Eating out in Amsterdam

10 Dec 2004 by JR

On our way to a hugely enjoyable dinner with Dutch friends at Blauw aan de wal in the heart of Amsterdam’s red light district we passed a most elegant woman dressed in green who exuded more than her fair share of her country’s acknowledged pragmatism.

 

Faced with the prospect of travelling quickly to her destination with two King Charles spaniels in a city where most of the roads are being dug up for a new Metro system, she was cycling at some speed with one dog tucked (just) inside the basket behind her while the other trotted alongside her on a lead. Not surprisingly, she made far better progress than our taxi.

 

The entrance to Blauw is signposted by the only blue light among many red ones on the busy Oude Zijds Achterburgwal, but these need not distract you for too long. There is then a short, graffiti-ridden alleyway which opens onto a quiet courtyard overhung with fig trees which in warmer weather provides several tables for outdoor eating.

 

The restaurant’s name also provides an introduction to this city’s distinctive history. The phrase aan de wal refers to the 17th century when this location marked the city’s boundary and the building was initially a warehouse for a wholesaler of dried herbs. Now almost five years old, the restaurant is on three floors with smokers on the ground floor while non-smokers have to negotiate a steep staircase to their tables on the first and second floor alongside the kitchen.

 

Blue and white are the restaurant’s colours, with blue fabric covering the chairs, white linen and walls and a combination of the two on the large single card which doubles as both menu and wine list. And while all this is striking in its simplicity what is equally striking is how the restaurant presents its menu and then takes its orders.

 

It was the chef himself, Daan Olthuis in his chef’s whites, who handed us our menu as well as their extremely good bread and olive oil, not knowing I was a restaurant correspondent, and who subsequently explained that this is a role he has fulfilled for only the past month. “I am really enjoying it as it brings me so much closer to my customers and they seem to enjoy meeting me too.” Olthuis plays a rather fluid role, filling in whenever necessary alongside the three other waiters and chefs, an obvious, vital cost saving move in a small, quality-conscious restaurant open only for dinner.

 

Blauw’s waiters also have a distinctive approach, bending down to table height to talk to their customers at eye level rather than standing up and looking down at them. As a result, the restaurant exudes an atmosphere that quite obviously engaged all those who were eating there that Friday night, whatever their purpose. We resumed our friendship despite a gap of four years; three other tables were more romantically engaged; while two American businessmen behind us devoted themselves entirely to a detailed resume of the World Series.

 

The concise menu and wine list also play their part. The dishes’ main ingredients are listed down the left followed by two plus signs on the right for their particular accompaniments. No unnecessary prepositions here or what RW Apple Jnr of The New York Times calls ‘sleepy time language’, something on a bed of something else. First courses included local oysters, a carpaccio of venison with slices of foie gras and loganberries and their version of gravad lax topped with finely sliced haricots verts, a carefully poached egg and Dijon mustard sauce. A rich but rare fillet of hare with mashed Brussel sprouts; turbot with a poached fig and a red wine sauce; and small rum babas with vanilla ice cream were other highlights.

 

So too was the wine list broken down by style rather than region which included a surprisingly elegant Weninger Soprani Frettner 2001 vinified in Austria using grapes grown in Hungary which the waiter sold to us as ‘ an autumnal wine’ having tasted it three weeks before and added to his list. It lived up to its billing, as did the whole meal which came to 325.65 euros for four including three bottles of wine.

 

For a taste of more traditional Dutch food we were sent the following evening to De Keyser where the tables are covered in traditional red rugs, glasses of beer are ubiquitous and the fug of cigarette smoke is pretty thick. But at 10.45 its kitchens were closed and we walked, somewhat disconsolately, a hundred metres along the street to Bark Brasserie where the warm welcome from the waiting staff was exemplary. Even though Holland may be sadly experiencing the same, if not heightened, religious tensions as the rest of Europe its long democratic traditions seem to have fostered a culture where customer and waiter are located on an equal social wavelength, a prerequisite, in my opinion, for a distinguished meal.

 

With three rows of rather cramped tables on two different levels Bark has the feel of an American diner although its menu and style of service are more similar to that of an  old-fashioned, simple English seafood down to the anatomical posters of fish on the walls. A late, highly satisfying and swiftly served supper of two salads, one of diced beetroot and sardines the other of lip smackingly sweet Dutch shrimps, then crab cakes, a whole baked brill with hollandaise and a half bottle of Meursault which altogether came to  83.10 euros.

 

While these two restaurants set Amsterdam’s culinary charms in perspective what illuminated the entire city was a morning cruise on an elegant and comfortable ‘notaries’ boat’ built in 1907 originally for notaries to ply the canals to obtain the signatures of their outlying  clients on legal documents and now piloted by an extremely knowledgeable captain. Its main use now is for corporate entertainment – even at 1030 its bar was fully equipped with three bottles of champagne on ice – although we sensibly restricted ourselves to their strong Dutch coffee.

 

 

Blauw aan de wal, Oz. Achterburgwal 99, 020-3302257, dinner only Monday-Saturday. Set menu 38.50 euros; a la carte 55 euros for three courses

Bark, Van Baerlestraat, 120, 020-6750210, lunch Monday-Friday; dinner Monday-Sunday,

Myla Cruises, 020-6758584, www.myla.nl

 

Blauw aan de wal, Oz. Achterburgwal 99, 020-3302257, dinner only Monday-Saturday. Set menu 38.50 euros; a la carte 55 euros for three courses

Bark, Van Baerlestraat, 120, 020-6750210, lunch Monday-Friday; dinner Monday-Sunday,

Myla Cruises, 020-6758584, www.myla.nl

 

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