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Sep 172014
 
 September 17, 2014  Restaurant reviews 2 Responses »

Yamazato at Okura Hotel (Asian) 2 Star Rating
Ferdinand Bolstraat 333 (De Pijp), 020 678 7450, website

Believe it or not, for the past year or two the Honey Badger has been complaining that I don’t take him to the best restaurants. I know – is he insane?! But he kind of has a point: even though we seem to go out for dinner on a budget-blowingly regular basis, when it comes to the Michelin stars, I always appear to be with the Foodie Girls Dining Club. So, for his birthday, I decided to rectify this and take him to Japanese restaurant Yamazato at the Okura Hotel. It has one Michelin star, and a quick look at the menu told me it was reassuringly expensive – the kind of expensive that makes you squint your eyes to check you read it right, and then decide to trust that for nearly €400 they surely know what they’re doing…

Only with hindsight, I’m not sure they did. Things got off to a bad start with the service – which isn’t something I ever thought I’d have to say about anywhere with stars. The waitress couldn’t seem to answer simple questions about the various menu options – nor explain what mystery ingredients were in either Dutch or English. What’s more, while I was the one to request the wine list and order the wine, the sommelier came straight over and poured it for the Honey Badger to taste. I’ve witnessed this with frustration a million times before – but I think there’s a difference between a cheap Italian trattoria making this mistake, and one of Amsterdam’s most sophisticated hotels. To add insult to feminist injury, the Sancerre wasn’t even properly chilled. #Firstworldproblems if ever that hashtag applied…

Yamazato Amsterdam restaurant - amuse

Moving onto the food, things didn’t exactly get better quickly. An amuse bouche kicked off the “Chef’s Recommendation” menu: a square-shaped noodle work of modern art that tasted of slimy soy with baby corn. I didn’t get it – much like modern art. The first proper course, known as “Zensai”, looked incredible but didn’t deliver on flavour. Everything had that pre-prepared chill to it, as though the five little dishes had marched down a production line from fridge to table – their orders having been given by the chef hours ago. And that orange cup-shaped petal in the bottom left-hand corner that looks like an edible flower? It isn’t. I had to down half a glass of Sancerre just to take the bitter taste away…

Yamazato Amsterdam restuarant - Zensai

The sea bass soup was – well, perhaps it was an acquired taste. It was densely populated with that type of seaweed whose fronds are so fine it’s closer to algae. The sensation of it sliding down my throat was akin to something quite different. And not something I’d want a whole bowl of.

Thankfully, things finally improved after so many false starts. The sashimi was undeniably excellent. (Which may just go to prove that I’m such a philistine that when I think “Japanese food”, what I really mean is sushi. So be it.) The lobster with sea urchin sauce was decadent but nothing out of the ordinary – as ordinary as lobster can ever be, which I suppose is not very.

The shrimp cakes, wrapped in corn, deep fried and then dipped into something umami-sweet-and-savoury was perhaps my favourite dish – it had every element of balance from salty to sweet, and crunchy to soft. The beef was exciting, too: it came wrapped around veges and simmering in its own little juicy sauce. It knew what it was about.

Yamazato Amsterdam restaurant - eel soup

Then came another soup – considerably better and less slimy than the first – with fried chunks of eel, pickled veg, and “noodles” made of some other root. The miso and rice were also familiar and comforting after so many different flavours.

I am never a huge fan of Asian desserts and this one was no exception – although I’ll readily admit that this was probably more down to the diner than the chef. They always seem to involve things flavoured with green tea (other than hot water) and odd savoury ingredients turned sweet. In this case, there was green tea and tomato ice cream, a rather flabby Japanese pancake, a slightly out-of-place macaron, and something peachy in a glass (I liked that last bit but could’ve lived without the rest).

Eight courses later, it was time to leave before I’d have to re-mortgage my apartment to pay the bill. I walked out feeling like something had burnt a hole in my pocket. Was the problem that it genuinely wasn’t value for money? Was it that I just don’t get Japanese food? I still don’t know… Either way, on the plus side I doubt the Honey Badger will ever complain about not being taken to Michelin starred restaurant again.

