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Apr 172014
 
 April 17, 2014  Restaurant reviews No responses »

Balraj (Indian) 4 Star Rating
Haarlemmerdijk 28 (Jordaan), 020 625 1428, website

Jun (Indonesian) 4 Star Rating
Frederik Hendrikstraat 98 (Westerpark), 020 785 9185, website Book now

“Behind every creative is a corporate job,” said someone, at some point, I assume – because it’s generally true. At least, it is in my case: my restaurant bills for the past three years and eight months have been paid by a nice, shiny corporate salary, kindly granted to me for services rendered by a company I’ve affectionately dubbed “MegaCorp”. And so it’s with a little trepidation, a lot of excitement and a certain amount of blind faith, that I have a big announcement to make: I’ve quit my day job at MegaCorp. (I’ll tell you more about my future plans for seeking my fortune as a foodie in a couple of weeks, but suffice to say they involve food and Amsterdam and – most importantly – writing, since that’s more or less the only thing I’m any good at.)

Of course, there’s one major impact of all this life-changing-decision stuff, and that’s the end of the corporate salary. I’d gotten pretty used to expensive wines and the odd Michelin star, and the word “budgeting” wasn’t one I’d had to use much in the last few years. But now – with two weeks of my notice period left to go – I’m officially practising my budgeting skills. Clearly, being a food writer, restaurant reviewer and bar critic, eating and drinking less isn’t really an option. I’ve somehow got to eat and drink cheaper and smarter. But how?

“I’m sure ethnic cuisine tends to be cheaper!” I exclaimed to the Honey Badger in what turned out to be a horribly inaccurate generalisation; “let’s go and eat Indonesian!” So off we trot (trotted? trat?) to newcomer Restaurant Jun, just off the Hugo de Grootplein. I looked at the menu and started doing bizarrely Dutch things like – umm – comparing prices. “Hey, look at this,” I said conspiratorially to the Honey Badger: “if we get the two-course menu where we get to pick a starter and two mains plus a vege side each, that’s eight dishes between us AND it’s €2.50 cheaper than getting the rijsttafel!”

Jun soup and spring roll

So we did. And jolly nice it was too. To start, we shared a spring roll, which was packed full of fresh flavours and wrapped in a perfectly prepared rice pancake (i.e. it was thin enough and moistened enough that it didn’t turn into that raw rice layer that sticks to your teeth). We also had chicken soup: the type that comes with a boiled egg and is bright yellow with turmeric and is almost medicinally satisfying.

June main dishes

We split our mains into a meaty variety and a fishy one. Both were spicy (not too spicy – afterwards the proprietor told us his Dutch customers often didn’t like it too hot – we told him we’d happily take on more chilli next time) and, if I’m honest, a little too salty. There’s no need for that much salt when there’s already so much flavour from the spices. However, the Rendang was an aromatic triumph, and the green beans were elevated to so much more than a humble vegetable side dish. Plus, the service was pretty darn dreamy by Amsterdam standards.

The bill arrived: including a tip, we’d spent €75 between the two of us. Add that to the €15 we’d already spent on pre-dinner beers, and that was a €90 night out. Turns out this budgeting malarkey is harder than we thought…

So two nights later, we tried again. This time at Indian restaurant Balraj on the Haarlemmerdijk. It had been on my to-eat list for ages, although it doesn’t look like much from the outside. The interior is typically kitsch, with Buddha and Krishna vying for attention among the trippy patterned wallpaper. But the food, thankfully, was worth the décor. This time, we toned down our starter-ordering impulses and shared just one portion of samosas, which were crunchy and spicy and dippable.

Balraj samosas

Next, we decided to try the Chicken Tikka Masala as the kind of Indian staple that we could easily compare with others: it compared favourably, and didn’t break the bank either. We also had the Alu Gobhee (or aloo gobi, as I’d usually spell it) – cauliflower is the new hipster vegetable, don’t you know?

