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Mar 242015
 
 March 24, 2015  Restaurant reviews 1 Response »

O Mai (Asian) 4 Star Rating
Utrechtsestraat 12 (Rembrandtplein), 06 43598740, website

Last week, I wrote a response to Thrillist’s ranking of the Rembrandtplein as the top neighbourhood for eating and drinking in Amsterdam. (Say whaaat?!) Eager to find out whether the any of the plein’s recent restaurant offerings were worth their salt (or my money), I set out to taste the lobster and burgers at surf ‘n turf joint Hummbar. The results were – umm – unequivocally horrible. At least on the burger front. Which is kind of important in a burger bar.

But as a couple of eagle-eyed commenters rightly pointed out, one bad restaurant does not an un-foodie neighbourhood make. Clearly much more research would be required. It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it.

O Mai spring rolls Amsterdam

Spring rolls at Vietnamese restaurant O Mai

I’d had Vietnamese restaurant Ô Mai, just off the aforementioned plein, on my radar for a little while, although I can’t now remember when or how I’d heard about it. I was due a catch-up with recently single girlfriend, so we decided to drop in for a drink and a couple of portions of spring rolls and pho.

The spring rolls were fresh and tasty, and came with three different dipping sauces, which I always appreciate. In the end, we eschewed the pho for a bowl of Hủ Tiếu Nam Vang (good luck pronouncing that one!): flat rice noodles with a medley of prawn, char siu and ground pork, and even what appeared to be a little quail’s egg. Beansprouts and broth came on the side, which meant you could make it as soupy or dry as you preferred.

O Mai noodles Amsterdam restaurant

Hủ Tiếu Nam Vang

I liked it, but was the overall experience of the food plus the spartan ambience and somewhat brusque service enough to convert me to the wiles of the Rembrandtplein? I still prefer Taste of Vietnam as a “posh” Vietnamese venue, and Little Saigon for its cheap-and-cheerful hole-in-the-wall nosh. Ô Mai can have four stars; but the Rembrandtplein? It’s still far from topping my rankings.

Where in the Rembrandtplein ‘hood would you like me to review next? Let me know in the comments below!

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Mar 172015
 
 March 17, 2015  Restaurant reviews 7 Responses »

Hummbar (American) 1 Star Rating
Utrechtsestraat 11 (Rembrandtplein), 020 723 7000, website

Back in February, Thrillist published an article about the top 14 neighbourhoods in Amsterdam (surely that’s all the neighbourhoods in Amsterdam?) ranked according to their food and drink options. In the top five were Oud West (#5), Westerpark (#4), De Pijp (#3), Jordaan (#2) and at #1 (could we be reading this right?) Rembrandtplein. Yeah, right, thought all the Amsterdammers on my Facebook page.

Ok, so the Reguliersdwarsstraat’s finer offerings are close by (I’m thinking of Lion Noir and Bar Huf, although both of those more or less count as chains these days). Then of course there’s Salsa Shop – my September 2014 Restaurant of the Month. But still – there’s far more bad than good on the Rembrandtplein itself. Or is there?

The Honey Badger had noticed the recent opening of an enormous new lobster and burger place called Hummbar (needless to say, we’ve been misnaming it as “Hummer Bar” ever since – frankly it was asking for it) on the east side of the Rembrandtplein. Hummbar’s proximity to Starbucks and its evident sponsorship by Heineken didn’t bode well, but we crashed on in the vague hope that it might be something like Smokin Barrels. It wasn’t. The lobster tanks were – well, umm – empty, so we weren’t entirely sure the surf half of our surf ‘n turf wasn’t just coming out of the freezer. To be fair to Hummbar, though, there was nothing wrong with the steamed lobster – it tasted fresh enough, even if its provenance was a little dubious.

Hummbar Amsterdam burger and lobster

Surf ‘n turf at Amsterdam’s Hummbar

The burgers, however, were another story. I don’t think I’ve tasted burgers like that since the 90s: solid grey lumps of greasy, processed, unidentifiable protein that remind you of cheap school BBQs and taste of salt and vaguely of ham flavourings. The toppings weren’t much better either: they’d somehow managed to make the “Old Amsterdam Cheese” taste like those plastic orange squares you associate with Maccy D’s burgers. The rest just oozed out onto my plate in €15 worth of soggy filler, none of which could make up for the intense grey might-be-meat that was missing even the umami char of a grill. I literally didn’t realise it was possible to f*ck up burgers so badly in 2015.