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Sep 102014
 
 September 10, 2014  Restaurant reviews 1 Response »

Buuf (International) 4 Star Rating
Overtoom 495 (Oud-West), no phone, website

Let’s be honest here: in general (and by definition this is therefore a generalization), Dutch customer service is pretty bad. Even my Dutch friends agree, so it can’t just be us fussy international types. In many a restaurant review, I’ve written about the “Dance of the Flailing Customer” – that arms-waving, half-getting-out-of-your-seat, definitely-not-concentrating-on-what-your-dining-partner-is-saying type of dance move that we all seem to make at least four times in any Amsterdam restaurant situation: once to get a drink, once to ask for a menu, once to order food, and once to get the bill. There are, of course, exceptions, and one of these days when I’m famous (i.e. probably never) I will create my very own Amsterdam Customer Service Awards to hand out to the few restaurants that buck the trend.

Buuf Amsterdam restaurant

But until then, there’s Buuf. When I walked into Buuf, it had a kind of student canteen vibe to it. I was about 10 years older than the average diner, people were eating off trays, and food was being collected by all these 20-somethings once their little plastic discs started flashing red. I was skeptical. Wasn’t I too old for this? And in any case, wasn’t the whole point of going out for dinner that someone would bring my food to me?

But then I remembered the Dance of the Flailing Customer, and I sat right down. In fact, it was genius. No waiting to stop being invisible, no pensive glances over at the servers blatantly too busy checking their iPhones to actually serve anyone, and – above all – no flailing. I simply walked up to the pass, ordered our food, poured two glasses of wine for myself and my dinner date, grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge, and sat back down to have an uninterrupted conversation. Bliss.

Buuf Amsterdam - main course

The food, when it came (and by that I mean when my little red thingy started flashing and I went to collect it), wasn’t half bad either. I had a minced lamb skewer which was moist and lightly spicy. It came with a yoghurt dressing, roasted vegetables and a potato salad whose only fault was that it had been made with leftover roast potatoes (I think – which is why they were a little hard and stale on the outside).

My friend ordered the Thai fish curry (the forkful I tried was good), and the nachos that we had to start were a perfectly edible version of a simple snack. My only real complaint was the desserts: the apple crumble was exactly how you grandmother wouldn’t have made it (solid, doughy and lacking in apples), while the carrot cake looked (and tasted) like it had been sitting in the fridge for a week – both the sponge and the icing had solidified to the point of cracking. Just don’t order dessert.

Do, however, order a snack, a main course and a couple of glasses of wine – all for €19. Yep, you read that right. All that money they save on useless serving staff means you actually can go out for dinner in Amsterdam for less than €20 – that is, so long as you’re prepared to eat off a tray.

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Sep 032014
 
 September 3, 2014  Foodie travels 2 Responses »

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post about my new freelance gig doing the marketing for Eating Amsterdam Tours. Now, 6 months later, I’ve started doing to same thing for Eating Prague Tours… Cue research trip!

You know how usually when you travel, no matter how much homework you’ve done and how many blog posts you’ve read, you’ll always have that one day where you end up drinking coffee with the strength of dishwater and eating a dodgy burger… just because you can’t prepare for every foodie eventuality?

Not so in Prague. Of course, I had the unparalleled advantage of my food tour colleagues (one of whom sent me a 3-page email of tips before I even arrived), the bloggers who write for Eating Prague’s travel blog, and a few locals I’d managed to persuade to meet me while I was there. Net-net, I didn’t have a single bad experience in Prague – and it was all down to the marvellous Prague-ians I had at my disposal.

Sauerkraut Zvonice Prague

So, since sharing is caring, here’s my foodie’s guide to Prague (or, more accurately, a guide by all the fab foodies I met along the way, which I just happened to collect together):

Best Czech restaurant: Lokal and Kolkovna

There are a couple of branches of Lokal in Prague, and it becomes pretty clear pretty quickly that this place is highly rated by locals. We tried their fried cheese (which was a bit – umm – simple, but good with a beer hangover) followed by a meaty main course of pork with sauerkraut and bread dumplings. Probably best eaten in winter. I also tried out Kolkovna Olympia with a couple of Czech locals – similarly wintry, comforting food (I had a slow-cooked goose leg with potato dumplings and red cabbage – you can see the theme here!).

