My favourite moment of the day is somewhere around 6.30 pm, when work is finished, it’s not yet time for dinner, and the kitchen is filled with the familiar glug-glug-glug sound of a just-opened bottle of wine being poured. If I’m at home, it’ll perhaps be accompanied by some cheese and biscuits or slices of chorizo; if I’m out, it might be beer and bitterballen, or G&T and olives.
Flying the flag for aperitivo o’clock is Primi, where the friendly Italian guys offer free snacks with your drinks between around 5.30 and 7.30 pm every day. I tried their Aperol Spritz (refreshing as ever) and their Smoky Margarita (a little low on tequila/lime hit for me) and tucked into a board laden with olives, nuts, marinated artichokes, creamy little basil tarts and (my favourites) tiny pizza pockets stuffed with oozing mozzarella and a smidge of tomato sauce. The evening was off to a flying start.
Not stopping there, we ordered various antipasti to share: arancini (fried balls of risotto) were tasty – but not quite as good as the arancini I had at Fa Pekelhaaring last week. We also tried the excellent burrata, which was served with a sort of cold pea soup – I’m not sure the lack of acidity quite worked, but I applauded Primi’s efforts to serve the creamy cheese with something other than tomatoes and basil. Aubergine parmigiana was triumphant, however.
We were fairly full by this point, but determined to try some pasta dishes nonetheless. The Honey Badger’s carbonara was made with genuine guanciale and (surprisingly) a creamy sauce. On the way back to our bikes later, I started down the “in Rome it’s only made with egg, not cream” route, to which he replied: “you’re always moaning that Italians are puritans about their food and never experiment – well, this tasted good so who cares if it’s not the typical Roman recipe?” Fair point. My friend’s tagliatelle with stewed wintry lamb shank was equally tasty, if a little heavy on the cinnamon. And my gnocchi was perfectly fresh and pillowy, served with spicy ‘nduja, crumbled pistachio nuts, and ricotta cheese that had a surprising kick. Delicious.
With two bottles of upper-end Italian wine, free shots of Limoncello and a couple of desserts to share between the six of us, dinner came to around €60 each. Again, however, we could’ve spent significantly less had we not rolled out of Primi considerably tipsy – despite the huge quantity of food we’d ordered. They don’t call me the Amsterdam Foodie for nothing!
Tucked down a residential street in De Baarsjes, you’re not going to stumble across Winehouse SOMM by accident – it’s the kind of place you’ve got to know about. Well, you do now. Great for a date night, SOMM is candlelit, relaxed and almost every table has a good view of the kitchen – which is important because, while it might call itself a wine bar, the food is what you’re really here for. I’d (wrongly) assumed that we’d be having our wine with snacks, but in fact you’re looking at a three- to six-course menu.
We tried oysters two ways: the classic French style with lemon juice and/or shallots in vinegar; and Asian-style with daikon, chilli, coriander and spring onion. Surprisingly, I liked the Asian version better and it paired excellently with the Riesling we drank, too. Crème brûlée of foie gras was incredibly rich – as much as I liked it, I couldn’t finish it so it would be best to share if you can.
Possibly the most triumphant dishes were both salmon: the first was salmon belly that had been lightly seared with a blow torch and served sashimi-style with soy sauce and pickled ginger. The rest of the salmon came next, pan-fried and still pink in the middle, with a basil beurre blanc. Both were insanely well prepared, and paired excellently with the white Burgundy.
Next up, scallops with a slice of raw green apple and black pudding: apparently a signature dish by Gordon Ramsay that the chef inherited. I liked it, but the Dutchies I was with weren’t so keen. Admittedly, the delicate scallop flavour did get a little lost against the bold blood sausage. Red mullet with a fine ratatouille and gazpacho sauce was probably the least interesting dish of the evening, and tasted more summery than wintry (we were there in late November).
In the meat department, duck breast had been cooked sous-vide and then finished on the skin in a frying pan, served with peeled and cooked green grapes (I think!). Entrecote with béarnaise sauce was undoubtedly good but I was having some sort of protein crash by this point and would’ve welcomed a vegetable-based course instead.
Under usual circumstances, three courses would set you back €26, which seems incredibly good value for Amsterdam, while six courses cost €43. However, I should point out that I was invited to dine at Winehouse SOMM so a) I wasn’t paying, and b) we were eating a tasting menu rather than the usual courses. I was assured that the food was the same – it was just served in different permutations. The wines were also fantastic, but in the end played second fiddle to the outstanding food despite the fact that SOMM calls itself a wine bar.
El Hermano de Kique
I was sad when Alex from Trela Plein upped sticks and went back to Greece. But my sadness abated when I learned that the venue would be taken over by the guys who run our local wine shop: Jacqwijn. For reasons best known to themselves, they decided to rename it El Hermano de Kique (who Kique is I have no idea – nor do I know who Jacq is for that matter) and open a Manzanilla and tapas bar. I’m not a huge fan of Manzanilla (which is a type of dry sherry that gives me unfortunate flashbacks to oxidised wine) but they serve dozens of regular wines too, so I’m not complaining.
We ordered a Sardinian red I’d never heard of and settled in for some jamón, cheese, olives, beetroot salad, and rillettes to start with. Unlike many tapas bars in Amsterdam, the plates are small and cheap – so it’s possible to try quite a few different dishes even if there are only two of you. AF tip: if you order the rillettes, get a portion of bread too. For some reason, it’s not served with bread (although there is a bowl of mini breadsticks on every table) and my inner French person feels it needs it.
