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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 6 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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Aug 062014
 August 6, 2014  Restaurant reviews 21 responses »

Salsa Shop (Mexican) 5 Star Rating
Amstelstraat 32-A (Rembrandtplein), , website

Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for a while will know that last summer I was engaged in an important mission: The Search for the Perfect Taco. I tried Burrito Maker, Caramba and the Original California Burrito Company with varying degrees of success (and, in general, found better burritos than I did tacos). I’d more or less given up my search when, out of the blue, two young men appeared on my doorstep with a bottle of tequila.

Salsa Shop Amsterdam - tequila

Talk about knowing your audience. Call it an innocent gift, call it bribery, call it what you will – they had me curious. The tequila bottle came attached to an invitation to the launch of Salsa Shop in July, which I attempted to attend until I remembered that I am horrible at launch parties (especially when they involve crowds of tall people in 30-degree heat). So I told the guys that I would come back some other time, unannounced, incognito, and definitely as a paying customer.

Salsa Shop Amsterdam - margarita

Last Sunday, hungover from a wedding the day before, was that time. And boy, did my hangover need it. I ordered a hair-of-the-dog margarita, but it tasted like a slush puppy to me. No matter. I have my own bottle of Alacrán tequila at home, and I can make my margaritas just as strong and sour as I like them in the comfort of my own kitchen.

Salsa Shop Amsterdam - tacos

But the tacos. Oh, the tacos! Salsa Shop has set up a sort of salad bar for taco fillings: you select your main ingredient (chicken, steak, carnitas (a wetter version of pulled pork), barbacoa (the same idea but beef) or grilled veggies), which come on top of fresh soft tortillas. You’re supposed to get three, but they were serving four apiece the day we were there because apparently they were smaller than normal. Bonus, as it meant I got to try all four meat fillings! Next, you can choose to include pico di gallo, cheese, sour cream, guacamole or corn. Me being me, I asked for everything, which was a bad idea because a) this meant it was totally impossible to close the taco shell and actually get the thing in my mouth, and b) it made some of the taco shells a bit wet and sloppy from too many toppings. But I doubt I will learn my lesson any time soon…

Salsa Shop Amsterdam - chips n salsa

And finally the best bit: the salsa! My favourites were the smoky pineapple chipotle salsa and the peach habanero salsa. But beware: both are pretty hot, so if you can’t stand the chilli, stay away from the fiery yellow habanero version! Even the Texan/Louisianian Honey Badger was cooling his tongue off in the margarita slush after that one… (But we did order extra chips, just so we could indulge in more of the peach habanero paired with a portion of cooling guacamole.)

Salsa Shop Amsterdam - hot sauce

Blogger’s note: this has nothing to do with the salsa – I just like the picture!

While there’s plenty of space to sit in Salsa Shop, it’s definitely fast food – but only in the good sense. You may have to queue, but it moves quickly and if you’re lucky you’ll get “waiting chips” to snack on while you stand in line. Crockery and cutlery don’t really happen (and aren’t really needed) and prices are low: currently around €8-9 for three tacos or a burrito.

So did I find the perfect taco? I certainly found the best taco I’ve ever eaten in Amsterdam. And next time I’m at Salsa Shop, I’ll know exactly what to order to make it as damn near perfection as possible…

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Jul 302014

InStock (International) 3 Star Rating
Polonceaukade 9 (Westerpark), 06 49 71 22 , website

As a Westerpark local, I seem to spend many a day and evening enjoying the perks that the park has to offer… And since the Westergasfabriek’s turnover of tenants provides an endless supply of new material, I’m writing a three-part series about the latest restaurants to have sprung up in the area. The first week, I reviewed “the good” (well, good-ish): Mossel & Gin. The following week, I revealed “the bad”: Pizza Pazzani. And this week, it’s time for the last in the series: InStock.

InStock food rescue van

I love the concept of InStock. It takes its name from the idea that the kitchen cooks whatever’s “in stock” – literally. A little “food rescue” van drives around half a dozen Albert Heijn stores in the Amsterdam area, picking up food that would otherwise be wasted because it’s nearing its expiry date. The chefs then create a dinner menu every Friday and Saturday and a brunch menu every Sunday based on whatever’s available – with the obvious aim of reducing the huge food waste problem we have in the western world. And a commendable aim it is, too.

