PART ONE: AMSTERDAM
Dear reader, as you’ve perhaps inferred from a few earlier posts…I was dazzled by my April/May 2013 trip to a country I’d somehow never visited before…Holland!
We’ll get to the wonderful food in a moment…but EVERYTHING about this place made me happy! I spent most of my time in Amsterdam which…aside from the famous sins made available there (and aside from what you make of them)…has got to be one of the most charming cities in the world, brimming with tranquil canal after tranquil canal.
It was curious timing on this trip. I had to make a visit to Paris right in the middle of my Dutch week…and when I got to the Gallic capital, my honest reaction to my favorite city of all time was…”this place is dirty! it doesn’t have the charm of Amsterdam!” Now, the French are going through an ugly, somber stage right now, and many people I know there are quite unhappy…a financial malaise that has become a general malaise (as George W. Bush might have said, “the problem with the French is they don’t have a word for “malaise!”) I do believe Paris will bounce back…but I could not believe how eager I was, during my Parisian detour, to return to a much prettier, more relaxed, more winsome Amsterdam.
Not to mention the tulips. Oh, I didn’t get the full dose…because Holland had the same miserable spring we had, and by my April 23 arrival they weren’t out in full force yet. But even at quarter-force Holland is florally miraculous in the spring…
Then there’s the art. I hope you caught the photo essay I posted on May 7 concerning the newly re-opened Van Gogh Museum. But the gods of the Rijksmuseum also smiled on my timing; the grand old repository of Dutch Masters (and we’re not talking about low-country golf) had been under renovation for ten years, and had just re-opened before my April arrival. Along with the Van Gogh Museum…this place is a must-visit. I love the airiness added by the re-design…
…and, of course, the collection of Dutch Masters, headed by Rembrandt and Vermeer, is unsurpassed. Here’s Rembrandt’s most famous work, The Night Watch…the only painting in the Rijksmuseum that’s still in the same place…as it stands at the far end of a long gallery (there are 80 galleries and over a mile of walking space through these galleries).
When you get near it, you can feel its thrill, its dimensionality, its chiaroscuro…one of those great works (like Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party) that simply cannot be understood through reproductions.
I visited in the afternoon, when lots of natural light spills into the museum…creating, for me, an ideal viewing environment. Many of the lesser-known Dutch paintings, for me, were on fire that glorious spring day…
A place to rest your head in Amsterdam? The Rijksmuseum is not far from the Vondel Hotel, where I stayed…and would recommend to you, with a reservation or two. The place has a hip/chic feeling to it, with a cheerful lobby that has a Scandinavian blond disposition…
…but also features lovely hints of Dutch motif…
The big story here is differentiation of rooms. My first night, I had a dark and dreadful room, claustrophobic, right on the street. Later, the helpful staff got me moved to an upper floor, to a much larger room with a pretty view over the upscale neighborhood on the rear side of the hotel. Tell ’em what you need, and you’ll be fine.
I should note that I paid a visit to the lobby of one of Amsterdam’s hottest new hotels, the Andaz Amsterdam, right in the middle of the desirable Nine Streets shopping area; it was transformed from a library into a hip hotel by Dutch designer Marcel Wanders, and is playful in the extreme…
I didn’t see a room (they were full)…but I’m gonna gamble on one next time.
Okay…time to eat!
There are many delicious categories to go after in Amsterdam! Since I only had a week…and much of it was someone else’s schedule (my gracious Ketel One hosts)…I narrowed the town down to seven can’t miss categories, some funky, some grand.
Oh ja. Put your prejudices aside, if you have any…this cannot be missed in Amsterdam! Of course, the best herring time is in June, when the young, or “green,” herring are in season. But you can have great herring year-round here…often from simple stands, kind of like food trucks, that are easily found.
When you get to the front of the line, you’ll find herring of several different categories…
You can have your herring (a few bucks) on a roll, or just straight up without the carbs. In either case the filets come with raw onions and pickles.
To me, the taste and texture are extraordinary…something like the sashimi of the North. Dutch herring are usually raw, but lightly preserved.
Shall we go a little broader?
Make no mistake about it…. Amsterdam is a GREAT seafood capital! I didn’t get to go piscine as much as I would have liked…but I did have a couple of stellar experiences towards which I would definitely steer you…particularly if your transportation is a small canal boat cruising the canals!
