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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 Gastro.bar, 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 4 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 Gastro.bar (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 Gastro.bar [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 Gastro.bar 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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Oct 032014
 
 October 3, 2014  Restaurant reviews 3 Responses »

East 57 (International) 2 Star Rating
Eerste Ringdijkstraat 2 (Oost/Watergraafsmeer), 020 207 8078, website

Quite rightly, some of my readers have pointed out my sorry lack of reviews of restaurants in Amsterdam Oost and thereabouts. And they have a point: if you look at my Amsterdam map, there’s such a cluster of pins over Amsterdam West that it’s hard to make out the streets of the Westerpark neighbourhood altogether. While over in the East, there’s acres of space between pins, and endless unanswered requests to check out places I’ve never been to…

So here, in a bid to redress the balance, are two restaurants east of the Amstel. What they have in common, other than the obvious, is that they are both in the middle of bloomin’ nowhere. And I say that not just as a typical Westerpark resident; even for Oost, these are a little off the beaten track.

The first is East 57, which must be in Oost because of the name – right? Well, sort of. In fact, it’s down near Amstel station, in a hotel called Casa 400 that looks like a car park – but don’t let that put you off. The hotel itself is quite interesting: there’s a wine shop inside, plus a kind of Italian deli, and of course the aforementioned restaurant that sits at sous-terre level. The food is a mixture of gastro pub and international classics: think bread, dips and olives; gourmet burgers; roast poussin and grilled fish; plus some pastas and student favourites.

One thing worth a mention is the wine list: brilliantly categorised according to types of wine, with an amazingly useful amount of information about each, including handy symbols to denote whether they’re available by the bottle or the glass. I defy anyone to be intimidated by this wine list: it’s the most user-friendly piece of content design I’ve ever seen.

East 57 Amsterdam - bread and dips

But back to the food, when it finally arrived – which was about an hour-and-a-half after we’d sat down. We shared a simple platter of bread with baba ghanoush (nice, not too creamy, but a little too smooth in texture), hummus (also pleasant, although not so close to the usual Middle Eastern varieties I’ve tried), and dukkah (which was deliciously nutty) with olive oil. Washed down with a bottle of German Pinot Noir – so far so good.

I say a bottle. That’s because the bottle had disappeared (there were only two of us) before the main course even arrived, two hours and 15 minutes after we did. I kid you not. Our next glass of wine was on the house.

East 57 Amsterdam - pork belly

By this point famished and slightly drunk, I tried my main course of crispy pork belly with noodles and pak choi. It was supposed to come with kimchi, but I didn’t notice any and the noodles were so sweet they overpowered any sour that might have been in evidence otherwise. The pork belly was indeed crispy, but not just on its skin – it had been sliced up and fried, which seemed a shame. And the less said about those pink things the better.

Dinner came to €67 for two, which was not extortionate – but then again we’d had to wait three hours for the pleasure of dinner’s company. Put it this way: for a fairly average restaurant in what feels like a converted hotel car park, six kilometres from home, I won’t be biking back there in a hurry…

Next time: my review of weirdly punctuated The Gastro.bar– also in the East, but this time on Java-eiland (I told you it was the middle of nowhere!).

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Sep 242014
 
 September 24, 2014  Restaurant reviews 11 Responses »

Yummie (Asian) 4 Star Rating
Spaarndammerstraat 35 (Westerpark), 020 330 3985, website

Last week, I reviewed Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant Yamazato. The conclusion was either that it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, or that I’m simply a philistine whose appreciation of Japanese food goes as far as sushi but not a lot further. Or maybe both. With that in mind, I was excited by the opening of a new branch of sushi restaurant Yummie in the Spaarndammerbuurt. Seeing as I’d passed by the place every day for months (Spaarndammer is my buurt), I’d been watching the renovations with curiosity since February. And frankly, if something took over six months to renovate, it’d better be good – right?

Yummie sashimi-Amsterdam restaurant

First up, a confession: I am hopeless with names of sushi. All those makis blend into one for me (see, I told you I’m a philistine) so I was relieved, therefore, that Yummie features handy pictures on their menu so you can figure out what you’re ordering. In some contexts, I’d call that tacky. In this one, I’d call it necessary. So of course, we ordered a whole bunch of maki (temaki, uramaki, futomaki – you name it) plus some salmon and tuna sashimi, gunkan (which were new on me – they’re bottom left in the picture below – the ones with fish eggs and seaweed on top), and later a few more hand rolls plus those inside-out California thingies.

Yummie sushi - Amsterdam restaurant

They were all, in a word, delicious. The fish was extremely fresh (which I guess is pretty much a prerequisite), but the sushi varieties we had were also sufficiently different to keep even the Louisianan Honey Badger amused. There was some of that teriyaki-style eel going on, and wasabi mayo, and spicy-hot powders – it wasn’t American-style sushi all the way, but there was definitely enough of it to keep things interesting. And as something of a purist, I never thought I’d say this, but American-style sushi (with all its bangs and whistles) can actually be darn good…

Yummie sushi Amsterdam

This little lot cost us €37, which is precisely 10% of what Yamazato cost me. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions from that. It didn’t include wine, however, because – despite the tantalising array of wine and bottled beer behind the counter, and despite the fact that it took them six months to open their doors to the public – Yummie doesn’t have an alcohol licence. I hate to judge, but – well – I’m an alcoholic restaurant critic, so I will.

For that reason, while Yummie does have several tables and chairs for restaurant diners, your best bet is to get your sushi to go and take it back to the comfort of your own living room, replete with whatever wine you’ve managed to stop yourself from drinking so far… (No? Just me then…)

*At the time of writing, Yummie’s website shows its address as Haarlemmerdijk 6. This is out of date! I can assure you I wasn’t just drunk – it really is at Spaarndammerstraat 35…

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Sep 172014
 
 September 17, 2014  Restaurant reviews 4 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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