Fresh from a trip to a cosmopolitan city such as Amsterdam, it’s tempting to write here about the new energy coursing through the veins of the city’s fine-dining scene. Of iconic chefs like De Librije’s Sidney Schutte at the city’s newly opened Waldorf Astoria. Or perhaps the seafood from Joris Bijdendijk at Bridges in The Grand hotel, which earned its first Michelin star last year.
I had the opportunity to sample a few of the city’s fine dining options on an early-summer visit this year, but at the end of my trip to this enigmatic city it was a plate of simple spare ribs that I remember best. Grilled with barely a basting and wolfed down in Café de Reiger; a neighbourhood bistro of the kind that dots almost every corner in the suburbs surrounding the central city. Unfussy, approachable, charming... perhaps not a little unlike Amsterdam itself.
The debate over which bistro is best depends on who you speak to though. One acquaintance swore by the modern Dutch food at Wink, on the corner of the trendy suburb of De Pijp; another by the homely Dutch-Flemish cuisine at Rijsel.
Perhaps my favourite was the oh-so-quirky Restaurant Moeders on Rozengracht. It’s a cosy cheek-by-jowl sort of spot with the ambiance of an eclectic friend’s living room: the tables are wonky, the cutlery mismatched, the crockery a hodge-podge of styles… and all with good reason.
On opening night in 1990, so the story goes, the owner asked every guest to bring along a glass, a plate and their own cutlery. Bar a few breakages, they’re what you’ll find on the tables today. It was about the same time that the restaurant began the lovable tradition of pinning pictures of mothers on the wall. Today, there are hundreds filling almost every nook and cranny, and guests are still welcome to bring along their own.
And to eat? Nothing fancy, but plenty of local favourites. Traditional slow-braised beef with red cabbage is a speciality, as is the Dutch stamppot, a comfort food of mashed potatoes mixed with vegetables. A Dutch bubble-and-squeak, if you like.
The next morning I’m up early to hit the streets and work up an appetite. By wandering in search of snacks, of course.
For between meals, there are plenty of foodie attractions to keep you entertained. Utrecht Straat is as good a place as any to begin, and is home to a handful of wonderful artisanal outlets.
Tromp is the place to visit for authentic boerenkaas made from raw milk. The cheeses vary with the seasons as the wild pastures change through the year, and I leave with a bagful of cheese, carefully vacuum-packed against any canine customs officials.
Right next-door you’ll find further makings of a fine picnic. Slagerij De Leeuw has been a household name since 1966, and third-generation butcher Arno Veenhof offers an array of meaty goodies including a superb range of charcuterie. Right across the road, there’s more fantastic cured pork at Loekie.
Few things go as well with salty charcuterie as beer, and craft beer is big in Amsterdam, the city hailed as the home of Heineken. My advice? Leave the big brands to themselves, and head for Brouwerij ‘t IJ, next to the famous Gooyer windmill in northern Amsterdam. Their delicious range – from wheat beers to IPA to Belgian-style tripel – is available for tasting at the cosy brew-pub. Other notables worth looking out for include Brouwerij Troost, a new arrival on the craft scene that brews and serves in De Pijp.
Craft beer isn’t the only thing popping up in the city. Pop-up restaurants are big news here too, as foodie start-ups test the market with once-off or temporary openings.
“The municipality has largely supported them because they make temporary use of buildings that might otherwise stand vacant,” explains Cecily Layzell, a local blogger and food critic. “FOAM photography museum has been given six-month custody of the former Felix Meritis building on Keizersgracht for a photography and food pop-up. Eenmaal is a wonderfully bizarre sporadic pop-up where diners are expected to come alone and tables are set for one.”
That taps into another quirky Dutch dining trend: a boom in offbeat table d'hôte, where a set menu is offered at a communal table. For solo travellers it’s a great way to meet the locals. Popular favourites include De Uitvreter and Café de Klepel, known for its ‘New Dutch’ cuisine.
Another leading light of Dutch cooking is to be found well off the tourist track, in Frankendael Park. Here, in an old greenhouse once used by the city’s parks department, De Kas is leading the pack in farm-to-fork dining. The farm in question is their own 8000-square-metre property south of Amsterdam, which provides everything the kitchen needs.
“We harvest in the morning, serve it in the evening,” smiles chef Bas Wiegel, as he inspects the herb gardens that surround the restaurant. “Winter is certainly more challenging, but then we simply look to get more creative with things like turnips and cabbage.”
The cuisine here is textbook modern Dutch cooking, “with a nod to the Mediterranean, and French techniques,” says Bas, who creates a daily menu depending on what the farm produces. In spring, the much-loved white asparagus is sure to feature, while fresh seafood and free-range meat feature prominently.
While De Kas leads the way in going reviving seasonality, Restaurant ANNA is attempting a revival of a different sort: the fine-dining restaurant is at the forefront of the regeneration of the city’s (in)famous red light district.
Set overlooking the Oude Kerk, the restaurant offers a stylish blend of screed walls and sleek furniture offset by classical napery and upscale service. The menu, available à la carte or prix fixe, offers classical French cuisine with subtle Dutch and Oriental influences. And it’s clear chef Andres Delpeut knows what he’s doing.
A profiterole of King Crab is delicate and delicious, scallops with crispy cauliflower are not long out the shell, and silky duck livers with rosehip glaze are superb. It’s also no surprise that his tuna tartare with wasabi cream cheese is a signature that regulars won’t let him take off the menu.
It’s just one facet to Amsterdam’s eclectic, delectable dining scene; a scene that ranges from arty pop-ups to cosy neighbourhood locals as Dutch chefs and diners push the culinary canal boat out. But forget the city’s famous canals, come here for the cuisine.
Currency: The Euro is the official currency of Holland. The exchange rate is approximately R14.60/€1.
Visas: South African passport holders require a Schengen visa to visit The Netherlands. For information on how to apply, go to http://southafrica.nlembassy.org.
Get planning: The tourism board’s www.iamsterdam.com portal is the best place to plan your visit. The Iamsterdam City Card is a great way to save money, bundling public transport and free entrance to a number of attractions.
Getting there: KLM flies daily direct from Johannesburg to Amsterdam. Services direct to Cape Town usually operate from October to March. www.klm.co.za/0860 247 747
Getting around: An extensive tram network reaches into most corners of the city, with hourly and daily passes available to purchase on board. For longer stays, buy a multi-day Iamsterdam card.