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Fine Dining In Amsterdam
I was not going to leave Amsterdam without crossing off some of the local specialities off my list.
Fries was not on my list, but since I didn’t know what I’d get in Brussels, I thought I’d try some here. And a good thing, because the fries in Amsterdam are free to proclaim to the world that they are FLEMISH FRIES!
Not French Fries! Definitely not Belgian Fries—the very idea! Nay, while there is a frying pan and some soggy mayonnaise to spread, the Flemish cause lives.
Of course, this is gratuitously unfair; for all I know, fries were invented in Flanders before Belgium was a glint in the Duke of Wellington’s eye. But it was an obvious dig to make; and as far as I can tell, “Flemish Fries” is really what they’re called in Dutch (and not just in Flanders.) I wonder what the Walloons call them. Probably just pommes frites, and not, I dunno, frites de liberté or frites de flamandais maudits.
(Checks Wikipedia on history of fries.) Well, yes, reports on fries in the Lower Countries are claimed for 1680, way before the existence of the Belgian state; and they are placed in the Meuse valley, between Dinant and Liège, both of which are in… HAHAHAHHAHAHA!!! Walloonia! Oh history, you are so delightfully tricky…
The list of local specialities included Argentinian steak. For reasons I cannot fathom, Amsterdam tourist precinct is packed with Argentinian steakhouses. I wouldn’t have pegged Amsterdam for a big Argentinian community, and I don’t see that Argentinian steak is the best match for aromatic coffeehouse-induced munchies; but I counted at least seven Argentinian steakhouses.
I had steak in the place I had my Sunday morning coffee and apple pie (La Gauch, just before Centraal Station); the minimum 200g fillet, because I don’t foresee a situation in which I could do anything constructive with a half kilo slice of cow. For an empty tourist joint, the steak was just fine. Not tender enough to scoop out with a spoon (as my friend Steve found a steakhouse showing off in Buenos Aires); then again, I’m not sure I’d actually want a steak that tender. But yes, quite tasty.
Next on the list was jenever, the Dutch version of gin. You can get an Old jenever, which is yellow and mellow and not a Donovan song; or you can get a Young jenever, which is still working through its teenage rebellion. Since I had only 24 hours more in the Netherlands (of which most would be spent at the airport, asleep, or getting lost walking around town), I enquired whether a jenever might be possible from my Argentinian hosts.
ME: Could I possibly have a djenever.
HOST: A djenever. Or even a yenever. [looks around] I will get you one, sir.
HOST: [Calls over waitress] Doordrecht Utrecht Rotterdam Leiden yenever.
(By the way, mine host has hit the sweetspot of gutturality, such that I can’t be sure whether he’s speaking Dutch or Arabic. I will assume Dutch for the remainder.)
WAITRESS: … Jenever?!
HOST: Amsterdam Groningen Nijmegen den Haag shop Arnhem Almere jenever!
WAITRESS: [runs out the restaurant as I pretend to be completely unresponsible for the commotion]
WAITRESS: [walks back with a bottle of jenever that looks suspiciously like the bottles of jenever I saw later on—at the bottle shop around the corner]
WAITRESS: Stuyvesand Leeuwenhoek Vermeer serve Rembrandt Tasman Dampier jenever?
HOST: van Dijk van Diemen van Gogh van Morrison shot glass Amstel Rijn Flevoland customer Poffertjes Clogs jenever!
As a result, I had before me a clear glass of young jenever, next to my pepper sauce and steak. This was a quite young jenever. Young enough that it should have been grounded. Young enough to crash its car in my gullet and do a runner. Interesting experience. Not a million miles away from my grandfather’s moonshine grappa, but with juniper flavouring going on.
The third thing on the list was Rijsttafel. The guidebook explained it well: it was Indonesian food for Dutch colonial appetites—
“Hm, this is a lovely satay skewer, mijn heer Indoneesisch hawker. I will take 50 for lunch please. With a couple of carts of rice. Marieke, are uw dining with? Better make that 100 skewers, and three carts. She is watching her carbohydrates, uw know. So, gijf me now please all your spices.”
I didn’t get to have Rijsttafel, or to reach a more mature evaluation of the history of Dutch colonialism. I struck up a great conversation on the train back from Amsterdam with a Turkish linguist at the Max Planck. (My thesis came in handy: I’d at least heard of a few more Turkish towns than average.) She actually mentioned that they were having Rijstafel at her place that evening, but I already had a date with Argentinian cuisine.