From there, we moved onto warm dishes: squid stuffed with roasted red peppers (excellent), and chicken skewers with a bulgur wheat and roasted tomato salad. While the chicken was moist and tasty, the salad was served fridge-cold, which detracted from the flavour of the sweet tomato and mild spices. Sweet-and-sour glazed eel came with just-pickled carrots – an umami bomb.
We made a night of it and spent about €40 each, but the nice thing about El Hermano de Kique is that it would be equally possible to pop in for one glass of wine and a hapje for under €10. Oh, and did I mention it’s on my street? Score.
If you’re out shopping in the grachtengordel (canal belt) area and are in need of an early-evening restorative glass of wine and some superior snacks, Spingaren is the answer to your prayers. They open at 5.30 pm, serve several good wines by the glass (plus various G&Ts if that’s your poison), and their basic concept is a sort of DIY plank. Bear with me on this one.
The menu has various small bites of the animal, fish or vegetable variety, and you can choose as many as you like (I’d recommend four to eight, depending on how hungry you are) to be served up to you on a long wooden plank. As Spingaren makes its own sausages and various other meaty things, we decided to go for a mostly carnivorous plank. The aforementioned dried sausages came in three varieties – rosemary, fennel, and mustard seed – with the firm favourite being the fennel seed. Pancetta was almost like lardo di colonnata – the fat was melt-worthy. On a similar note, the rabbit rillettes tasted like they featured duck fat – which is always a good thing. Meanwhile, the pastrami had the peppery cured taste you’d expect, but with the texture of warm pulled pork. The only meat option we didn’t like was the pork pâté, which was so gamey it tasted bitter and had an oddly gelatinous texture.
From the pescatarian part of the menu, we tried the brandade of cod, which was good but didn’t really stand up to the meatiness of everything else (our fault, not the kitchen’s). Smoked beetroot with pecan nuts did, however, and was a good counterpoint to all the porkiness, as were the pickles that were served with everything. Still not quite full, we tried four of the cheeses, our favourite being the oozing stinky French one. But they were all served cold rather than at room temperature, which was a shame for the flavour and texture of the cheese.
I was invited to Spingaren with a food writer friend, so we didn’t pay but I added up everything we ate and it would’ve come to €50. It ended up being plenty for a full meal, especially when paired up with a beautiful bottle of Nero d’Avola.
Rayleigh & Ramsay
Rayleigh & Ramsay (let’s call them R&R for the sake of my typing fingers) have a unique concept in Amsterdam as far as I know: instead of table service, they have at least half a dozen (probably more) wine-dispensing machines throughout the bar. Each machine contains ten bottles of temperature-controlled, vacuum-sealed, perfectly preserved wine. As a customer, you simply pre-load a card with credit and wander around to take your pick of the dozens of wines available. And not only do they come by the glass – they come by the half glass and by the taster sample too. So you can try before you buy, so to speak. Prices vary, of course, depending on the wine, but you can expect to enjoy several different glasses for about €20 per person.
On the food front, R&R does various shareable, snackable plates – think charcuterie, pâté, cheeses, and so on. If you’re looking for something more substantial, main courses are also on offer: I had a wintry dish of confit pheasant (not that I could’ve told it apart from confit duck leg), pork belly with a warm-spiced crust, mash with apple and sauerkraut. Comforting for the final chilly days of March. Not done with the full-bodied red wines, I decided to go with the three-cheese plate afterwards. One was a goat’s cheese, while the other two medium-soft cheeses were rather similar to each other – I would’ve liked to see a bit more variation. My meal came to around €30, but there’s also a fixed menu that’s good value at €21 (for two courses) and €25 (for three).
In short, R&R is a great way to try lots of different, and interesting, wines – especially if you’re with a few people who each fancy something different. My favourites were the Sauvignon Gris from Casa Silva – a recent discovery from the Colchagua valley in Chile – and the New Zealand Pinot Noir, but there were still plenty on my list to try next time.
Tucked into the busy Bilderdijkstraat, Cafe Binnenvisser is a good spot for a drink after work – especially if you’re a wine drinker (they have hundreds of bottles on offer), but with the cosiness of a beer café. The bar snacks are decent too: we tried the olives, which were good quality; cheese from Kef (you can’t go far wrong there); and carrot and potato fritters that were light, crispy and came with a fresh yoghurt-based dipping sauce. Don’t, however, bother staying for dinner. We tried two of the four main courses – both pasta based and both disappointing. Linguine con vongole were punctuated by a few rocket leaves and specks of chilli, but not a lot else. Even a lemon juice and olive oil dressing would’ve helped. The pappardelle with walnut, aubergine and pecorino was just as bad: ribbons of dry aubergine were cloying when mixed with the equally dry nuts. Both dishes were reminiscent of student pasta that was crying out for sauce – or at least more oil – to counteract the dryness. But with that being said, Cafe Binnenvisser still offers a cosy atmosphere for a glass of wine with some nibbles after work.
Aperitivo o’clock, borreltijd, tapas time or happy hour – whatever you call it, what’s your favourite wine bar in Amsterdam for an early-evening drink and a snack? Let me know in the comments!
This post was first published on 14 August 2017, but has been updated several times since to reflect new restaurant openings.
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