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Nov 192014
 November 19, 2014  Restaurant reviews 2 Responses »

Dwars (Dutch) 3 Star Rating
Egelantiersstraat 24 (Jordaan), 020 625 5306, website Book now

Beer – once the preserve of old men in brown cafes – seems to be enjoying a bit of a revolution in Amsterdam at the moment. We probably have the hipsters to thank (or blame) for this, as microbreweries and craft beers seem to be something of a hipster movement – and since Amsterdam is full of them (hipsters, that is) it’s no real surprise that beers that you’ve never heard of before are suddenly on every menu. What’s more, there are beer tours springing up all over the place (check out Amsterdam Craft Beer Tours, for instance) and even beer workshops (Dutchie Amsterdam has two dates coming up this winter).

But there’s one restaurant that’s been dealing in beer a little longer: Dwars. Opened in early 2013, Dwars claims to specialise in Bourgondisch Limburg-style dining (i.e. the kind of bon vivant attitude to food and service you usually associate with the south of the Netherlands and our Belgian neighbours rather than with North Holland) as well as artisanal beers paired with each dish.

Naturally, we started with a beer aperitif of Gulpener Ur-Pilsner, which was surprisingly light and not too bubbly. The dinner menu itself didn’t take a lot of decision-making time, as there’s just one main course, a selection of three starters (or you can order all three if you fancy a five-course menu), and a simple cheese vs. dessert choice to be made at the end.

Dwars restaurant Amsterdam - pork belly piccalilli

Pork belly and giant piccalilli

I started with the pork belly (no surprises there) served with “piccalilli” – I put it in inverted commas because it was really a deconstructed version: lightly pickled vegetables in a thin sauce, rather than the jarred relish I’m used to from England. Still, the spice on the pork belly was good, and the veges crisp and subtly sour, so I wasn’t complaining.

The main was a combination of wild boar stew, venison fillet and a sort of trio of beetroot. It all tasted very organic and well made, but there was something that wasn’t quite singing to me… It wasn’t helped by the fact that none of it seemed all that hot, but it’s hard to put my finger on what was missing.

Dwars restaurant Amsterdam - wild game

Venison, wild boar and beetroot

Uncharacteristically, I opted for the sweet dessert rather than the cheese course – the former being best described as a sort of Dutch rice pudding. I wasn’t wholly convinced by it (the Dutch description included the word “pap” – which seemed about right), although I did like the stroopwaffel ice cream it was served with. I didn’t think the sugary square of puff pastry added much, but the caramel sauce was a welcome addition.

The Honey Badger got the cheese, however, and damned it as supermarket cheese as soon as we got home. I took his point: regular old Gouda and komijnekaas in plankjes aren’t restaurant cheese in my book, either, however organic they may be.

Dwars restaurant Amsterdam - dessert

Rijstpap, stroopwaffel ice cream and puff pastry

It’s at this stage that I have a confession to make: I drank wine. I know, I know – the whole point was to do the beer pairing thing! But my stomach just can’t take it: something about the volume of bubbles means there isn’t enough room for the food (or, at least, that’s what it feels like). Luckily for you, however, I was at dinner with a true beer drinker – one who doesn’t fall at the first hoppy hurdle. Dutchman Doorn – the handsome chappie who stars in this review of Smokin Barrels – is here to save the day:

“I had the Vuur en Vlam from De Molen with the starter. It went well but it wasn’t that special. With the main, I had the limited edition La Trappe. That pairing was way better. During the starter I thought of it as more of a gimmick (which I always thought a bit about beer pairing), but with the main they really complemented each other. Which is weird because compared to the food it was a reasonably mild/light beer. La Trappe tastes great by itself but was also perfect with the main because you get this sort of hearty stew versus fresh, cold beer. You’d expect the other beer they recommend to be a better fit (it was a Dubbelbock, and bock always goes great with game). You wouldn’t expect the La Trappe to work but it did.”

So there you have it: if you’ve got the stomach for it, Dwars is the place to go for beer pairing. As for me, I guess I’ll be sticking to the Pinot Noir…

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Nov 122014
 November 12, 2014  Restaurant reviews No Responses »

Oolong (Asian) 3 Star Rating
Ferdinand Bolstraat 13-15 (De Pijp), 020 663 3223, website

You know you’re heading inexorably towards middle age when you catch yourself staying in Monday through Thursday, and realize that most evenings at home with your partner involve eating dinner on the couch while watching the tele. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this – it’s just not a normality that I feel ready to embrace quite yet. So, last Wednesday evening, I initiated “Date Night”. The idea was that we’d meet out in the centre, go somewhere different, and have ourselves the kind of spontaneous evening that seems to be harder to come by these days.