Balraj curries

Reducing our wine consumption to a 50 cl carafe of the house wine instead of a whole bottle of something pricier, we got away with dinner for around €45 for two. It seemed we were slowly improving at budget dining…

Of course, what happened next was that we went to a wine tasting, got drunk and accidentally ordered a case of wines that clearly don’t fall into the budget category whatsoever. Ho-hum… practise makes perfect, eh?

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Apr 082014
 

Dophert (Lunch and brunch) 4 Star Rating
Spaarndammerstraat 49 (Westerpark), 020 752 0581, website

It’ll come as no surprise to anyone who knows about my pork fetish (think ribs, pork belly, chorizo… these are a few of my favourite things) that the prospect of going vegan is the stuff of nightmares. It’s not that I need to eat meat at every mealtime – I don’t. It’s just that I don’t really like depriving myself of anything – especially when the dreaded “dietary requirements” rule out not only meat, but also fish, eggs, dairy…

So it was with some trepidation that I entered Dophert – a new vegan café in my Amsterdam buurt. I contemplated the menu: could I face a cappuccino without “real” milk? Nope. Could I deal with a club sandwich whose “bacon” was made of tempeh? No again. And what about the cakes and pastries made with neither butter nor eggs? You’ve got to be kidding me. Nope, vegan I will never be… But there is one exception: while meatless chilli con carne completely gets my goat (it’s called “carne” for a reason, people!), I’m perfectly happy to eat a vegan meal that never happened to include animal products in the first place.

Dophert

Thus I ordered a green smoothie of minty proportions with spinach, banana and apple, followed by a “large” salad (if I wasn’t getting my animal protein, I figured I needed to get my calories in sheer bulk). I was proved wrong – happily. The so-called salad turned out to be an extremely filling combo of lentils, pumpkin, artichoke, olives, various seeds and a punchy dressing that involved dill and horseradish. Rabbit food it was not.

Vegan salad

Nor was there any particularly holier-than-thou-meets-hippy vibe about the place (yes yes, I know, I am stereotyping horribly). We even ran into our omnivorous neighbours there. Whodda thunk it?

I escaped Vegan Hell alive. More than alive – pleasantly full, only about €15 poorer, and feeling ever so slightly smug…

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Mar 262014
 
 March 26, 2014  Restaurant reviews 11 responses »

Staring at Jacob (Lunch and brunch) 2 Star Rating
Jacob van Lennepkade 215 (Oud-West), 020 223 7498, website

Wannemakers (Lunch and brunch) 2 Star Rating
Singel 210 (Jordaan), 020 6225233, website Book now

Among the list of FAQs I should probably have on this website is: Where oh where to find a decent brunch in Amsterdam? My (limited) recommendations are here, but while brunch is an expanding scene in the Dutch capital, there are still very few places that really hit the mark.

As regular readers will know, I generally think that it’s the expats who are driving the brunch train (and the Antipodeans, in particular). So Staring at Jacob – run by the international clan that brought you Fraiche – should have been a decent contender. Turns out I was wrong. It looks nice enough – hipster-chic, bare bricks, tables that have been bashed up in the giant vintage-furniture-washing-machine, smiley people and fresh orange juice. And the menu looks even better – chicken and waffles, steak and eggs, fish and chips, omelettes – half of which have cool names that sound like cocktails or an HBO series. But it’s a menu that over-promises and under-delivers.

staring at jacob 1

The “Tree Hugger” came with what looked like a child-size portion of scrambled eggs; a flat, chewy imitation of a Yorkshire pudding; and over-salted kale and asparagus. The muesli and yoghurt were nice, but you’d hope that’s a combo that’s hard to get wrong. Onwards to “The Rasco” (otherwise known as chicken and waffles). Now, I’d never had chicken and waffles before, so I was prepared to be fairly forgiving here – the chicken itself was pretty tasty (especially with the added kick of some hot sauce on the side) and maybe waffles are supposed to be dry? But further research (i.e. asking my friends who are familiar with C&W) revealed that I wasn’t the only one to think that waffles that stick to your palate – lubricated by the merest thimble-full of maple syrup – were not the way that nature intended.

