AmsterdamWords Paul Dring
Photography Mark Read
"Dutch food is a lot about boiled potatoes,” says Kees Elfring, chef-patron of Marius, perhaps the finest restaurant in Amsterdam. “Potatoes to us are like pasta to an Italian. We take them seriously and you have to cook them just right. My grandmother would be very specific with her potatoes. She’d put a little bit of water in the pan, put on the lid, and they were done only when they’d absorbed all the water. But you can only go so far with potatoes…”
It soon became apparent that this meal would offer rather more than mere potatoes, however assiduously prepared. Kees has worked at Alice Waters’ Californian restaurant Chez Panisse and his approach here bears the imprint of that influential establishment. Every morning he buys whatever looks good at the market, then cooks it in the evening in a fixed three-course menu at his tiny restaurant, a short cab ride away from the centre in an unfashionable, working-class area of town. There is a limited selection of what Kees calls “escape routes” on the menu, in case you don’t want to follow his suggested path, though when the cooking’s as good as this, why wouldn’t you?
A superb starter of seared tuna slices with wilted spinach, crunchy fennel, beetroot and olive mayo was, if anything, surpassed by the next course – meaty strips of squid with little florets of cauliflower in a deeply savoury risotto – while the main course of barbary duck with mushrooms, celeriac and pumpkin was cooked to perfection. The cheese was superb, the wine outstanding, the bread brought steaming to the table… It was all so good that something quite strange was happening. Though Marius has only communal tables – there are just three in the tiny dining room – as the evening wore on, smiling people were turning to the strangers next to them, swapping stories and comparing notes on the food. It was as if they were unable to contain their joy at being part of such a special experience, which is a testament to the power of food to forge connections between people.
Kees is typical of a new breed of Dutch chef. While in the UK, chefs such as Mark Hix and TV shows such as Great British Menu are mining the once overlooked seam of our national food heritage and redefining what comprises British cuisine in the process, Holland’s chefs are not on a mission to bring their country’s heavy, carb-laden cuisine wheezing into the 21st century. Instead, Kees and his colleagues share a commitment to high-quality, local produce, simply prepared to show off its full flavour, and, as such, show an international awareness of how to treat their national larder.
“For sure, there are many young chefs who have travelled abroad and come back with a lot of knowledge and are starting to put it into practice here in Amsterdam,” says Ronald Kunis, chef at De Kas in the east of the city. “That can only be good for the customers.” Ronald himself is one of this returning diaspora, having honed his skills at, among other places, London’s River Café and Bluebird restaurants.
De Kas is sited in a spectacular former greenhouse, rescued from dereliction 10 years ago, and the food Ronald and his team create reflects this history. “We are a vegetable restaurant,” he says. “We may add a bit of meat or fish to our dishes, but for me it’s the vegetables that are important. These days, people are becoming more interested in vegetables and how to cook them to get the most out of them. When you’ve got a nice turnip, you don’t mash it or make a foam out of it. Food is just food.”
A noble sentiment, though one that doesn’t begin to hint at the inventiveness of the food Ronald creates, complex dishes such as the starter of celeriac strudel with mint, lemon geranium, witlof and herb oil, which are far removed from just plonking veg on a plate – even if the veg in question has travelled no further than the glasshouse next to the kitchen.
And if the veg isn’t grown on-site, chances are it comes from land just 10 miles or so outside of town, tilled by restaurant owner Gert Jan Hageman in Purmer Polder. These polders, vast areas of flat land reclaimed from the sea, some as recently as the 1980s, are the farming heartlands of Holland, supplying Amsterdam’s markets with top-quality home-grown produce – markets such as Albert Cuypmarkt, in the De Pijp district of south Amsterdam, the city’s largest food market.
As well as fresh fruit and veg, Albert Cuypmarkt has good herring stalls (including the Winnaar Hollandse Haring Trofee 2003) and a popular stroopwafel stall, where you can see these delicious caramel-centred waffles being made. Nearer the centre on the Prinsengracht canal, the square in front of the Noorderkerk church hosts a farmer’s market every Saturday, selling fresh produce as well as processed goods such as smoked sausages and cheese.
As I was in the neighbourhood, I thought I’d head to Kaaskamer, Amsterdam’s biggest cheesemonger. The area between Noorderkerk and Kaaskamer is defined by the Grachtengordel, the rings of concentric canals constructed during the Dutch golden age of the 17th century, when riches poured into the country from its lucrative activities in the East Indies. This part of town is known as De Negen Straatjes (the Nine Streets), a marketing strategist’s wheeze to promote its large number of chi-chi boutiques. It is the Amsterdam of film and postcard. There are cobbled towpaths, bicycles chained to canal railings, smoke rising from houseboat chimneys, moorhens skittering on the water, tulip stalls… Listen hard enough and you can probably hear the theme tune to the TV series Van der Valk.