Lokal Prague

Best pivovar (somewhere between a bar and a brewery): U Tří růží

We discovered this brewery-cum-beer bar, whose name translates as The Three Roses, on our first night wandering out of our apartment in the Old Town. I thought I’d died and gone to beer heaven. The amber ale was smooth as velvet, not too bubbly, and with the perfect balance of sweetness and hops. They serve food too – I could’ve spent all weekend there…

U Tri Ruzi - Prague - beer

And best place to taste lots of Czech beer (in one fell swoop!): Restaurace Jáma 

Jáma’s food and general atmosphere is one of an old-fashioned American dive bar; if you wandered into it in Texas or Tennessee it wouldn’t feel out of place. Except for one significant difference: instead of Budweiser (the American rip-off version) and Cors Light, at Restaurace Jáma you’ve got the choice of over a dozen great Czech beers on tap. And for 120 CZK, you can buy a tasting flight of six beers that come in this handy rack :-)

Beer rack at Restaurace Jama Prague

Plus a general beer tip: if, like me, you prefer Dutch-style beers over IPAs, forget the ubiquitous Pilsner Urquell and try Kozel – it’s a smooth, dark beer but nowhere near as strong as its Dutch equivalents.

Best wine bar: Tempo Allegro

When we wandered into Tempo Allegro, I knew it had been recommended to me, but what I’d forgotten was that I’d already been in Facebook contact with the owner. Premek is everything you could wish for in a sommelier and more: he makes great wine recommendations (he only serves one Czech wine because it’s the only one he says he can stand behind. The upshot? It’s the best Czech wine you’ll taste – reminiscent of a New Zealand pinot noir) and can suggest some delicious aperitivo-style snacks to go with his wines.

Tempo Allegro wine bar prague

Best cocktail bar: Hemingway Bar

Something that takes a little getting used to in Prague is that smoking is still allowed in many bars and restaurants. Although the ventilation generally seems to be pretty good, the waft of cigarettes is noticeable after several smoke-free years in much of Europe. However, don’t let that put you off visiting the Hemingway Bar for an absinthe-laced Illegal Mandarin or an it-would-be-rude-not-to Hemingway Daiquiri. We ended up thoroughly sozzled – but it was worth it.

Best coffee house: Original Coffee

Right around the corner from our apartment, this bean Mecca was our saviour of a Prague morning… The usual cappuccinos, espressos and flat whites are expertly made at Original Coffee, and come with free water and wifi. What more does a writer need?

And, of course, best food tour… Eating Prague Tours!

You know and I know that I’m not exactly unbiased here, but I really believe that I left the best till last: our Prague food tours take you to 7 ultra-local, authentic-Czech locations to sample dishes including sauerkraut soup (surprisingly, most people’s favourite), apple strudel (the Czech Republic lays as much claim to this dish as do Germany and Austria), chlebíčky (freshly topped open-faced sandwiches) and the Czech-est of Czech meals: svíčková. What’s more, it includes a brewery tour – a tour-within-a-tour, as it were – during which you get to sample the local tipple (did you know that Czechs drink around 160 litres of beer per person per year? Cheers to that!).

Chlebicky Prague

PS. I also manage their social media – so come and check out Eating Prague on Facebook and and follow @EatingPrague on Twitter!

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Aug 272014
 
 August 27, 2014  Restaurant reviews 2 Responses »

Bocconi (Italian) 3 Star Rating
Spaarndammerstraat 17 (Westerpark), 020 233 6407, website

Poor gluten. I feel sorry for gluten. Here we all were, happily eating bread with hagelslag for breakfast, bread with cheese for lunch, maybe pasta for dinner… Well, I say happily – I’ve never been a huge fan of boterhammen hagelslag or broodje kaas (I wrote a bloomin’ lunch cookbook in response, after all); but the gluten was never my problem.

I like gluten. On the odd occasion that I have an accidentally low-carb day, I start to feel weak and tired. My body needs gluten. I’m not saying that everyone’s does, but for me wheat is not the enemy. So when new bruschetteria Bocconi popped up on my street, I’d have probably avoided it like vege burgers at a BBQ had I known it was a gluten-free joint. I mean, bruschetta without gluten – are you kidding me?

Bocconi Amsterdam - prosecco

Luckily, I walked in with no preconceptions, didn’t really read the menu very closely, and ordered my dinner without a second thought about the dreaded “dietary requirements”. We started with a glass of Prosecco, which wasn’t on the menu but it should’ve been – cool, fruity, refreshing, and served with a hefty pour.