We met in de Pijp at new(ish) dim sum and cocktail bar Oolong. The Honey Badger had arrived before me and, knowing his audience, had already ordered us a round of cocktails. One was the heavenly Oolong’s Tail, which was smooth from the Bourbon, spicy from the so-called “Oolong Mix Spices Liqueur”, tangy from the lime, and punchy with that old-fashioned hit at the end from the bitters. We tried other, fruitier drinks (the lychee-rich Li Na, for instance, and the berry-fresh Light of Wisdom) but none were nearly as appealing as the Oolong’s Tail. Save yourself a 10-minute decision-making process (it’s a long cocktail menu) and order it!

Oolong cocktails Amsterdam

The fabulous “Oolong’s Tail”

When we sat down for dinner, the dim sum menu was equally long, so we both opted for the €18 fixed dim sum selection so we could try a bit of everything the chef recommended without having to choose. The first offering was nothing too special: assorted deep-fried cigar-shaped rolls that looked like kaastengels and vlammetjes, containing various mixtures of prawns, cabbage and shiitake mushrooms. So far, so borrelhapjes.

Next came the steamed dim sum, which definitely got my preference. Ha gau and siu mai to kick off, followed by scallop dumplings, chicken dumplings and various others I lost track of. It’s worth noting at this point that when we first ordered the dim sum menu, the waiter told us that for some people it was enough food while for others not, and that if we wanted to supplement the menu we could order extra duck pancakes and garlic scallops, for example. Being the Amsterdam Foodie, I suspected that the menu was not going to be sufficient but I remember saying something along the lines of: “We’ll probably order extra but let’s see how we get on first”.

Oolong - dim sum - Amsterdam

The middle course of many dim sum…

So it was with some confusion, then, that a plate of duck pancakes arrived, followed by two garlic scallops… Both delicious, but were they part of the menu or were we paying extra? We waited for the bill to find out, and discovered that we’d been charged an additional €17 for two dishes we’d never agreed to order. We probably would’ve got the duck pancakes anyway, but knowing we had dessert to come, we were full at that point and would not have ordered the garlic scallops too.

Dinner – with all the extras plus two cocktails and a glass of wine apiece – came to around €110, which wasn’t outrageous given what we had, but probably shouldn’t become a Wednesday-night habit. Next time, however, I’d like to be asked before being “upsold”. All this being said, there will be a next time – if only for that Oolong’s Tail

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Nov 052014
 November 5, 2014  Restaurant reviews 2 Responses »

Taste of Vietnam (Asian) 4 Star Rating
Herenstraat 28 (Jordaan), 020 358 6715, website

A couple of weeks ago, I went to the Bokbierfestival at the Beurs van Berlage. It had started at about midday, but we only arrived around 8 pm having decided to grab a bite to eat beforehand. But clearly we’d missed the memo: the vast majority of the beer revelers had brought their own kaas blokjes, grillworst slices and peanuts – either in neatly stackable Tupperware boxes, or straight from Albert Heijn. Because why wouldn’t you?

So not only was I one of the very few women at the beer festival; I’d also somehow made the ultimate beer snack faux pas. Because, unlike my Dutch counterparts, I’d been for Vietnamese food beforehand. What a rookie error! There was me thinking that a nice, light bowl of pho and some spring rolls would be a great balance to the heavy bokbier… when all along I should’ve been packing my cheese ‘n mustard.

spring rolls - Taste of Vietnam - Amsterdam

Oh well, I’ll know for next time. And meanwhile, I did very much enjoy my spring rolls. Vietnamese food seems to have become quite the hip foodie trend in Amsterdam of late – Little Saigon opened in spring, Pho 91 during the summer, and now Taste of Vietnam. It’s in the Jordaan, which is handy for me, and comes decorated with these gorgeous wooden figures on mini-plinths. It’s kind of an irrelevant detail when it comes to the food, but I liked it.

Taste of Vietnam - Amsterdam

The spring rolls were packed full of goodness (with pork, tofu and shrimps), while the pho was deliciously fragranced with spices that were almost Christmas-y. We also tried the fried beef with noodles, fresh herbs and a fish sauce-based dressing that was both sweet and umami. The beef was accompanied by two more rolls – this time of the fried variety. Ok, this meal wasn’t turning out as light as I’d anticipated.

beef and noodles - Taste of Vietnam - Amsterdam

Dinner was, however, a perfect preparation for the beer to follow. Filling without being bloating, and spicy enough to make you thirsty – I’d take Taste of Vietnam over Albert Heijn nootjes any day!