Kaaskamer itself is a place where cheese devotees could happily lose themselves for six months. It has just about everything you might want, from the familiar truckles of gouda and edam to less familiar leyden cheese, flavoured with spices such as cumin, caraway and fenugreek. Like the canals and the gabled former warehouses that fringe them, this Dutch taste for spice is a legacy from its colonial past. It culminates in the rijsttafel, a multi-course feast featuring sambals, satays, nasi goreng and gado-gado that is served in Amsterdam’s many Indonesian restaurants.
After a couple of days in Amsterdam, I wasn’t sure whether I’d found authentic Dutch food. I’d had high-quality international cuisine at Marius, De Kas and at As, a bright, airy restaurant in a converted convent in the south of the city, run by Sander Overeinder who, like Kees at Marius, also trained at Chez Panisse. There are good restaurants closer to the centre, too: Bordewijk near Noorderkerk serves inventive French food; Toscanini, in the Jordaan district, is good for Italian; while Bridges, slap-bang in the middle of the red-light district, offers fine dining in stylish surroundings. There’s even a branch of Fifteen, for Jamie completists to add to their tick-list.
Not that I was too bothered about missing out on all aspects of tradition. After my meal at Marius, Kees chatted to me about Friesland, a rural province north of Amsterdam, where he lives. There, he said, it is a custom to eat kievitseieren, or lapwing’s eggs, at the end of a meal. The lapwing arrives from its African wintering grounds in March, when there is fierce local competition in Friesland to locate the season’s first egg, which, tradition dictates, is presented to the queen. To eat these little eggs, the gathering of which is illegal everywhere in Europe apart from Friesland, one crushes them between the palms and slurps up the resultant gooey mess along with a pinch of salt.
The whole business sounded rather grim, like some ornithologically cruel version of a tequila slammer. I was glad we were ending the meal with cheese.
As Prinses Irenestraat 19; +31 20 644 0100. In a converted 50s convent, set menus start at €25 for a two-course lunch.
Blauw Amstelveensewag 158-160; +31 20 675 5000. Top-notch Indonesian cuisine.
Bordewijk Noordermarkt 7; +31 20 624 3899. Hip bistro near Noorderkerk serving good French food.
Bridges The Grand Hotel, Oudezijds Voorburgwal; +31 20 555 3560. Fine dining in swanky confines of the Grand Hotel.
De Kas Kamerlingh Onneslaan 3; +31 20 462 4562. Top-quality veg-based food from a former River Cafe chef served in the spectacular setting of a reclaimed greenhouse.
Dish Overtoom 255; +31 20 616 5835. Global menu, from Angolan prawns to American meatloaf.
Fifteen Jollemanhof 9; +31 20 509 5015. Jamie's Dutch outpost offers quality Italian-Mediterranean food in the East Docklands area.
Fyra Noorderstraat 19-23; +31 20 428 3632. Great food south of the city centre.
Hotel de Goudfazant Aambeeldstraat 1011; +31 20 636 5170. Cavernous temple to simple food, a ferry-ride away in Amsterdam Noord.
Le Restaurant Tweede Jan Steenstraat 3; +31 20 379 2207. Accomplished French cooking in the De Pijp district.
Lof Haarlemmerstraat 62; +31 20 620 2997. Friendly no-nonsense place serving great food in the Jordaan area.
Marius Barentszstraat 243; +31 20 422 7880. Kees Elfring’s dinner-only restaurant is simply wonderful. Try to get a reservation though, as it’s small.
Toscanini Lindengracht 75; +31 20 623 2813. Good-quality Italian restaurant in the Jordaan.
Albert Cuypmarkt Albert Cuypstraat, De Pijp. Holland’s biggest street market.
De Bierkoning Paleisstraat 125; +31 20 625 2336, . ‘The Beer King’ stocks 1,000 kinds of beer in its Dam Square shop.
Bloemenmarkt Singel. Picturesque floating flower market.
De Kaaskamer Runstraat 7; +31 20 623 3483. A temple of cheese in the Nine Streets.
Kitsch Kitchen Rozengracht 8; +31 622 8261. Colourful, culinary-inspired tat.
Marqt Overtoom 21; +31 422 6311. Great supermarket stocking locally sourced produce.
Noordermarkt The square in front of Noorderkerk hosts an organic farmers’ market Saturday mornings.
Simon Lévelt Prinsengracht 180; +31 20 624 0823. Family-run tea and coffee shop.
Lloyd Hotel Oostelijke Handelskade 34; +31 20 561 3636. A former prison in the Eastern Docklands area, this huge hotel has one- to five-star rooms.
The Grand Sofitel Oudezijds Voorburgwal 197; +31 20 555 3111. Elegant, historic hotel in the red-light district.
Hotel V Weteringschans 136; +31 20 662 3233. Affordable boutique hotel.
For more Amsterdam restaurant recommendations, specialbite.nl is an invaluable source of information. The specialists who research and publish this site have a sister service, amsterdamslaapt.nl, which offers great info on Amsterdam hotels. Both sites incorporate English translations of their independent reviews.