Men Who Like to Cook - David Latt

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Amsterdam's Food Scene

EATING IN AMSTERDAM
Most travelers agree, you don't go to Amsterdam for the food. The museums, no question. The canals and parks, absolutely. The Red Light District and the "coffee shops," sure, if that's your thing. But the food.  Not so much.

The restaurant food is hit-or-miss. Most dishes are under seasoned, but that doesn't mean you won't eat well.  You'll have good cafe food--great sandwiches, delicious cheese, excellent coffee, and lots of really good breads, rolls, and desserts.

EATING AND DRINKING WHAT'S LOCAL
Interestingly, some Dutch export products consumed at home taste much better when you're in Holland.  Heineken and Grolsch, for instance, have more subtleties and depth of flavor.    

Gouda isn't generally regarded as a particularly interesting cheese, but stop by Kaasland Singel (Haarlemmerstraat 2), west of Centraal Station, and have a sampling of the locally produced cheeses.  You'll be surprised that gouda can have a creamy richness similar to French comte.

What's more, you know you're not in Kansas anymore when you taste gouda made from cow's or goat's milk and flavored with any one of a dozen herbs and seasonings, including stinging nettle, cumin, pepper, mustard seed, garlic and onions, coriander, Italian herbs (garlic, sun dried tomatoes, and olives), walnuts, hot pepper, garlic, or basil. 

Living on the edge of the North Sea, the Dutch grow up with a love of seafood. Walk across the street from Kaasland Singel to the herring shack overlooking the canal for a uniquely Dutch experience, a plate of lightly pickled, raw herring.

Locals will tell you that the best herring is caught in the spring. Purists avoid the traditional condiments, onions and pickles, preferring to savor the fish au naturel. To eat them Amsterdam style, order your herring whole, pick it up by the tail, tilt back your head, and let the fish descend into your mouth as you greedily ingest it.

If you want to continue sampling traditional Dutch food, head to Spuistraat and visit D'Vijff Vlieghen or The Five Flies (Spuistraat 294-302) and, its neighbor across the street, Restaurant Haesje Claes (Spuistraat 273-275), and order the Dutch stick-to-your-ribs classic, Hutspot (mashed potatoes, carrots, and onions) with smoked pork sausage, thick bacon, and a super-sized beef meatball.

If you can't get a reservation at either restaurant, the locals know that you can order from the Haesje Claes menu at De Koningshut (Spuistraat 269), the homey workingman's bar next door. Whatever you try from the extensive menus should be accompanied by large quantities of Dutch beer or, an Amsterdam favorite, Jupiler from Belgium. 

LIVE LIKE A LOCAL, EAT LIKE A KING
A good friend who has visited Amsterdam many times, says that the best way to experience the city is to rent an apartment, cook your own food and live like a local.

If you do that, then you'll want to shop at the open air markets--the Northern Market (Noordermarkt), New Market (Nieumarkt), and Albert Cuypmarkt--where you can buy high quality cheese (domestic and imported) meats, poultry, seafood, baked goods, and farm fresh produce. The Marqt near Vondelpark (Overtoom 21 25) reminds one of a smaller, more intimate Whole Foods, with an excellent section of seafood, organic meats, fresh produce, wine, and baked goods. 

For your morning coffee and pastry, you'll want to find a bakery like Vlaamsch Brookhuys (Haarlemmerstraat 108, between Singel and Prinsengracht) where you can sit quietly, read the paper and start the day as slowly as possible.

In the afternoon or early evening, when you need a coffee, sandwich, or beer, you'll stop by a brown cafe--so called because their interiors are almost entirely brown. Originally the cafes earned their distinctive color not from paint but years of accumulated cigarette smoke. Today, however, smoking is restricted to outdoor patios and the coffee shops that sell pot and hash.

On the other hand, if the weather is sunny, you will probably want to sit outside and people-watch.  