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Oct 292014
 October 29, 2014  Restaurant reviews No Responses »

Smokin Barrels (American) 5 Star Rating
Beukenplein 22 (Oost/Watergraafsmeer), 020 693 3555, website

As you may have noticed, I’ve been making a bit of a push to explore Amsterdam Oost recently. I made it as far as East 57 and The, wrote up my reviews, and concluded that they weren’t worth the bike ride… surely I was missing something?

Turns out I was: the Beukenplein. Around a year ago I had dinner at Bidou and liked it a lot. But it was a dark winter’s evening and I don’t remember an awful lot else being around there, if I’m honest. Those who live in the area can probably tell me whether I was just being unobservant, or whether the sudden glut of cool bars and restaurants has sprung up in the past year. Either way, what with French comfort food (and pizza?!) from Bidou, drinks at Maxwell, and surf ‘n turf-meets-cocktails at Smokin Barrels, the Beukenplein is quickly becoming the new Noordermarkt.

The most striking thing about Smokin Barrels is not its sheer variety of gourmet burgers (think foie gras, brioche, kimchi… but also good old-fashioned bacon and cheese if you prefer), nor its surprisingly affordable lobster dishes (lobster for under €20? you’ve got to be joking!), nor even its vast array of hipster drinks (those funny jam jars abound)… No, the most striking thing about Smokin Barrels is its service.

Smokin Barrels - Amsterdam - gin & tonic

I happened to be there on only its second night open, so I was expecting a few teething problems. Many new restaurants and bars in Amsterdam fall victim to their own instant popularity, leaving you waiting an-hour-and-a-half for a beer and a burger. Not so at Smokin Barrels – and this despite the fact that we were sitting on a mezzanine level, right at the back (the place was packed from the get-go) – surely prime real estate for the Dutch art of ignoring customers? Apparently not. Our waitress was a gem – a smiling, glass-carrying, order-taking, efficiency-mongering angel of customer service.

This has the potential to sound at odds with what I just said, but at one point she knocked half a beer over on our table by accident. I’ve had this happen to me before in other places, and while I’ve cast my gaze around frantically for the nearest napkin, I’ve listened to the waiting staff sigh in annoyance, reach for a cloth for the floor, completely ignore me and my sodden jeans, and wander sulkily away to return to their chat behind the bar with their colleagues. What a contrast from Ms Smokin Barrels, who said sorry half a dozen times, brought us a new beer in an instant, and offered me a dry tea towel – all the while smiling apologetically and chatting to us like we were the only customers she had to deal with that night. The Honey Badger was so impressed he left an American-style 20% tip. Well I never: good service being rewarded by a happy customer? Who’d have thought such a crazy principle existed…

Smokin Barrels - Amsterdam - surf n turf

Good grief – I’ve just written three paragraphs about the service and barely mentioned the food. So let’s just be clear: I loved the food too. I ordered the surf ‘n turf: €23.50 for half a lobster, plus a decent sized burger (cooked perfectly pink in the middle) in a brioche bun with all the toppings. Perfect pub food.

I also tried the Arie Gold – a burger combo that involved foie gras, madeira and truffle. The bread that it was sandwiched in didn’t quite work as a burger-holding device, but the flavours were undeniably luxurious and sublime. I also went a little overboard on the gin & tonics, of which there were several delicious varieties – they all came in those fishbowl-sized glasses that seem to extend summer by at least the hour that it takes you to drink them.

So, there we have it: finally a reason to return to Amsterdam Oost… Thank you, Smokin Barrels, for restoring my faith in customer service – see you next weekend?

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Oct 222014
 October 22, 2014  Restaurant reviews 7 Responses »

Paper Planes (Lunch and brunch) 4 Star Rating
Rokin 81 (Dam), 06 52695463, website

A couple of weeks ago, I read an article in the Guardian about the complex (and somewhat American) art of hacking a menu. Hacking the menu (for those who, like me, have no idea what this is) means either a) asking for things that aren’t on the menu at all (signature dishes that only those in the know are even aware the chef has in their repertoire); or b) ordering something that is on the menu but then customizing it to within an inch of its life. Asking for bacon instead of cheese on your burger, for instance, before requesting a gluten-free bun and a side of onion rings instead of chips.

The Guardian article suggests, with good reason, that the concept of hacking the menu has something innately un-British about it. We’re all programmed to either eat what we’re given and be polite about it, or eat what we’re given and then delight in moaning about it afterwards (I guess I fall into the latter category). But one thing us Brits will never do is just say what we actually want.

