Carte Blanche: The Original
Often replicated, but never bested, Carte Blanche is the original chef’s table dining experience on Aruba.
— By Amie Watson
— Photography Kenneth Theysen
When Chef Dennis van Daatselaar first opened Carte Blanche nine years ago, it was a new restaurant concept for the island: bringing guests together for an intimate multi-course dinner prepared in front of their eyes, optionally paired with quality wines by Maître D’ Glen Bonset, who has been working alongside Chef Dennis since opening in September, 2010.
When the concept proved a success, Dennis decided it was time to pursue his larger dream of having three unique restaurants in the same building. The corner of Wilhelminastraat in downtown Oranjestad became home to his second restaurant, Wilhelmina (where some of the surprise dishes from Carte Blanche ended up on the à la carte menu), in October 2015, followed a year later by Maroc Restaurant & Tapas. Then, in January 2018, he moved Carte Blanche from its previous location into the same building.
“Wilhelmina is an artistic-style restaurant with a beautiful speakeasy city garden. Maroc is a local/casual restaurant/tapas bar, and Carte Blanche is unique and fun,” says Dennis. “And with the speakeasy city garden we can also do weddings and parties. When I took a chance to invest in downtown Oranjestad, it was a risky decision but we’re steady and it’s more convenient to have all my restaurants under one roof, so I can go say hello to my regulars at Wilhelmina when I’m cooking at Carte Blanche.”
Each night at Carte Blanche, 16 guests enjoy a five-course surprise menu while being entertained by Dennis, Glen and fellow guests. “Doors open around 6:30 p.m., we guide guests to the speakeasy city garden where we start with a sparkling wine, then Glen brings them in and seats them,” Dennis explains.
Seated at his stylish black granite wrap-around 16-seat bar, he seems very comfortable in the space he literally built himself. Dennis designed and renovated the whole building, which used to be a kitchen and bathroom store with a warehouse. Now, his own Picasso-style paintings (he also paints) decorate the walls. The behind-the-bar setup, with his six-burner gas stove and an old refrigerator-turned-oven on top and wine cooler on bottom, allows Dennis and Glen to operate smoothly together while socializing with guests.
For Dennis, who went to culinary school in Holland and trained in Michelin-starred European restaurants, the design is all part of creating a complete and memorable experience. “People love to cook, to watch the Food Network, to mingle,” says Dennis. “If the chef steps out to the table, you get those things together. Imagine you get that all night – that’s Carte Blanche. You can relax, interact. It’s not only about the food. It’s a whole night out. After the sun has set, there’s not much more to do, so spending your night at Carte Blanche and eating your dinner with strangers is fun. It’s a social get-together.”
After eight years, Dennis and Glen are experts at making sure all guests have a good time. “There are people who are more introverted and people who are more outspoken. But Glen’s very sharp in conversation. He’s knowledgeable about the wines, he’s very professional and personable. He had his education in Switzerland and speaks five languages. He’s well-traveled. I’m creative, passionate and straight forward. We have totally different personalities, and we always have a good time.”
The concept of Carte Blanche is aimed at open-minded diners who enjoy and appreciate being surprised by an exciting night out, says Dennis. He can accommodate certain dietary restrictions, but does not accommodate dislikes. “My food is very healthy and fresh. I don’t use a lot of gluten, but butter is a key ingredient, so if you have too many restrictions, it’s better to visit my à la carte restaurant Wilhemina next door where we can be more flexible. It’s about preserving the quality of the food I’m serving.”
Though he’s alone cooking and plating behind the bar during service, he does have help, including Sandra, who’s zesting oranges and shredding asparagus for that evening. And his kitchen team at Wilhelmina also helps with prep. “There’s a whole organization behind Carte Blanche, which most people don’t know,” says Dennis.
As for the surprise menu, diners can expect fresh fish, tender meats, exquisite vegetables, and scrumptious desserts. Whatever the menu, guests never leave hungry, he says. “I give generous portions and over the last eight years of doing this, we found out what our guests enjoy eating. Basically, it’s creative, but not over the top! It’s not only about the food, it’s about the engagement. It’s a complete package.”
Still going strong after nine years, Carte Blanche has proven to be a winning concept. “It’s a compliment that our concept has been adopted by other restaurateurs on the island,” says Dennis.
After all, Carte Blanche is the original.