To add how-can-we-wash-this-down insult to burger-disaster-of-the-year injury, we had to pay for water – despite having ordered “real” drinks as well. Even our waiter was nonplussed by this: “Umm… we don’t seem to have any tap water. I know, I was confused too – I’m not sure what the origin of that is?” The origin, I explained, is money. And while many Amsterdammers I know mentally blacklist restaurants that don’t serve tap water, many tourists will walk into Hummbar not knowing that 200 ml of Sourcy is going to set them back €2.75. And the next day, many more tourists will do the exact same thing. Ergo: Hummbar doesn’t give much of a crap what the locals think.

As for the staff, I fear turnover will be high. The kitchen had lists of burger toppings stuck to the wall. There are only three burgers – if the chefs can’t remember what to put on them, I’m not sure their place is behind the stove. I don’t think our waiter is going to last long, either. He was so English-ly apologetic about everything (including the water situation), it made my Dutch side genuinely uncomfortable. I felt sorry for everyone who worked there, while at the same time wanting to take them on a staff outing to Smokin Barrels to show them how it’s done.

€60 lighter, we decided to get out of the Hummer Bar before things got any more depressing. Needless to say, the Rembrandtplein’s latest “hotspot” had done nothing to dispel my scepticism about Thrillist’s food & drink rankings (although keep an eye out as I’ll be reviewing nearby Vietnamese restaurant Ô Mai soon). As for the Honey Badger’s verdict? “I’d rather get a hummer in the Westerpark.” I see.

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Mar 102015
 
 March 10, 2015  Foodie travels No Responses »

Last week, I was in London for a little bit of business (namely, the oh-so-arduous task of research for a new Eating London Food Tour, launching this spring) and a little bit of pleasure (I’m from the UK, so every visit is a marathon in eating, drinking and catching up with friends and family). Hence, no Amsterdam restaurant reviews this week… Instead, a few foodie highlights from my trip; a photographic guide to London food perhaps, limited though it inevitably is (did you know there are around five-and-a-half thousand restaurants in London?) but delicious as it definitely was. Enjoy the food porn!

Bread Street Kitchen London

Modern European cooking by Gordon Ramsay at Bread Street Kitchen, The City

Hummus Bros London

Hummus every which way from the Levantine kitchen of Hummus Bros, Soho

Cassoulet Galvin Bistro de Luxe

Traditional French fare at Galvin Bistro de Luxe, Baker Street

Tapas Copita Soho

Dozens of tapas (and a lot of red wine!) at Copita, Soho

Hope and Anchor Waterloo

Pub grub at the Anchor and Hope, Waterloo

Jamon Enrique Tomas Soho

A pork lover’s feast of Jamón Ibérico at Enrique Tomás, Soho

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Feb 252015
 
 February 25, 2015  Restaurant reviews No Responses »

Bistro Zuidlande (French) 4 Star Rating
Nova Zemblastraat 586 (Westerpark), 020 475 2046, website Book now

Did I tell you I’m buying a house? I’m not going far. You know how wedded I am to Amsterdam, and to the West specifically, and to the Spaarndammerbuurt even more specifically, and actually to my very own kitchen. So I decided to just shift the kitchen upstairs – three floors upstairs, to be precise. The neighbours have a roof terrace, and I don’t, so I am making what must possibly be the shortest move in history: about ten metres vertically.

It was touch and go for a while. Turns out banks really don’t like freelancers. Especially foodie ones who don’t know much about money. They’re not exactly fond of Americans either, but at least the Honey Badger has a “real” job. And I can be a stubborn old cow when I want to be, so I somehow managed to harass the mortgage guy enough to make it happen.

All of which meant that last Friday I was in Bistro Zuidlande (on the Spaarndammerstraat – where else?) celebrating the signing of the first contract with my neighbours. It’s taken me a while to make it to Zuidlande (despite the convenience of its address) because ever since Het Parool gave it a 9, it’s been impossible to get a table at less than a week’s notice. This time, with the notary appointment already booked, we were lucky. It’s a funny feeling, realising that you’ve known the people whose house you’re going to be living in for 8 years already – but a good feeling all the same. We started with bubbles, of course, which were spiked with something that tasted like a cross between lavender and limoncello, and made a toast to our new homes.