Bocconi Amsterdam - bruschetta x3

We tried several different combinations of bruschetta topping: tomato, mozzarella and basil, which was exceedingly fresh and flavourful; roasted veges with sun-dried tomato tapenade, which was also delicious if a little greasy; and artichoke puree with pancetta, which tasted good but was definitely bacon rather than pancetta. I didn’t occur to me at the time that the bread wasn’t classic ciabatta or focaccia – which I suppose is credit to the baker. It was actually 50% spelt.

Bocconi Amsterdam - gluten-free pasta

Still feeling a little peckish, we moved onto the pasta. Sadly, this time the lack of gluten was more in evidence. The texture of the fusilli was lacking that characteristic bite of “proper” Italian pasta. Although the absence of wheat wasn’t the only problem: the sauce comprised nothing more than basic roasted veges with a smudge of red pesto and a heavy swig of olive oil. It was student food – not much more. In Bocconi’s defence, they do also serve regular wheaty pasta – and I’ve yet to discover whether the sauces do it any more justice than the gluten-free version I tried.

Bocconi Amsterdam - spelt bruschetta

Still, the rosé was dry and refreshing, and the service pleasant and efficient. (I’ve heard from others who’ve waited an hour for food, though – so the service doesn’t yet seem to be consistent.) We went back a couple of weeks later for lunch – this time ordering the bruschetta only – and had a similarly pleasant experience. Hell, we were even remembered from the previous occasion – that almost never happens.

So yes, I’ll be back at Bocconi – probably pretty regularly. But I’ll be picking and choosing my pasta. Or maybe getting my gluten elsewhere. After all, it’s the wheat farmers* I feel sorry for…

*I mean the real wheat farmers – the little guys. Just for the record, I dislike Monsanto as much as the next person.

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Aug 202014
 
 August 20, 2014  Restaurant reviews No Responses »

Ashoka (Indian) 5 Star Rating
Spuistraat 54 (Dam), 020 624 0066, website

I expect other bloggers will agree that comments – actual comments on actual blog posts – have dwindled somewhat since the advent of Facebook Pages. It’s so much easier to dash off a quick response to a post via Facebook than it is to fill in your name and email address (not to mention those irritating little traps that websites set you to check you’re not a robot) at the bottom of a blog post. But the thing about Facebook comments is that if you’re not careful, you lose them. Whereas with comments on my website, I can return to them again and again to remind myself what my readers thought, suggested or disagreed with.

On my Indian restaurant recommendations page, two readers had drawn my attention to a grave omission: Ashoka. While the comments had been left in June of this year and August of last year, I’d not got around to visiting Ashoka until now – and I immediately regretted that it had taken me so long.

It’s on the Spuistraat – somewhere between a sex shop and a youth hostel, which doesn’t feel like a very promising start. Inside, it’s your typical Indian/Nepalese restaurant – kitsch décor and plenty of tourists (the latter presumably because of the location). But once the food starts coming out, you realise that this is several notches higher than your average curry house after all.

Ashoka Amsterdam - Indian curry

We tried the Chicken Madras and the Lamb Nawabi, although the latter came with a crunchy, fruity mixture of peppers, pineapple and cashew nuts rather than the aubergine stated on the menu, so I think we got the wrong dish. Not to worry – I’m not too fussy when it comes to my curry ingredients, and the vegetables we got were a fine substitute. The whole thing was lifted with fine strips of ginger and plenty of fragrant herbs. The Madras was spicy – still not as hot as I’m sure it’s supposed to be, but decently spicy given the clientele. But most important of all, the dishes tasted distinctly different – which, as everyone who has worked their way around a few Indian restaurants in Amsterdam knows, is no mean feat.

The curries are around €10-15 each, and there are a few bottles of easy-drinking wine on offer – the most expensive of which can’t be much over €20. Plus, they do delivery, so you can enjoy Ashoka from the comfort of your own home without needing to venture out into Tourist Land next time you fancy a curry.

It may have taken me a year to follow up on my readers’ comments, but now that I’ve discovered Ashoka I can feel it turning into my go-to curry house. Which just goes to show, good readers: your feedback is appreciated, so keep it coming!

