasty and interesting dishes made using top quality ingredients, many of them local.
We may have hit a bump or two along the road, especially with the main course – I’d like to think, though, that this was due to a bad batch of ducks and not an unskilled kitchen staff, in which case the problem should already have been addressed. Our final bill came in at DKK 920 per person for a glass of bubbles, four elaborate dishes and four different wines to go along. Considering the upscale surroundings, the level of the food and the service, I’d say that’s more than reasonable.
So a big thank you to Hindsgavl Castle, the friendly staff and The White Lady for making us feel welcome and treating us to a great company dinner. I should like to come back some day for another dinner date with the White Lady, a fresh menu and hopefully a ghostly encounter or two.