Tops from my visit was The Harbour Club…a sprawling seafood environment on one of the sub-urban canals, a lovely 15-minute boat ride from downtown.
Though there’s kind of a louche, sinful Amsterdam feel to the place…
…the array and quality of seafood, much of it local, are undeniable.
Let’s start with oysters…one of the great joys of Holland, even in the spring. As in France, the big division is between “crinkly” oyster shells, known as “creuses”…
…which look like this when opened…
…OR flat-shelled oysters, like the French Belon…
…which look like this when opened…
Frankly, there are few countries that can match France for natural quality of oysters…AND for the care paid by the culture to oysters. Holland is one of those places.
What you need to do at The Harbour Club, after the oysters…is to order more plateaux of raw and cold shellfish! Here’s what my camera caught:
And…you’ll also find spanking fresh fin fish here, to be cooked simply…
One other restaurant that caught my eye is The Seafood Bar, on Van Baerlestraat. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to eat there…but I did get to see the sparkling seafood, and to photograph a great-looking pile of crab…
3) FRENCH FRIES
Had enough seafood? After oysters and shellfish, one of Amsterdam’s greatest gastronomic glories…is french fries! Sweet and meaty Dutch potatoes combine with classic Belgian technique to yield…some of the greatest french fries I have ever tasted! Nobody steered me towards this…but…I was wandering around one Saturday afternoon (after lunch, of course), when I saw a long line on a side street leading up to a little window.
I examined, found out that french fries were the prize, and that the name of the place is Vlaams (on Voetboogstraat, near a great collection of 17th-century buildings on Muntplein). I noted everything, and made sure to include the place in my Sunday peregrinations. The next day, Sunday…the line was even longer! But the wait was worth it…
The deal is: golden-crunchy on the outside (but with a thin and delicate “shell”)…sweet and earthy on the inside, fluffy in texture…with a big potato flavor. Top-notch, for sure.
4) DUTCH FOOD
There is a wonderful tradition of Dutch food…including an amazing use of spices in Holland, when Holland ruled the waves in the 17th century! A New York Times story of January 2013 put it this way:
“A peek at cookbooks dating back a few hundred years reveals dishes like mussels with saffron and ginger, and roast goose with turmeric root.” My Dutch historian friend, Peter Rose (author of great Dutch cookbooks, www.peterrose.com), told me over a lovely springtime Dutch dinner at her house in Westchester, New York that “traditionally, more spices were sold in Holland than in any other European country.”
According to the Times, this aspect of Dutch cookery declined as “the Dutch started to lose their colonies”…in the 18th century…and a new type of more spartan, more basic cooking known as “huishoudschool” took over.
But even “huishoudschool” is mostly nostalgia, now. The beautiful root-vegetable-and-pork cookery of the old days somehow seems too “heavy” for modern tastes…and, therefore…it is nigh unto impossible to find a traditional Dutch restaurant in Amsterdam today.
But I tried!
I didn’t quite find what I was looking for, but I found a couple of places that come close.
One is La Falote, which offers about as merry an old-world experience as you’re likely to find. Here you’ll consume “huishoudschool”…soups, stews, old-fashioned hearty meats, and lots of guilty desserts. The food is just about right: heavy and satisfying. Unfortunately, it is not brilliant cooking…except for the great Dutch asparagus in spring, which the chef enhances by cooking the spears in an asparagus stock made from asparagus peelings!
But I do recommend La Falote. The nearly folkloric room is festooned with old photos and newspapers, and the chef/owner–highly affable Peter van der Linden–loves to come out into the dining room with his accordion, particularly if there are young children or old customers there. Soon, you will be swaying from side to side and feeling part of the family.
On a different culinary plane entirely…but not quite as “Dutch”…is Le Hollandais, a pretty perfect name: it is in French, it almost describes a classic French sauce (which should be feminine!), and it could also be read as “The Dutchman.”