InStock kitchen

However, I don’t know if it’s the food or the chefs (and admittedly, all the staff are new to the business, so we should give them the benefit of the doubt), but there’s something just a bit school dinner-y about everything. Yellowing broccoli that’s been steamed and then roasted meets white sauce with not enough cheese. Harrira soup is good but under-seasoned. Meatloaf is fine but uninspired (although I loved the grape compote). Apple crumble is comfort food (but you see what I mean about the school dinner effect, right?). Rhubarb toasts with goat’s cheese would be good were it not for the fact that the only leftovers Albert Heijn had that day were those weird little crunchy canapé toasts. And cold melon soup has the slight fizz of over-ripe fruit.

InStock brunch dishes

Then again, all this could have been in my head. Because it’s difficult – especially living in the Netherlands and knowing that I’ve unwittingly been sold full-price products in the supermarket that reached their use-by date the next day – it’s difficult to conjure up an appetite for leftovers. My feeling is that in America (or even in the UK), where food is whisked off the shelves long before any self-respecting Dutch person would be happily eating it, this concept might work better. The food that’s wasted genuinely shouldn’t be. And nor should it be in the Netherlands, of course. But when I’ve seen yellow broccoli being sold in my local Albert Heijn, I dread to imagine the state it’s in by the time it ends up in InStock’s food rescue van. They’ve got a tough job, and one that will require a lot of creativity if they’re to elevate their meals above school dinners.

InStock smoothies

That being said, at €10 for two brunch dishes it’s hard to complain. Plus, the smoothies are decent (if you can get over that slight tang) and the staff have genuinely put their hearts and souls into what they’re trying to achieve. Their attempts to make cappuccino with leftover coffee creamer were disastrous, but they had the good grace to accept my feedback as constructive – and if you go back now, I trust you’ll have a better coffee experience. InStock has got some way to go, but I’m hopeful they’ll get there. Leave your experiences in the comments below, and I’ll be happy to give them a second chance in a few months’ time…

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Jul 232014

Pizza Pazzani (Italian) 2 Star Rating
Pazzanistraat 1 (Westerpark), 020 722 0980, website

Last week, I started my roundup of the Westerpark’s latest foodie offerings with my review of “the good” (well, good-ish): Mossel & Gin. This week, it’s time to reveal “the bad”: Pizza Pazzani – a pizzeria adjacent to the North Sea Jazz Club, and the longest standing of the three restaurants in this series.

I’ve been to Pizza Pazzani three times now, and my experiences have got successively worse. The first time, the service was slow (but just regular, Amsterdam slow, not actively rude), the pizza was decent (I liked the combo of pastrami and horseradish) and the house wine drinkable.

pizza pazzani amsterdam

The second time, the pizzas were cold (and, if you stop and think about it for a second, this is not just unacceptable but genuinely hard to get your head around: remember how many times you’ve burned the roof of your mouth on pizzas, and then ask yourself how long they need to have been sitting on the pass for them to actually reach room temperature?). And one of the pizzas wasn’t even the one we ordered. When we complained (twice), the best we were offered was a free drink – but not just any free drink: it had to cost below €2.50. Seriously?

The third time at Pazzani is best described by a role play:

Honey Badger, at the bar, which happens to be right next to where we’re sitting: “Can I order a drink please?”
Waitress 1: “No, you have to order at the bar next door or wait for someone at your table.”
Honey Badger, back at the table: “Can I order a drink please?”
Waitress 2: “Umm, ok, but you can also order at the bar – it’s right next to you!”
Honey Badger: “I realise that but your colleague told me I couldn’t order there, which is why I’m asking you here.”
Waitress 2 to Waitress 3: “Did you tell him he couldn’t order at the bar?”
Waitress 3: “No, why would I say that? Of course he can order at the bar!” [note for reader: pissed off voice is currently employed, implying that either he’s lying or he’s saying she’s lying]
Honey Badger: “But – but – but she told me I couldn’t! Ask your friend!” [points to waitress 1]
Waitresses 2 and 3 turn to Waitress 1: “Well?”
Waitress 1: “Actually I did tell him he couldn’t order here – I thought he came in from outside and should’ve been at the bar next door.”
Honey Badger: “But I’ve been sitting right here this whole time?!”
[No apology ensues]

Time passes, and the hard-fought and hard-won beers that we finally managed to order in the midst of the argument have now been drunk (we needed a drink after that little drama, as you can imagine)…

Honey Badger, at the same bar, half an hour later: “Can I order a drink please?”
Waitress 1: “No, you have to order at the bar next door or wait for someone at your table.”
Honey Badger, now losing all composure: “BUT WE JUST HAD THIS CONVERSATION – LIKE HALF AN HOUR AGO!!!!!”

We vowed never to return.

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