Bistro Zuidlande Amsterdam

Bistro Zuidlande (no food pics – it was too dark inside!)

The menu is French, which is actually kind of rare in Amsterdam these days, even though it was practically all you could get 10 years ago. It featured things like calf’s tongue and skate wing, which I thought was fairly brave as they’re generally considered more “foodie” and less crowd-pleasers. The Honey Badger had the calf’s tongue and loved it. I, on the other hand, had the richest scallop dish I’ve ever eaten. They came (three of them – whole scallops, not cut in half lengthways like restaurants usually give you to save money) on the half shell nestling in a hearty dollop of gooey cauliflower and truffle puree, topped with a puff pastry lid. A scallop pie, if you will. It could have probably sufficed for a main course, but that was still to come…

Speaking of which, next up was a “Cassoulette” (which I assume is just supposed to be a mini-version of a cassoulet). Now, generally I love cassoulet, but this one I was a little on the fence about. It’s not that it didn’t taste good: the meat was all fantastic, especially the Toulouse sausages. It just wasn’t a lot like the cassoulets I’ve had in France and cooked myself subsequently. Random vegetables kept popping up, like mushrooms and turnips, that didn’t feel very Provençale. And the sauce was a rich, truffle-laced, umami jus, without the sunny-sweet influence of ripe tomatoes. (Admittedly, this may well be because the Netherlands is devoid of ripe tomatoes at this time of year.) As a dish, I remained unconvinced by it.

By this point, we were all far too full for dessert (I’d probably hit that point already after the Scallop Pie Effect) so we settled for a digestif and a bit of a moan about WOZ waardes. Generously, my neighbours picked up the bill, which came to around €200 for the four of us. And then they wandered off home to what will soon be my new roof terrace :-)

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Feb 172015
 
 February 17, 2015  Restaurant reviews 6 Responses »

Orale Taqueria (Mexican) 5 Star Rating
No fixed address, 06 34987782, website

It wasn’t until fairly recently that I learnt there’s an actual word for a place that sells tacos. You know: just like the bakery sells bread and the butcher sells meat, the taqueria sells tacos. How cool is that? And suddenly these taquerias (or whatever the plural is) seem to be springing up like snow drops in February.

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while will know that I’ve also been in search of a decent taco for a while. Well, even if you didn’t, you’ve probably figured it out from the title: “part 5?” I hear you ask, wondering how this simple task could be so darn hard. So, to give you a quick recap, I’ve tried tacos from the Burrito Maker (his name is semi-misleading; he doesn’t only make burritos); long-time Mexican restaurant Caramba on the Lindengracht; the Original California Burrito Company (same issue with the name); and most recently, Salsa Shop (one of my 2014 Amsterdam Restaurants of the Month). But just as I was starting to feel like I’d run out of potential taco purveyors, a new breed of pop-ups started, well, popping up: the moveable taqueria feast!*

Mezcal tequila Hiding in Plain Sight Amsterdam

A “Flight of Mezcal” from Hiding in Plain Sight

A couple of weekends ago, I signed up for a “Tequila y Tacos” event at Hiding in Plain Sight (my favourite cocktail bar in Amsterdam) without really having any idea who would be making my tacos. Turned out it was Orale Taqueria, who wooed me within the first five minutes by bringing over their ceviche tostadas. I could have happily skipped the tacos and spent the rest of the afternoon crunching away on raw, citrusy, chilli-hot shrimps with avocado.

But I’m glad I didn’t, because the tacos were awesome too. All made with soft corn tortillas (which seem to be the only kind of tortillas that any self-respecting taqueria serves now – gone are the days of the humble, so 2012 flour tortilla), the three we tried were distinctly different and a far cry from the stodgy carb-fests that used to be the only Mexican we could get in Amsterdam. One was made with lamb and a bright green (from all the herbs) salsa verde; the second was a chicken mole whose flavour was so rich I could’ve sworn it was beef. The last was most surprising of all: crispy cauliflower with a smoky dressing that made it taste just about as meaty as the other two.