chicken and waffles - staring at jacob

A weekend later, and Wannemakers was not much better. In fact, it was probably worse. Again: great style, no substance. We waited over an hour-and-a-half for our food (the waiter was suitably apologetic and brought us a free glass of wine – the service, at least, was pretty good) but it wasn’t worth the wait. My chef friend’s goat’s cheese Croque Monsieur turned out to be a damp, claggy club sandwich that had then been stuck in the oven until the edges of the bread burnt.

eggs florentine - wannemakers

My Eggs Florentine with salmon, on the other hand, had the potential to be good: wild salmon, fresh spinach, free-range eggs. And yet the kitchen managed to turn a decent set of ingredients into soggy bread (toast it, for god’s sake!), chalky over-poached eggs, and curdled Hollandaise sauce. We were left consoling ourselves with our free glasses of wine and a posh cup of coffee.

coffee - wannemakers

One of these days, someone’s going to open a brunch place that’s a serious contender to Little Collins and Gartine. And I’m probably going to have to keep trying out a whole raft of rubbish before that day comes. But when it does, I will be doing a little brunch dance to celebrate. (And then telling you all about it, obvs.)

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Mar 192014
 
 March 19, 2014  Restaurant reviews No responses »

Repere (European) 5 Star Rating
Prinsengracht 422 (Leidseplein), 0648127085, website

There’s a connection here – bear with me. Readers who’ve been following me for a while will know that there are various characters in my blog posts (otherwise known as “friends”) who pop up on a regular basis. There’s the Honey Badger, for instance (he’s actually my boyfriend), and there’s Dutchies and chefs and designers. And then there’s Scary French Lady. I met her a few years ago through a mutual photographer friend, and was instantly intimidated: she’s elegant, immaculately dressed, fluent in several languages, and never backwards in telling an unsuspecting waiter how she feels about her food. In short, she’s Parisian. And (here’s the kicker), she’s moving back to Paris. Now, despite her scariness, I’ve come to love my intimidating Parisian friend over years of criticizing restaurants with her, and I’m more than a little sad to see her go…

So here’s the (tenuous) connection: just before she left, we visited one last restaurant together: Repéré. Repéré is a pop-up place on the Prinsengracht: it, too, will be gone by the end of month, and I’ll be sad to see the end of it too. Just like Scary French Lady, Repéré is elegant, accomplished and not lacking in attitude. The perfect meal for a tribute post to my French friend…

The menu offers just three choices for starter, three for main and three for dessert (the first two comprising meat, fish and vege). I love a short menu because a) I don’t have to think too much, and b) I generally assume that the ingredients are ultra-fresh and the kitchen is doing what it does best. In this case, my assumption was spot on: my starter of beetroot, goat’s cheese, Jerusalem artichoke and buckwheat was so good my mouth is watering just writing this.

Repere main

For main, I moved on to turbot with a crunchy fennel salad and a creamy white bean number on the side. The flavours were perfect, but the bones in the turbot threw us off – it looked like a fillet, so why wasn’t it filleted? (Needless to say, Scary French Lady asked this very question, while I sat looking British and apologetic in the corner.)

Dessert was equally interesting and equally delicious, but of course I can’t remember what it was given that I was two margaritas and half a bottle of wine deep by this point. Sorry. Again.

What’s equally impressive about Repéré is the price point: the three-course menu is just €29.50, so you can get away with dinner for under €40 if you don’t go crazy on wine. I’ve heard rumours that Repéré is currently scouting for a permanent location. I can only hope that Scary French Lady will come back to visit so we can go check it out together…

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Mar 122014
 
 March 12, 2014  Restaurant reviews No responses »

Beulings (European) 5 Star Rating
Beulingstraat 9 (Jordaan), 020 320 6100, website

As regular readers will know, I have an entire recommendations section for people wanting to know the best restaurants (IMHO) in a particular neighbourhood, or for a specific type of cuisine, or according to price. But of course I get lots of other requests that I’d call “situational”: My nieces and nephews are in town – where can I go with kids? I’m coming over for New Year – where does a good party? My parents are visiting – where’s someplace a bit posh that I can get them to pay for?

