Food for people on diets

Please note that since writing this blog post, Envy has closed down

A friend of mine recently ordered a coffee in our local café; ‘I’ll have a decaf cappuccino with skimmed milk and no chocolate sprinkles’, she requested unashamedly from the nonplussed waiter. ‘Why didn’t you just ask for a glass of water?’ I muttered sarcastically, my philosophy being that dieting is little better than self-cannibalism. That’s not to say that I endorse its opposite: gluttony. Where would be the satisfaction in never prolonging hunger before its fulfilment? But there is a time and a place for abstinence, and it’s not on a Friday night in an establishment specifically designed for culinary pleasure. Like a monk in a brothel, dining out whilst on a diet is at best counter-productive, and at worst just plain masochistic. Why go out for dinner if you’re going to spend half the evening counting calories before requesting that the poor chef compromise his professional pride and leave the parmesan out of his risotto? Why torture yourself watching others eat appelgebak while you self-righteously nurse a mint tea, declaring unconvincingly that you’re full after your salade nicoise? (without dressing, of course) You get the idea. I’m not a big fan of this particular variety of ‘restraint’. However, for those unfortunate few for whom dinner is an exercise in martyrdom, there is at least one establishment in Amsterdam catering to such metaphorical self-flagellation: Envy. The irony of the title is of biblical British proportions. A restaurant whose concept (at least on paper) relies on the seven deadly sins, and yet whose culinary offerings are more 40 days and 40 nights than last supper. With a prime location on the Prinsengracht, Envy’s long deep dining room gives the impression that Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen re-decorated Tutankhamun’s tomb; the space is dark and windowless with the kind of twilight bulbs that are used in galleries to preserve works of art from sunlight. The waiting staff are also clad in black with sallow, funereal faces. Perhaps they haven’t had a square meal in months.

Not that we realised at the time, but Envy boasts a kind of ‘concept menu’; dishes are designed to be eaten in seemingly any order with no distinction between starters and mains, only between hot and cold dishes. Not having had this explained to us, we did what most average diners would do and tried to order a starter and a main course. We all went for the ‘Envy Appetiser’ hoping that it would be a good representation of what was fresh and in season that day. Some minutes later, a small rectangular dish arrived displaying a posh arrangement of olives. Assuming this was just the amuse-geule, I was pleased; I should learn never to make assumptions. ‘The Envy Appetiser’, our sullen waitress announced as she threw the plates down in front of us. Three fat fresh green olives, ten small preserved black olives, seven capers, two cheese straws and half a roasted cherry tomato later and we were all still starving. Next, my client and I had both ordered skate with saffron potatoes and a fish foam. Another small rectangular plate arrived; lifting the business card-sized piece of fish with my knife, I counted three slices of potato underneath. I apologise for this sudden obsession with counting the amount of food on my plate (especially after I was so rude about calorie counters) but this was the kind of food that you couldn’t fail to count; it was precisely designed for calorie counters. Moreover, it wasn’t hard to tot up the number of seconds it took us to finish it.

In Envy’s defence, the food itself wasn’t bad. The olives were a fine example of what an olive should be; the fish was steamed for not a second longer than necessary; and everything was well seasoned. I’m having trouble saying more than that, because there simply wasn’t sufficient food on the plate for me to build up more than a cursory impression.

The morose waitress came back with the menu asking if we’d like desserts; for once there was no question as to whether we had room. My boss ordered two desserts, while my client ordered another of the warm savoury dishes. I ordered two pieces of cheese of 40 grams each (yes, the menu actually told me the weight of each piece of cheese). My dining companions were jealous when mine arrived with (wait for it) three pieces of bread! It was the most food we’d seen all night, and by the end of it at least my earlier gnawing pangs of hunger had subsided. I was still tempted to go and buy a bag of chips on my way home though.

When our bill arrived it was sandwiched inside a small, Envy-branded card. On the back of the card, the seven deadly sins were listed – each was paired with a coloured circle like you might see in a questionnaire in a women’s magazine. ‘So, which was it?’ my client asked as she handed over her credit card. Well, it certainly wasn’t greed or gluttony.

all the info

Envy (International)


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