Rembrandt Square (Rembrandtplein) is favored by tourists, with its large, Parisian style cafes and the Escape disco, while Leidsen Square (Leidseplein) at the juncture of Weteringschans, Marnixstraat, and Leidsestraat near the Singel canal is preferred by locals.  In the summer when it doesn't get dark until 11:00pm, hundreds of people fill the cafes.

There are also smaller but still crowded cafes at the New Market (Nieumarkt) or the collection of bars and restaurants with outdoor seating where Spui, Spuistraat, and Singel meet in front of the American Book Center and the Athenaeum Boekhandel.

If you tire of all the hustle and bustle, there is Crea Cafe at the University of Amsterdam (Turfdraagsterpad 17, opposite Grimburgwal and Oudezijds Voorburgwal). The cafe, frequented by students, has a narrow outdoor patio where you can enjoy a coffee and sandwich and watch locals row by in their small boats.

Brasserie Harkema (Nes 67) is another oasis of quiet, a few minutes walk from crowded, noisy Dam Square.  The simple bistro menu features comfort food like asparagus soup with ham and open faced BLTs with lots of smoked bacon. The small outdoor brick patio is the perfect place to cool out and sample their extensive wine list, the quiet disturbed only by the sound of passing bicycles and the occasional horse-drawn carriage.

Desserts are widely available, as are chocolates.  A particular favorite is Puccini Chocolates with two locations (Staalstraaat 17 and Haarlemmerstraat 122) where the chocolates are laid out in great mounds, tempting innocents to lose their self-control. Anyone with a passion for high quality chocolates should only enter the store with a companion whose assignment is to prevent excessive purchasing and consumption. 

ETHNIC FOOD, AMSTERDAM STYLE
For ethnic food, there are many Asian restaurants through out the city. Because of the Netherlands colonial history, Indonesian restaurants serving rijsttafel (rice table) have long been popular. The always crowded, Restaurant Kantjil & de Tijger (Spuistraat 291-293) bills itself as an Indonesian restaurant, but the menu suggests a fusion of many Asian cuisines.

Zeedijk street, from Prins Hendrikkade in front of Centraal Station to New Market (Nieumarkt), along the western edge of the Red Light District, has dozens of restaurants serving the cuisines of many nations.

If you hunger for large platters of meat, there are Argentinean and Brazilian restaurants. For Asian cuisine, Indonesian, Thai, and Vietnamese.  

Many travelers I know insist on "going native," but sooner or later tire of the local cuisine and have an insatiable craving for Chinese food. Nam Kee (Zeedijk 111-113) is the most-recommended with its 17 page, encyclopedic menu, offering rice, noodle, curry, meat, seafood, and vegetarian dishes.  The waiters don't speak English, a rarity in Amsterdam, and they don't take American credit cards, which is true at most restaurants, so bring Euros.

Besides the usual Mandarin and Cantonese menus, there is Suriname Chinese, another remnant of the Dutch colonial experience.

Ethnic restaurants are also found in De Pijp (the Pipe), especially on Albert Cuypstraat where you'll find the delightful Bazar (Albert Cuypstraat 182). The Middle Eastern dishes are under-seasoned, but you'll spend hours happily talking and drinking, thoroughly enjoying the eccentric interior.

THE BEST OF THE BEST
Balthazar's Kitchen (Elandsgracht 108) another local favorite is a small restaurant with a big reputation.  On the few nights I was in Amsterdam I could never secure a reservation.  The same was true of the French restaurant, Braque (Albert Cuypstraat 29-31) where a friend and I were turned away two nights in a row.

I had better luck at the Supperclub (Jonge Roelensteeg 21).  The well-polished brass doorway downstairs hints at the grand setting upstairs. Begun two decades ago, the Supperclub has branches in London, Singapore, San Francisco, and Istanbul, with plans to open in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Art is served with a prix fix meal as patrons share a comfortable cushion provocatively referred to as a bed. A different performance is offered every night of the week, organized by Sunny Jansen, the Creative Director. The themes are varied but usually touch on issues of personal liberation, emotional and literal enslavement, and sexual expression.