Determined to buck the national stereotype, I found myself in new brunch joint Paper Planes with a dilemma: should I order the porridge, suck up the fact that I don’t much like cinnamon (except in tagine), and forego the fresh fruit? Should I opt instead for cool natural yoghurt (literally one of my favourite things in the world) with fresh and dried fruits, and just accept the fact that this was not going to be a morning for carbs? Or should I (shock horror) just ask for what I damn well want?

I think you can guess what’s coming next: yes, I hacked the menu. I felt like an American: I could do anything! This was the land of the free! Yes we can!

Paper Planes - Amsterdam - breakfast brunch

Plus, brunch netted me the best Instagram photo I’ve ever taken. Double score.

My porridge arrived with dried fruits, seeds, fresh apples and bananas to boot. But the porridge itself was kind of dry, so – still riding my menu-hacking wave – I asked for some cream. They didn’t have any – so they offered me yoghurt instead. Oh what joy! I got to have my porridge AND eat my yoghurt! This – I thought conspiratorially inside my little British brain – this is what it must feel like to be a New Yorker…

Afterwards, I discovered that Paper Planes’ goal is “to create a Los Angeles vibe that we may sometimes miss in this lovely city”. Well, no wonder my menu-hacking was such a success… and thank god I read this before I tried it out in a brown café (“Yes, I’d like bitterballen with ketchup, please!”) and told to f*ck off. Because at the end of the day, I doubt that menu hacking is likely to take off in Amsterdam – just as it’s unlikely to take off in the UK. Us Europeans just aren’t trained for it.

But if you’re feeling brave, confident, and ready to put on a teensy bit of American swagger, get down to Paper Planes to practice your hacking skills. It’s strangely liberating…

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Oct 142014
 October 14, 2014  Restaurant reviews 11 Responses »

The (International) 2 Star Rating
Sumatrakade 613 (Oost/Watergraafsmeer), 020 570 2014, website Book now

Last week, I reviewed Amsterdam Oost’s East 57 in a bid to redress the horrible imbalance on my Amsterdam map between restaurants in the east and west of the city (and let’s not even get started on Amsterdam Noord!). This week, the theme continues with The [sic] – a newcomer to the Java-eiland, whose shores I last graced three years ago when working on that side of town and training for the Dam tot Damloop by running around that very island.

Going back there a couple of years later, it seems a few restaurants and cafes are starting to pop up to accommodate the influx of young professional Amsterdammers who have moved over there to start families. In fact, The is more or less nestled in beside a children’s playground – which might suggest that its target audience would be interested in the style of family-friendly dining offered by Flinders, for example.

But nope. They’ve opted for an altogether more formal affair, with achingly Instagrammable dishes that you need to order at least three of in order to feel anything remotely resembling full. Not that we did, in the end. We ordered two and then decided to cut our losses and buy a portion of chips and mayo on the way home.

Oliver Gastrobar Amsterdam - Tiradito Peru

The menu is distinctly fusion, with dishes purportedly ranging from Peruvian to Japanese to Jamaican to Indonesian. The “Tiradito Peru” (above) consisted of bonito “ceviche”, although no curing of the fish in either lemon or lime juice seemed to have occurred; with yellow chilli, which was hot without really tasting of much; chia seeds, which seemed to come in some sort of slime that reminded you of what a bird might vomit if it were to eat chia seeds; and crispy wafers of something that didn’t taste of very much either.

Oliver Gastrobar Amsterdam - Jerk Devil Jamaican

In fact, not tasting of very much seemed to be the running theme. The “Jerk Devil Jamaican” (above) said it was monkfish with jerk flavours, scotch bonnet, pineapple and rum. I got surprisingly little heat or spice from either the scotch bonnet peppers or the jerk flavourings. The pineapple/rum combo was one of those “pearls” (like an edible bath pearl filled with a flavoured liquid, if you’ve never eaten one) that are more style than substance. Plus, there was the ubiquitous foam to contend with.

As you can see from the photos, everything looked bleedin’ amazing. I mean, just take a look at my friend’s “Raw Vegan” (below) of baby root vegetables and lentil spread. Stunning, no? But raw root vegetables with nothing more than some lentil puree and a bit more foam don’t actually taste of very much.

Oliver Gastrobar Amsterdam - Raw Vegan

And this was the fundamental problem: chef Oliver and his team are trying to create aesthetically fancy food that has very little flavour, in a classy-looking establishment that happens to be slap-bang in the middle of a residential neighbourhood full of families with kids. Passing tourist trade is something he’s not going to get. And that’s a shame, because it’s one less reason for me to get off my lazy backside and go east.

Help me out, Amsterdam Oost-ers: what are your favourite restaurants? I know I am missing something here – what is it?

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