Facing a lovely row of Dutch buildings across the sunset-perfect Amstel canal, in a neighborhood (Le Pijp) often described as the “Latin Quarter” of Amsterdam, Le Hollandais is the baby of Dutch-born chef Adriaan van Raab van Canstein. Prior to 1996, he spent some time cooking in Agen, in the southwest of France, where the charms of French cuisine left their eternal mark on his culinary soul. Back in Amsterdam, he opened Le Hollandais, dedicated to French food cooked by a Dutch chef. I had one of my best meals of the trip here…and the food is unmistakably French in many ways…but in course after course the tide pulls north, always revealing a lusty ripple of Dutchness.
For starters, this is an impeccably run restaurant. As I was brought to my table on the upper part of the duplex…
…the amazingly crusty/fluffy bread was brought there too, just before my arrival. The butter was cultured, and intense, and at perfect temperature. And the bottle of Badoit I ordered came to the table shockingly cold. Detail. Detail. On a busy Saturday night.
How’s this for a detail? Scrumptious mackerel tartare, deep flavor of the sea without any fishiness/saltiness whatsoever (always a mackerel concern.)
The local fish had been “Mediterannean-ized” by a vigorous admixture of very green olive oil, the flavors of which engaged the fish as if the two ingredients came from the same region.
In a similar Northern Sea vein, van Canstein next served me a smoked sprat and beet salad…
…which featured lustrous filets of the little fish, herring-like…but more tender and subtle than herring. Gorgeous spring greens, and superb dark-egg-yolk eggs rounded out the presentation, deliciously.
If the herring-like fish apps pull north, another player in van Canstein’s app repertoire is more French at base: charcuterie. But, once again, something tells you you’re in Holland. I loved the chef’s tender, homemade Saucisson de Lyon (served with pickles that looked more like gherkins than cornichons)…with juicier fat and livelier life than many a sausage in Lyon.
A masterwork came next: the rabbit terrine, made from Dutch wild rabbit…
…with the funkiness I always seek in great charcuterie; this one almost tasted like a fermented Chinese bean sauce! The acid-prickly prunes and the apple cole slaw formed a perfect Northern frame for van Canstein’s gratifying wild rabbit oeuvre.
The warm seafood course brought a perfect Gratin Dieppoise with Mussels, Cod and Lovage, followed by a great platter of grilled tongue (kidneys and other offal are also part of van Canstein’s obsessions), and finally a masterful pot au feu…
…with a rich, otherworldly beef broth enriched with all the sticky goodness of the animal.
For dessert, I played with the well-curated chariot of French and Dutch cheeses (details again!)…
…but there are also celebratory French desserts, Babette-style, like Champagne sorbet and apricot charlotte.
I didn’t get to other restaurants like this, unfortunately…but the blogger of dutchgrub.com recently posted that “what’s happening now are mostly French-or Mediterranean-based dishes, but with a Dutch twist.” New York Magazine, in June, published three places in this vein recommended by blogger Mark Schiefelbein: Gartine, Wilhelmina-Dok, and Wilde Zwijnen. I will be sure to visit this trio on my next trip to Amsterdam; you should do the same.
Another twist on “modern” Dutch cooking that you’ll find in Amsterdam today…is the Dutch version of the farm-to-table restaurant. Holland is an enlightened, “green” country…and many restaurants are starting to reflect that sensibility.
Drawing raves for a decade now is De Kas, located near Park Frankaendel in the rather bucolic Amsterdam suburb of Oost.
More important…the restaurant has been built in a spectacular glass conservatory that, starting in 1926, was the Amsterdam City Greenery, a greenhouse for growing vegetables. And, of course, De Kas today is growing its own vegetables in that greenhouse!
Everyone raves about this place; Zagat gives it 25 for food: there’s no doubt that a visit here on your Amsterdam trip is de rigueur. For me, I loved aspects of it: the setting, the staff, the raw ingredients, the great attention paid to wine (I was even offered a dry sparkling wine made in Holland’s only vineyard area, far south!). But the work of the kitchen didn’t titillate me. Oh, it’s fine, no-risk, simple cooking–I had a well-behaved salad with great ingredients, lovely local hake, some delicious Dutch cheese–but if this kitchen led the culinary field ten years ago, it wasn’t doing much leading on the night I visited.
I would put Dutch cheese right up there with Dutch herring as something to seek when you’re visiting Holland. Their Gouda (pronounced “KHOW-duh” with a little phlegm in the first syllable) is legendary, of course; taste a four-or-five-year old sample, and you’ll experience turophilic umami of the gods (the damned thing tastes like mushrooms and beef broth!) But there are many other possibilities, few of them exported to America.