Tacos Amsterdam - Orale Taqueria

Orale Taqueria’s tacos – ok, so we clearly got far more than three…

We tried the jalapeno poppers too – I’d had them before in the US and found them kind of greasy and unsatisfying. In contrast, these were bright in flavour, barely battered and speedily fried for minimum oiliness, and punctuated with a light-but-gooey cheese filling that would have been spectacular had I not burnt my lips trying to shovel them in so fast.

Ok, I’ll admit it: I’ve found the perfect taco. But this search has been way too much fun to stop now; what are your favourite taquerias? Let me know where I should get my next taco fix in the comments below!

*The first taqueria I came across was Best Coast Taqueria at the Kimchi Festival. The nice man who runs it told me they supply their salsas to the Salsa Shop – which makes sense because I couldn’t get enough of the latter’s peach habanero. But as I’ve only managed to taste one of Best Coast’s tacos (and at a festival, not a regular venue) I feel like I don’t yet have enough experience to write about them properly. From what I’ve tasted, though, they’re doing a great job! They pop up at BarBra, the Albert Cuypmarkt and various other locations – check out Best Coast Taqueria’s Facebook page for the latest!

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Feb 102015
 
 February 10, 2015  Restaurant reviews No Responses »

Baut (International) 4 Star Rating
Wibautstraat 125 (Oost/Watergraafsmeer), 020 46 59 26, website Book now

Last week, I was waxing lyrical about Foyer – a temporary restaurant in the Felix Meritis building, from the same people who brought us Repéré last winter. A longer-term contender on the temporary restaurant scene, however, is Baut – this week’s top pop-up on the opposite side of town. Well, I say pop-up, but Baut has been around for a couple of years now, making use of Het Parool’s former building on Weesperzijde. I’d tried to book a table there half a dozen times before (on the recommendation of Dutchman Doorn) but to no avail. I suspect that half the problem is the constant threat that they’re about to close: everyone wants to get there (and then get there again) while they still have the chance. But Baut has been playing this game since 2012, and the clock that was cited to stop ticking at the end of 2014 has now been wound up for another 90 days until the end of March 2015.

So, with my reservation firmly booked in for the past two months, I was all geared up for my first visit to this famed restaurant (the late Johannes van Dam gave it a 10 – talk about high expectations!). It has that sort of warehouse-chic vibe that you’ve come to expect from these places – I guess it all adds to the here-today-gone-tomorrow atmosphere. And they do have a great sign outside.

Baut restaurant Amsterdam

Baut’s iconic signage

We kicked off with the house aperitif (slowly, slowly Amsterdam restaurants are starting to get better at selling me a drink before I even look at my menu… really, they should all be doing it – I am such easy money). It was a little sweet, but in an orange-peel-and-vanilla kind of way that wasn’t overpowering. The dinner menu was organised according to geography: France, Italy, the Netherlands, and (somewhat inconsistently) Asia. There are four dishes in each area, and they’re sized somewhere between a starter and a main course – i.e. get two and let the kitchen decide which order makes most sense to eat them in. Alternatively, you can opt for a chef’s surprise menu of varying numbers of courses.

Baut Amsterdam - steak tartare

Steak tartare at Baut – with sadly boiled egg :-(

I started with a French classic: steak tartare – the steak part was delicious, as were the dressed baby lettuce leaves it came with. I was disappointed to find my egg boiled rather than raw – but I guess that’s the fault of the Health & Safety Police. (Vive la France, I say!) I also ordered risotto with asparagus (served curiously out of season) and a buttery piece of pan-fried cod from the Italian department. All very tasty; all very classic.

Baut Amsterdam - risotto

Asparagus risotto with cod – from Baut’s Italian menu

We worked our way through a bit of cheese and a lot of wine, and ended up spending about €70 each – but really, that was mostly due to the wine. Still, had it been €50 each, I think my overall verdict would have been the same: it was nice – pleasant, well executed, but all rather safe. It lacked whatever it was that Foyer had last week – the vibrancy, the creativity, the risk factor. Maybe it’s because Foyer’s temporary residency is still much younger, so it hasn’t learnt to tone itself down. Maybe it’s because Baut’s kitchen is headed up by the same chef who ran IQ Creative’s empire for 12 years. But maybe – after all – it’s about time for Baut’s clock to stop ticking.

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