There seems to be a day for everything lately: you’ve got International Margarita Day, World Nutella Day, and even National Selfie Day (lest those Millennials needed any more of an excuse). Presumably it’s a whole marketing industry in itself: create a “Day”, put out some PR, sell more of that thing on that day! Hurrah for capitalism.
Apparently Ron Blaauw’s had his cheffy fingers in this pie, which is probably part of the reason why ESCOBAR is so damn good. It occupies the spot on the corner of Albert Cuypstraat and Eerste Sweelinckstraat that used to be a jazz club and was formerly (way back in the day) a bath house – which is to say that it’s surprisingly large for de Pijp. We sat inside as it was getting chilly by the time we arrived, but it does have a reasonable amount of pavement seating if the Dutch weather is feeling particularly Spanish when you happen to be there (as it is this week).
The Cava was good (the Rioja even better) so we sipped happily as we sat studying our menu choices, which were divided into cold tapas, hot tapas, cold meats, and larger dishes. As advised, we started cold with the ceviche and a plate of silky jamón (paleta bellota for the ham-experts out there). The ceviche was served leche de tigre-style, so that the fish was almost milky, but punctuated by a marmalade-y citrus fruit (kumquat?), red chilli and red onion – sweet and sour, citrus meets spice.
Our hot dishes included pimientos de padrón (anyone noticed I am utterly addicted to these things?), albondigas (the meat balls were pleasantly loose in texture and served with a very fresh and lightly spicy tomato sauce) and navajas (razor clams with broad beans). Everything was simple but full of flavour.
Not quite ready to stop there, we ordered a couple of tacos that came stuffed with shredded pork, red cabbage, tomato salsa, smoky pineapple, and spicy mayo – I loved the texture, the heat and the flavours, although I wouldn’t recommend them to those who can’t handle chilli. My only criticism would be of the boneless spareribs, which were a little on the dry side and came topped with a mysterious pile of breadcrumbs – the latter didn’t add much except more dryness.
The tapas are priced between around €5 and €12, with the cold meats and main dishes costing a little more. Wines by the glass are also reasonably priced – by Amsterdam standards at any rate. The atmosphere is festive, the service attentive, and the food some of the best tapas in town.
Not far from ESCOBAR on Marie Heinekenplein is Barça – one of the square’s longest running restaurants and bars. Which means it’s got to be good, right? Umm, not so much. Things didn’t start well when the reservation we’d made turned out not to be valid outside on the terrace – so we still had to fight for a table in the sun. Our server was more than a little surly – getting visibly impatient with us for asking questions or hesitating when ordering. I remember thinking I’d had better sangria elsewhere too – but we then proceeded to polish off several jugs of it so it can’t have been that bad! (Unlike the hangover…)
When it came to the food, staples like tortilla, patatas bravas, and pimientos de padrón were fine, and prices in general are a little lower than those at ESCOBAR. But €7 for three dates stuffed with goat’s cheese seemed a bit steep. The albondigas were hard little balls of hamburger meat with generic tomato sauce, and none of the seafood was much to write home about – we tried the octopus and potato salad, fried calamari and prawns in garlic. It wasn’t exactly bad, but neither was it memorably good.
Had the service been better, Barça would’ve gone down as an average tapas place with a great terrace. As it was, I won’t be going back – World Tapas Day or not. ESCOBAR, on the other hand, can expect another visit in the not too distant future – and maybe next time I’ll try and go anonymously.