A few months ago, I discovered a wine and jazz bar called Chet’s Jazz Café. I was on what I suppose you might term a “date night”, and the combination of live music, fabulous red wine and the company of the Honey Badger made me fall in love with the venue… I asked myself why it was then, as I cycled there on Friday night only to find that Chet’s had recently closed down, that I hadn’t gone back and supported it with my custom – and, more to the point, my cash? I felt properly choked-up sad that yet another establishment – and one of the nicest I’d found, at that – had fallen victim to the recession. And guilty that I’d done little to save it.
As a reviewer, you’re always on the hunt for the next new restaurant, the just-opened bar, the latest trend, so that you have a story to tell. And of course, you hope that as a result of what you write, the good places will get more customers and the poor ones fewer. In reality, it only partly works like that, I suspect. There are location and rental costs and dodgy suppliers to deal with, and the age-old issue of it not being what you know but who you know. But as customers, we can help by just turning up to the places we love time and time again, and telling people about them.
So here are a couple of the restaurants I discovered this weekend that I hope will survive – if you like them too, make sure you support them. And I’ll do my best to do likewise…
I used to live on the Zocherstraat – I wish Madelief had existed when I did. It’s a simple-looking room, not too big, with exposed brickwork and whitewash. Table reservations are marked by tiny blackboards with names on them (I liked the way they spelt my name so much, I think I might keep it!), and changes to the menu are scribbled on paper in illegible handwriting. We were greeted with a glass of something fizzy, a cup of hot soup and some mackerel toast. Everything has a warm, personal quality to it.
My starter was so bloomin’ marvellous I might go back and ask for a double portion of that alone. It was a sort of stack of risotto with scallops on the bottom and foie gras on the top and a general air of truffle-infused luxury running through the whole thing. If any of my friends had asked me if they could taste it, I’d have probably said no.
The main courses were, without exception, huge. Mine was a whole confit-ed duck leg with orange sauce. Another was Tournedos Rossini made with what looked to be half a kilogram of beef fillet and a slab of foie gras. A third was a “hammetje” that didn’t really need the diminutive – the knuckle could have fed a family of four. Generosity isn’t a crime, of course, but I’d have happily eaten a bit less and paid a bit less.
Speaking of which, VERY embarrassing bill situation! Have you ever been with a large group, all thrown your money into the pile and started to walk out, only to have the proprietor politely follow you out the door to tell you you’re €50 short? And then, worse still, having looked around (shocked) at all your friends, wondering who’s underpaid, realised that it’s YOU? I blame my utter ineptitude at maths. But really, there was no excuse. I will have to go back – if only to redeem myself.
Meanwhile, there’s this crossroads at the Utrechtsestraat and the Herengracht which, by rights, should be buzzing. In one direction you’ve got the Rembrandtplein, in the other the gastro-sophistication of the Utrechtsestraat, and in the other the stately grandeur of the canal. Cutely named restaurant Stacey’s Pennywell sits on one corner of the crossroads, and was half empty on a Friday night. Which is a shame because the service was impeccable, the food on the better side of average, and the bill affordable for the area.
I started with rillettes, which admittedly did not have enough fat in them and were served in dry slices rather than a generous pot. But the main courses were much better: perfectly cooked duck breast with buttery stamppot and a sweet-savoury port sauce; and beef fillet with red pepper sauce, potatoes, green beans and buttered turnip. First time round, the kitchen made a mistake – serving me a medium steak instead of the rare one I’d ordered. But the serving staff took such good (and quick) care of the situation that afterwards I remembered only the solution and not the problem.
After dinner, we went to coffee-and-wine bar Brug 34 over the road – a chic, minimalist café with decent wines proffered for tasting by a soft-accented Belgian barman… Given that it was also half empty, let’s hope it doesn’t suffer the same fate as Chet’s Jazz Café.