I would strongly recommend a visit to a great cheese shop, De Kasskamer (“The Cheese Room”)…
…where you’ll find a wide range of esoteric Dutch cheeses, and a little something extra…
Make sure to try the cheese discovery of my trip, Remeker…particularly the oldest example you can find, when it starts tasting like a great bandage-wrapped Cheddar from England.
6) INDONESIAN FOOD
Ethnic-loving foodies: THIS is the #1 ethnic choice in Amsterdam. Oh, you’ll see plenty of ethnic restaurants of all stripes (from Chinese, Thai, Italian….to Surinamese, which would be my #2 ethnic choice, check out New Draver)…but if you haven’t had a rijsttafel at an Indonesian restaurant in Amsterdam, you haven’t been to Amsterdam.
The custom of “rijsttafel,” or “rice table,” is not precisely Indonesian (or “indisch,” as the Dutch would say). It harkens back to the period of Dutch rule in Indonesia (1602 to 1942)…and to the desire of Dutch East India Company executives to taste, at one meal, dishes from all over the Indonesian archipelago. These crazy feasts sometimes featured as many as 100 different dishes! Though you never hear the term anymore (so politically incorrect!)…each dish was brought by one server, known as a “boy”…and the Dutch would brag about going to a “40-boy curry,” which meant 40 dishes. The “rice” part of the name is simple: all of these hot-sweet-salty-sour dishes are always served with rice on the side (either white rice, “nasi putih,” or fried rice, “nasi goreng”).
Many of the rijsttafel restaurants in Amsterdam serve more or less the same dishes: an incredibly varied array of satays, sautés, stews, salads, often involving tropical vegetables, fruits, coconuts, peanuts and peanut sauces, with lots of chiles. A typical rijsttafel restaurant in Amsterdam will serve 20-25 small dishes along with the rice…which can be enjoyed by just one person, as I did it! At some places, the number of dishes can go upward, if there are more diners willing to pay a higher price.
There are, of course, extreme quality variations among the restaurants. Any Amsterdam resident will wax poetic about his or her favorite rijsttafel restaurant, just as any New Orleans native will bend your ear about po’ boy places. I had the chance to go to only two rijsttafel restaurants…and could see that there’s at least a two-fold, lower/upper, cheaper/pricier distinction in town.
I started off with Sama Sebo, a well-regarded rijsttafel restaurant in the Museum Quarter, a short walk from the Rijksmuseum.
It was an opportunity for me just to see how it’s done…
Was it good rijsttafel? I didn’t have my baseline yet…but, judging by usual restaurant standards, it seemed fine. Some of the dishes had a slightly tired quality to them, and the differentiation between dishes could have been stronger. Nevertheless, I’d recommend Sama Sebo as a good “starter” rijsttafel place.
Wanna go a few steps up? Many locals told me that their favorite is Tempo Doeloe, on the tony Utrechtsestraat in the city’s Eastern Canal district.
The reports were true. I loved this rijsttafel…each dish clearly more distinct than at Sama Sebo, each dish creating at least the illusion of freshness (though almost nothing is cooked “a la minute” at a rijsttafel place).
I loved (among 25 other things!) the pork satay with peanut sauce, the tempeh surrounded by what tastes like sun-dried tomato, the shrimp in garlicky sauce, and the pork with licorice root.
AND…can I leave out…that after a lifetime of pursuing the chile, with memorable tongue-thrashings everywhere from Rangoon to Madras to Tobago…I had at Tempo Doeloe the hottest frickin’ dish I have ever tasted! The manager warned me, wanted to make sure I could handle it; I, of course, scoffed and told him I could…but the truth is I practically couldn’t! He then explained to me that the base of Daging Rendang, a beef-and-coconut stew, is three of the hottest chiles known to man slowly extracted in hot oil.
I didn’t get too deeply into the local beer scene, but I can tell you one thing: it is WONDERFUL to drink fresh Heineken everywhere in Amsterdam. I’ve long been a fan of Heinies in the U.S…but freshness counts in beer, and the draft Heinies in Amsterdam are incomparable. Don’t miss it. Er…don’t miss THEM.
Coming up next week…
PART TWO: ROTTERDAM