A couple of months ago, I wrote about a time when the most exotic food you could find in Amsterdam was an Indonesian rijsttafel or a Thai green curry. Nowadays, you can get every kind of Asian food from Japanese ramen to Vietnamese fusion and much more in between. The quality of Asian restaurants in Amsterdam has soared – but then again, so have the prices. Asian dining has become more upscale, putting it on a par with the French and Italian restaurants of 15 years ago.
The most surprising thing about ichi-E is its quality:location ratio. This Japanese restaurant, serving mostly sushi, is at Bijlmer Arena – right next door to MediaMarkt, the Heineken Music Hall, Pathé cinema and all manner of other entertainment venues that mean guaranteed customers every night. You’d assume restaurants in that area wouldn’t have to try very hard to keep their clientele, but ichi-E proved my assumptions wrong.
The sashimi (especially the salmon) was excellent quality, while the unagi maki pumped up the flavour an extra notch through the addition of shiso leaves. Sake avocado rolls involved more of the excellent salmon, and felt virtuously fresh and healthy from the avocado, cucumber and lettuce. In the more adventurous department, ichi-E’s Iberico rolls were very interesting (and not in the British sense of the word): crispy panko-crusted shrimp filled the inside, while fried pata negra ham, pesto and cheese coated the outside. Deliciously different. Meanwhile, crispy beef rolls were given a twist with asparagus and a spicy coating on the outside, offset by a sweet-umami dipping sauce.
Dinner came to €65 for two, including a Japanese bottled beer apiece. I might have to find more excuses to come to Bijlmer Arena (post-IKEA dinner, perhaps?) as Ichi-E served some of the best and most interesting sushi I’ve had in Amsterdam. What are the odds of that?
While essentially a Vietnamese restaurant, Bo Nam has a few more tricks up its sleeve than the standard pho/banh mi fare. So many, in fact, that it took our waiter literally 10 minutes to tell us about all the specials that weren’t on the menu. He did a good job of explaining them all to us (or selling them into us, depending on how you look at it) and we ended up ordering several – which I guess was the point.
To nibble on, we tried two types of fresh spring roll: one filled with crispy shrimp, avocado and sriracha mayonnaise (which kind of reminded me of the fancy sushi we had at ichi-E); the other filled with duck and cucumber (rather like a Peking duck pancake). I liked the fusion of flavours in both versions, and the spicy peanut dipping sauce was definitely homemade.
Bo Nam promotes a sharing concept, so we got a fairly random selection of smaller and larger dishes, one of which was a kind of Asian steak tartar served with posh prawn crackers – all fine but not particularly memorable. We also tried a dish called something like “That Crepe Cray” (they like their food/hip-hop puns at Bo Nam), which was essentially pancakes stuffed with shrimps (presumably the cray comes from crayfish), spring onions and possibly a little cheese (although I couldn’t really taste it). Again, it was perfectly edible, but nothing life-changing.
On the surf ‘n turf front, we got a 250-gram rib eye that came ready sliced in a thin soy-based jus with fresh coriander. We also ordered the biggest lobster they had, which looked extremely impressive when it arrived coated in its shiny glaze. From a practical perspective, however, it was a disaster. I wrestled with one crab claw for about 15 minutes, so slippery was it from all the glaze that covered its shell. And to what end? The sauce couldn’t penetrate a shell that thick in any case. With my hands covered in brown gunk, I could grip the lobster cracker tool about as well as I could grip the lobster itself – which is to say not at all. It’s amazing I didn’t end up with the whole lot in my lap. With all that being said, the lobster meat – once I finally got to it – was sweet and delicious. And would’ve been just fine dipped in the sweet-umami sauce on the side.
We probably could’ve eaten more but we had a concert to get to (Bo Nam is handily close to Paradiso and Melkweg) so we stopped before bursting point – which meant we spent €85 per couple, including drinks and a tip. Could we have spent €100? Undoubtedly.
With an equally handy location – on the Spuistraat near Centraal Station – you’ll find another of Casper Reinders’ brain children: JOYA. The décor is intimate and relaxed, with natural fabrics, peachy lighting and soft wood hues. Good for a date arriving from out of town.
To whet our appetites with our glasses of Tempranillo, we ordered the dumplings filled with shrimp and pork, which were classic but tasty, and came topped with small slices of scallop. Given JOYA’s Japanese-Thai fusion concept, the dipping sauce could’ve been more interesting than just plain soy sauce, but as I say it seems like they’d kept this dish classic.
“Kai Kai Kai” involved crispy breaded chicken wings, some Asian greens and a slightly sweet and spicy sauce that was fairly unremarkable. “Tiger Lily” pork belly didn’t photograph well but tasted delicious; the shrimps it came with were well cooked, but the sauce was a little bland – perhaps the fact that it was green made me think of wasabi. It wasn’t.
“Three Lions” beef was cooked just a minute too long for me, but I understand why they serve it like that. However, I did like the sweetly spiced onion chutney it came with and the asparagus spears that are just now inching into season. The noodles were sort of like Pad Thai but without any of the stuff in them: flat rice noodles with a sesame and soy-based sauce plus a few spring onions, which was sufficient for a side dish. Kailan Chinese broccoli came with what tasted like whipped up coconut milk – I didn’t love it but I appreciated they’d tried to do something different with the greens.
And finally, dessert was a chocolate mousse/brownie concoction with added coconut for good Asian measure. Dinner came to €120 for two of us, including a tip, which wasn’t cheap but at least it wasn’t fine-dining prices either.
JOYA is also part of the Tao Group, which shows through in the décor and the funky names all the dishes have. But it’s also something more than that: all the dishes I ate at both Bo Nam and JOYA were good – unarguably. They were just all a bit… safe. There was nothing that really stuck in my memory afterwards. Except perhaps grappling with that slippery lobster claw – which might not be the kind of memory they’re going for.
On a separate note, my food and travel articles – not just about Amsterdam but anywhere I’ve been, eaten and written about – are available for download on iTunes as walking tours via GPSmyCity! And now, app users can purchase an annual subscription inside the GPSmyCity app at $12.99/year with full access to all travel articles for 900+ cities worldwide, or at $18.99/year with full access to all walking tours and travel articles covering 1,000+ cities. 10 lucky readers can win a free one-year subscription (worth $18.99 each) – to enter the contest, leave a comment with your favourite dish you’ve eaten on your travels! I’ll pick 10 winners at random at the end of the month. Eet smakelijk and happy travels!