On Sunday, "Slave" is explored by an outside curator.  On the day I attended, Andre d. Singleton, a New Yorker, presented an evening that consisted of short videos and musical performances, with the aim of "complicating gender."

While the creative intentions were to stimulate and provoke, the prix fix menu was designed to put the diner at ease with comfort food: a mozzarella and scallops appetizer, a tenderloin with mushroom sauce, and a dessert of home made ice creams.


For an elegant meal in a quiet setting, try the upscale Bridges in the remodeled Sofitel Amsterdam The Grand (Oudezijds Voorburgwal 197) where you will rub elbows with Amsterdam's elite. The contemporary French-Asian menu focuses on seafood in an exclusive setting. For our main course during a late afternoon lunch, we had a delicate miso-marinated, grilled cod paired with a very nice Chardonnay from Chile (Veramonte 1997 Reserve, Casablanca Valley).  

The locavore movement, so wide-spread in the U.S., has had a slow acceptance in the Netherlands.  In Amsterdam, the leader in the field of organic, locally sourced ingredients is De Kas (Kamerlingh Onneslaan 3).

Opened in 2000 in a renovated municipal greenhouse on the southern end of Park Frankendael, south-east from the city center, the restaurant has the homey feel of a neighborhood hangout, albeit one in an all-glass house.

Serving a set menu of three starters, one entree, and a dessert, the only changes a diner can make is to add an aperitif, paired wines, and a cheese course.  When seated, the diner is asked one question, "Tell me what you don't like or can't eat." Otherwise, the chef is in charge. Except that he isn't.

The produce and herbs served at the restaurant come from the greenhouse next to the restaurant and from their farm in Ilpendam, ten miles north of Amsterdam. As Xavier Giesen, the assistant maitre d', explained, "We are a restaurant but also growers. The chef tells the gardener what he wants but the gardener tells the chef what's available."  

The menu changes weekly and seasonally.

When I visited the restaurant, the menu was transitioning from spring to summer.  The amuse-bouche that night was a crostini of a lively piccalilli of baby artichoke heart, cauliflower, fennel, onions, carrots, gherkins, flat cut parley and an edible Begonia, seasoned with turmeric and mustard seed.

The three starters were presented at the same time and were all cleverly served at room temperature so the diner isn't compelled to eat one before the other.

White and green asparagus topped with a Beurre noisette foam, lobster claw with leeks and beets served with a grapefruit juice reduction, and a deep-fried zucchini blossom and stem on top of cold potato soup with potato cubes, fried onions, parsley, and scallions.

All were perfectly cooked and plated, the ingredients of the highest quality.  If I had a favorite it was the potato soup with the zucchini blossom, although I ate every bit of the asparagus dish, even though I am not usually a fan of white asparagus, a Dutch favorite.

The main course was a small piece of meltingly tender lamb shoulder topped with pickled onions and a delicious herb butter, accompanied by a scattering of gnocchi, dill, cauliflower, and freshly made pickled cukes.  A green salad with a mild dressing was added as a palate cleanser.


With all these dishes, the chef carefully balances flavors and textures, paying homage to the Dutch preference for pickled vegetables by including either pickling spices and/or lightly pickled vegetables.

Panna cotta for dessert didn't sound very exciting, but each spoonful made me pause. The elements--vanilla panna cotta with rhubarb, strawberries, a scoop of lemon sorbet and a sheet of white chocolate--were so exquisite.  The flavors of cold, smooth, creamy, sour, and sweet touched all the best dessert flavor notes.

A set menu relieves the tension of debating what to order and the kitchen can focus on fewer dishes, thereby allowing for better execution and less waste.  Without a question a win-win advantage, at least as practiced at De Kas.

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