A while ago I wrote about Restaurant Anna, and a while before that I wrote about Vis aan de Schelde – both restaurants I’ve visited with my parents when they’ve been to stay, and which felt like the right combination of grown-up and slightly on the side of someone-else-is-paying-awesomeness! But the other week I discovered exactly where I’ll be taking my parents next time: Beulings.

amuse 2

Beulings has a kind of calm dignity which frankly isn’t befitting of four rowdy girls on a Friday night. But hey-ho. It also does amuses bouches – like, lots of them, which I find pretty cool when you’ve got a bit of cash to splash and it’s a special occasion. Beulings served us (in no particular order) olives, deer sausage, curried gold-leaf-encrusted macadamia nuts (fab!), a glass of sauerkraut soup (much nicer than it sounds) with rye bread, little cones of some fishy tartare, and at least four different varieties of bread with olive oil and caramelised butter. If we’d eaten everything, we probably could have stopped dinner right there.

amuse 3

But (all in the name of research, of course), we crashed on with our starters: mine was a combination of duck liver and eel, which had been compressed into a sort of terrine and then bruléed on the top. It sounds odd but it was curiously delightful.

duck liver and eel

For main, I continued in the fishy theme with scallops, a fleshy white fish that I forgot to note down, kale and notes of truffle. Accomplished and elegant.

scallops and fish

I skipped the chocolate dessert in favour of the cheese plate (you know me by now), which came with a decent selection of cheeses in different styles, and a weirdly under-cooked apple chutney.

Dinner, for three courses plus wine, came to around €65 each, although it could easily have mounted up higher had we opted for more courses (we could have had anywhere up to seven). Which, while perfectly fair, is the point at which you wish your mum and dad were paying. Next time, eh?

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Mar 052014
 

Omelegg (Lunch and brunch) 4 Star Rating
Ferdinand Bolstraat 143 (De Pijp), 020 370 1134, website

Do any of you watch Saturday Kitchen on the BBC? You know the bit where they have the omelette challenge, which seems to be more of a contest to see how many egg jokes they can fit into a three-minute segment than whether anyone can cook an edible omelette? And it’s not just Saturday Kitchen – for some unfathomable reason, whenever the word “egg” comes up, copywriters everywhere feel compelled to make egg puns. Maybe because it’s just such an egg-ceedingly versatile little one-syllable word…

Hence, I presume, Omelegg: a play on omelette and egg (obvs) whose interior is about as cheesy as its name. In a nice way, mind you. It’s very un-Amsterdammy, too. Think Swiss lodge meets LA’s kitsch rustic impression of what Europe is supposed to look like. It’s got funny wooden booths with sledges hanging from the ceiling (maybe – I don’t actually remember, but it seems logical).

The menus are in keeping with the rustic theme: large wooden boards with the names of the dishes sort of soldered onto the wood. You’ve got to hope the chef doesn’t decide to change his mind after a month, or that’s some serious expense wasted. Not surprisingly, the dishes on the menu are egg-heavy: omelettes, shakshuka, eggs Benedict, scrambled or fried eggs… it’s more or less Hangover Heaven.

Omelegg

I opted for an omelette (it would seem rude not to), and went for the full “Farm Boy” whammy of bacon, sausage, broccoli, spinach, onion and cheese. There were probably other things in there too (including some mushrooms, which I’d expressly asked to be left out) but they got lost among the sheer volume of ingredients. The omelette was well made, however: not too runny, not too set, and definitely not the kind of stuffed egg-pancake I’ve experienced at other breakfast places in Amsterdam.

The juices were fresh, the coffee so-so, and the mint tea was free (for us) because of the mushroom mess-up. You’re looking at spending around €30 for two people, including drinks and tip, although the service is still more Amsterdam than LA. Still, you can’t beat a decent eggy breakfast, and I’ll be back for some more egg-citing word play soon no doubt…

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