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Aug 132014
 
 August 13, 2014  Food for thought 9 Responses »

So, now that I’m supposed to be a freelancer (I say “supposed to” because in fact I seem to do most of my work for just one client: Eating Amsterdam), I’m free to do midday yoga lessons, buy all my food from the local market, and spend hours sipping flat whites in hipster cafes… Of course, in reality I have never taken a yoga lesson in my life (at any time of day), I am still too lazy to traipse around a dozen market stalls, and my laptop is so old and clunky that it doesn’t like to move from its permanent position at my desk (or maybe that’s just its owner).

Still, when I can tear myself away from the convenience of a big screen, separate keyboard, ancient non-wireless mouse and piles of notebooks (yes, I’ve essentially just set up a MegaCorp desk in my own home – pathetic), I do occasionally enjoy a change of scenery and a cappuccino at a local café. Plus, when you’re a freelancer, you have no such thing as a meeting room – so the café becomes the boardroom, and the barrister the office manager.

So here’s my roundup of the best coffee in Amsterdam – wherever you’re freelancing in the city.

best coffee amsterdam

North: Espressofabriek

I’ve categorized Espressofabriek as north, but since I clearly never go to Amsterdam Noord (as you can see by the shameful paucity of pins on my map!), this place is actually in Westerpark. It’s about as far north as you can get in central Amsterdam, ok? Espressofabriek really does serve as my boardroom: I’ve had meetings with dozens of prospective business contacts here, and they do a fine flat white every time. (I didn’t hear great reports about the Americano, however.) If you’re feeling peckish, they also serve muffins and pastries, although the muffin I tried was small, dry and crumbly.

There’s a big table in the middle that’s good for perching your laptop on while you read the news. But it’s nowhere near any power sockets, so any actual work is short-lived. There’s free wi-fi, and if you vacate to one of the small tables round the edge of the room, there are a few plug sockets too. But try balancing a laptop as big and crusty as mine alongside a coffee and a muffin on a table size of a pita bread and it’s an accident waiting to happen. Plus, the high ceilings and huge glass door means it’s a rather chilly working environment 90% of the time.

  • Coffee rating: 4/5
  • Freelancer rating: 2/5

South: Concerto Koffie

One for the musos, Concerto Koffie is in fact a huge music store and coffee shop in one. So big is it that Concerto spans the ground floor of three buildings (or was it four?) side by side, one of which is devoted to the sale of coffee, breakfast, lunch and cakes. The coffee claims to be single estate, and was tasty enough to this non-expert. I sadly didn’t get the chance to try the food.

Concerto’s wi-fi comes without a password (always handy, I find), and there are heaps of huge vintage tables and sofas dotted around that make work feel almost fun. At any rate, there’s plenty of room to spread out your notebooks… And if you’re feeling bored, there’s about a gazillion records to browse through till you get past that creative block.

  • Coffee rating: 4/5
  • Freelancer rating: 5/5

East: Filter

Over near Amsterdam’s botanical gardens, Filter is actually the front half of an eco-hostel/hotel complex called Ecomama that opened earlier in 2014. It’s uncharacteristically spacious for Amsterdam, with light flooding through its street-side double doors and filtering through to the accommodation at the back of the building. The café itself serves up organic treats, including smoothies and sarnies, and the coffee beans that go into Filter’s caffeinated drinks (including – obviously – filter coffee) come from Headfirst Roasters (see below), I’m reliably informed by The Coffeevine.

Filter Amsterdam coffee

I don’t remember my cappuccino being quite up to Headfirst’s, but Filter’s large wooden tables, free wi-fi and bright airy space make for a relaxed working environment that isn’t too distracting from the task at hand.

  • Coffee rating: 4/5
  • Freelancer rating: 5/5

West: Headfirst Coffee Roasters

Arguably the king of coffee shops, Headfirst Coffee Roasters has the added bonus of being staffed by several extremely cute hipster barristas. Would you like a trilby hat and a killer beard with your flat white, madam? Don’t mind if I do.

However, while the coffee is legendary and the décor inviting, Headfirst comes with one major drawback for freelancers: there’s no wi-fi! Now, I’m sure they do this to promote actual conversation between real people, etc, etc, and that’s all very well and good. Just don’t bother carting your laptop all the way there expecting it to serve as anything other than a mild bicep workout.

  • Coffee rating: 5/5
  • Freelancer rating: 1/5
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