So there I was, deep in Vegetarian January… and it seemed things had moved on a fair bit since this time last year. Not only does Amsterdam still boast a host of vegetarian restaurants, but vegan restaurants in Amsterdam are on the up and up too. And not only in the ways that you (or rather I – speaking only for myself) might expect. It’s not all cold-pressed juices, smoothie bowls and healthy salads. Nope. It’s vegan cheese, vegan BBQ, and vegan junk food – all of which taste every bit as unhealthy as their non-vegan namesakes. This week, I bring you two of the strongest contenders…
Vegan Junk Food Bar
Where, oh where, was the Vegan Junk Food Bar during my New Year’s Day Hangover? Not on my radar yet – that’s where it was. And yet this is hangover food to a tee. It’s probably not all that much more sustainable than regular fast food, and it’s certainly no healthier – but it’s meeting a need. Which is probably why it was packed, even on a wet Tuesday evening. And this despite the fact that it doesn’t serve alcohol (the drinks fridge teasingly tells you how a cocktail is ¾ mixer, so you’d better pick a good mixer – but the chance to pick a good gin would’ve been a fine thing).
Still, with our Spa Rood at the ready, we ordered three of the VJFB’s most popular items: the kapsalon (more on what that’s all about later), some kind of double-patty burger tower, and a portion of sweet potato fries. So far, so stodge.
My hands-down favourite was the vegan kapsalon – literally translating as hairdresser’s (don’t ask) and usually comprising a mountain of fries topped with kebab meat, cheese, mayo, hot sauce – you name it. This was pretty much the same messy deal, but with some kind of soy-based fake meat (that was actually delicious) and – well – god knows how they made the cheese and mayo, but it tasted more or less like cheese and mayo. There were also plenty of jalapenos (which I love), regular red chillies and general stuff to amp up the flavour levels an extra notch. I liked it just a little bit too much.
Meanwhile, I didn’t feel the same about the burger. Then again, I never do: there’s something sad about veggie burgers that I just can’t overcome; and the American-style “plastic cheese” on the burger tasted just as ghastly as the real thing – which might be a win for the vegan fake food department, but is definitely a loss for the world of cheese. Again, thank god for mountains of spicy (fake) mayo, pickles, chillies, onion, lettuce, the works. Oh, and a big chunky fried onion on top for good measure.
Sweet potato fries were a hit – properly crispy and served with the by-now familiar spicy VJFB sauce. It was hard to go wrong. And for €27 for all of that (which we shared between two but could by no means finish), it was pretty good value too.
Utterly stuffed by this point, we headed round the corner for a few drinks at wine bar Barrica. I guess we figured we’d do the hangover food and the drinking the opposite way around…
Mr & Mrs Watson
Watergraafsmeer restaurant Mr & Mrs Watson’s slogan is “For vegan food lovers and cheese addicts”, which should’ve been a good indication of the cheese-fest that was to follow. There’s only one starter on the menu and it costs €10, but for that you get a selection of different vegan nibbles: aubergine waffles were good if a little cold and overly sweet; chowder was made with cauliflower and leeks and was surprisingly creamy; while “egg salad” on toast was made with tofu and could easily have fooled me into thinking it was egg. Not the best egg salad in the world, but definitely tasted more like egg than tofu.
But let’s get to this famous vegan cheese, shall we? “Cheeses” included a blue made from cashew nuts, a smoked cream cheese made from almonds, and a brie made from cashew nuts as well. The blue was my favourite, and really did taste like a soft Cambozola – only the slight grainy texture at the end gave it away. The smoked cheese was definitely smoky and satisfying, but I could taste the almonds – marzipan cheesecake, anyone? I have no idea how they made the white rind on the brie so realistic, but the texture was an amazingly good imitation.
For mains, we tried the pulled jackfruit with BBQ sauce and fries (both sweet potato and regular). I don’t think I’d ever tried jackfruit before, and I’m not sure what it tastes like normally when not done up like a Boston Butt, but I was amazed at the meaty texture the chefs had managed to create. It was of course rather sweeter than pulled pork, but texturally extremely close. With the BBQ sauce and sweet potato fries, however, I felt the whole dish lacked a savoury note to counterbalance the sweetness.
Mr & Mrs Watson’s “fondue” – also made with cashew cheese – came with bread, hasselback potato and various roasted veggies to dip into it. In contrast with the cashew cheeses we had to start with, the nuttiness of the cashew here was more present, but the fondue was still creamy and rich. In short, it was a good hot dip – albeit not a very cheesy one. It was also extremely heavy and filling – in a way that I didn’t really know vegan food could be.
That night in bed, as I lay awake with the cashew cheese sweats (who knew THAT was a thing?!), I mulled over my experience at Mr & Mrs Watson… Of course, I could’ve ordered the dish of the day – it was some kind of North African chickpea and aubergine tagine, I think. It sounded like something I’d like. But it also sounded like something I’d make at home – which is why I opted for all that cashew cheese and pulled BBQ jackfruit and made myself feel a bit sick.
Here’s the conclusion I came to: The Watsons’ food is like a trompe-l’oeil for the taste buds. A trompe bouche, if you like. And if you’re vegan, missing the taste of cheese or pork, you’re going to get a good imitation – perhaps an imitation so good that you can’t differentiate it from the real thing. But if you’re not a vegan – if you’re an omnivore – then this isn’t going to be the best cheese of your life, or the best pulled pork, or the best egg salad. It may taste better than some of the “real” alternatives out there (and let’s leave aside the moral imperative for the moment), but from a taste perspective alone you’re still going to eat better elsewhere. The chefs might have “tricked” you into feeling like you’re eating something you’re not – and that’s an accomplishment in itself. But is that sorcery enough to convince you that cashew cheese is better than dairy cheese?
With all that being said, I do commend Mr & Mrs Watson on what they’re doing. Their food is good – on many levels. It even kept me full (I might say too full) for a long time afterwards – which is something I’ve struggled with when it comes to plant-based eating. But as a foodie first and an environmentalist second, I’d still prefer to let vegetables be vegetables, cheese be cheese, and meat be meat.