The last thing on the list was Stamppot. I got a lot of incredulous reactions on that one. It’s distinctly Dutch comfort food, which is why noone in Amsterdam would go anywhere near it: “We did not become the cosmopolitan diamond and aromatic coffeehouse capital of Europe to eat our grandparents’ cabbage mash”. It’d be like a tourist in Greece asking for fasoladha. (Bean soup. Hearty stuff. You should try it if you’re in a Greek restaurant: mess with your host’s mind. Wonder if it’s even allowed in Plaka…)
Well, I was that tourist. And Amsterdam did not make it easy for me to be that tourist: not a whole lot of places serve stamppot around the Centrum. (And even outside the Centrum, you saw a lot more Italian and Indonesian and Thai than, you know, Dutch.)
I finally found a place to my linking: the Roode Leeuw Brasserie, within the Hotel Amsterdam on the Damrak. It was an island of class in the tourist theme park: the menu actually bypassed English in proclaiming its cuisine régionale nederlandaise. (Well, only for the title: the menu items were still bilingual with English.) Within, red wood panelling, statues of horse carts, place mats that subtly hinted through archival photography that the Red Lion Brasserie has been here a smidgeon longer than the Burger King next door (Est. 1911); lion silhouettes (none red); and a clientele mostly over 70. (There was one other lost-looking scruffy tourist, and a couple of businessmen under fifty. And me. Who despite the crows feet, am still not over 70.)
The waitress was slightly surprised at my request for stamppot, which was on the cuisine régionale nederlandaise menu outside but not on the lunch menu inside. She said (not sure whether in Dutch or English) “I will get you some”. I’m pretty sure she didn’t run around to the corner bottle-o to do so.
A quarter hour later, I was about to peruse the afternoon papers, to see whether I could guess the meaning of Dutch in newspapers as well as I could on cigarette packs, when my stamppot arrived. With a server so surprised at the request, that he gave me a 30-second disquisition on stamppot and its social setting.
SERVER: Here is your lunch sir. It is a heavy lunch. This is stamppot: this is mashed cabbage, and this is mashed potato and lima beans, with bacon and sausage and beef. It is what we eat in January, when it is really cold outside; so we eat it after we go out skating.
ME: Well, unfortunately I could only get here in March.
SERVER: Oh, no problem sir, we serve it all year round!
But not to many tourists, I suspect. And you know, it was a heavy lunch. Definitely comfort food, and the cabbage-based mash was surprisingly pleasant; but you wouldn’t want to eat it every day. Unless every day involved skating, I suppose.
Lunch was accompanied—because I like to try anything once—by Dubbelfriss and Amsterdam koffie. Dubbelfriss was a European-sized helping of lolly water. It was friss because it was fresh (and Friesian). It was Dubbel because it mixed two flavours of lolly: I got raspberry/cranberry. The Dutch for “raspberry” is framboos, which is somewhat reminiscent of the French framboise. The Dutch for “cranberry” is cranberry, which is somewhat reminiscent of globalisation.
The Amsterdam koffie did not my knowledge involve anything served in aromatic coffeeshops. It was coffee, full cream (again with the cream), and honey liqueur.
Definitely liqueur and not just honey. I’m pretty sure the base coffee was Douwe Egberts too (or as I have mangled it at least once, Doogie Engelbarts); so heavy vanilla substrate to the cream and mead. Yes, I approve.
Back to diet next week, I know.
Cranberry, by the way, is some kind of Continental Low German(ic), in which it is transparently 'crane-berry'. Vaccinium oxycoccos grows in England too, where it was historically known as fenberry and marsh whortle/huckleberry, but the English settlers in North America picked up their Low German(ic) neighbors' word, which eventually took over in England too. And that's why cran- is a cranberry morph — because cranberry is a borrowing. So the globalization for once went the other way, from Dutchistan to North America. For the spelling, see my 2009 comment above.
I have traveled to Argentina and I have stayed in Buenos Aires, near the river. The place where my buenos aires apartment was is called Puerto Madero, and it is very similar to Amsterdam. It surprise me.
Q: What’s the difference between Dutch and Flemish culture?
A: The Flemish spell it kultuur so as not to be too French, whereas the Dutch spell it cultuur so as not to be too German.