Nick goes to Old Amsterdam and breaks a rule of restaurant reviewing. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
In writing about restaurants over the past 30 years I have talked to numerous chefs; I have won the confidence of many restaurateurs; and I have even gossiped with a host of sommeliers. But I have never done what a recent dinner in Amsterdam asked of me.
It all began innocently enough when I received a text message from Joost Clarijs as we were travelling on the Eurostar to this wonderful city. I had met Clarijs once before, a year ago, at a wine dinner in London and knew him as a former banker with a keen interest in Burgundy and Champagne.
Today, in addition to running his own wine business, he has become one of the four partners in Zoldering restaurant and that was why he was getting in touch. ‘I happened to stumble across your name when looking at tonight’s reservations. If you want, I would be happy to join you', his text ran. I thought for a while before agreeing. Food and wine taste far better with company and Clarijs immediately agreed with my only precondition – that we go Dutch, so to speak, as far as the bill was concerned.
I arrived early, which allowed me to take in this restaurant’s extraordinary building. Zoldering, Dutch for a small attic, occupies the ground and first floors of this six-tiered building. The ground-floor windows are the tallest and admit the most light but the whole is an impressive and unusual structure.
All of which prompted a line of questions when I had shaken hands with Clarijs. What, I wanted to know, is the building’s history and how had it ended up in their custodianship?
‘It dates from the 1660s', Clarijs explained. ‘The era of the second Anglo-Dutch war, I countered', at which we both laughed. ‘And it had been a restaurant for a while. Someone in the city’s historic buildings department alerted me to the fact that it may be becoming available, just as I was assembling a team to start a restaurant.’
The team is impressive. It includes chef Tomas Bron, who learnt his trade in the kitchens of the three-star Michelin restaurant De Librije. Clarijs admitted that they had had only one argument, over the need for an expensive Carpigiani ice cream-maker. Bron won. Then there are Wout Jans and Job Seuren, both front of house, the latter a former colleague of Bron’s. Clarijs’s input was to be his business acumen and a portion of his wine cellar.
Their collective ambition since they opened in April has been not to aim excessively high with the food; to offer all the wines at a friendly price, however costly they may be; and to combine all of this with extremely knowledgeable and friendly service.
The menu initially reads quite prosaically but allows Bron to show off in the detail. Two starters exemplified this. A dish of smoked eel (pictured), an ingredient I always associate with this city, was lifted by the combination it was sitting on: of pungent dill and crème frâiche wrapped around creamy potatoes from Opperdoes in the north of Holland. A dish of hand-cut steak tartare was similarly elevated by the addition of deep-fried anchovies.
We decided on a third first course after Bron appeared and shook my hand while balancing a tray of impeccably peeled porcini mushrooms. These he had constructed into a dish of a poached egg topped with the mushrooms, all of which were enveloped in a creamy mousse.
Our two main courses, monkfish and chicken, looked to me to be quite similar – white flesh on white plates – but the therapeutic effects of the chicken were obvious. This dish was further enlivened by morel mushrooms and grelot onions. And again because we were in Amsterdam, there was a side order of fries with mayonnaise.
No sooner had we sat down than Clarijs had thoughtfully slid the thick, black-coated wine list over to my side of the table. I knew which regions to avoid – Burgundy because I was with an expert, Bordeaux because of its high prices – but what to choose remained a dilemma. Fortunately, someone was watching over me.
I spotted on the page of red Loires, the source of extremely versatile and excellent value wines, a Chinon 2009 Cuvee Danaé from Béatrice and Pascal Lambert for €48, which I ordered from Seuren and he promptly decanted. This old-vine bottling was absolutely gorgeous and prompted Clarijs to say that tomorrow he would be buying all the stock that remained of this wine. With this, and a warm madeleine each, we split a bill of €139.50 euros without service.
All of this made for an excellent night out. But the image that will stay with me longer still was of looking over and seeing Seuren leaning against the pillar with the decanter of our red wine in his hand. He was talking to a table of four, also in the restaurant business, and was smiling and looking around the room that was full of predominantly Dutch people, their eyes locked on each other, as they laughed and smiled.
The friend who had initially booked me a table for one at Zoldering described it as ‘a modern Dutch restaurant’. And so it is, in terms of the food it serves, the wines it offers and the warmth of the hospitality it generates.
Zoldering, Utrechtsestraat 141h, 1017 VM Amsterdam; tel +31 (0)20 765 1212