Friday, May 29, 2015

Amsterdam: Dining Adventures

Since we were not only visiting a new city (Amsterdam) but also a new country (The Netherlands) with different culinary traditions and specialties, we were excited to try new cultural dining experiences.  Indonesian food is popular in The Netherlands, since Indonesia used to be a Dutch colony.  One of our most memorable dining experiences in Amsterdam was at the Indonesian restaurant Blauwe.  We would be partaking in a “rice table”, which we understood would be a set menu with a series of sharing plates.  It was a cold, wet evening when we arrived for our reservation, so I used the food warming vent to heat my hands.  We were given complimentary prawn chips and dip, and decided to start off with an appetizer of battered jumbo shrimp served with a sweet and spicy sauce.  Thank goodness they were not as big as they initially appeared to be, once you tear off the heads, because we needed the stomach room for what was to come.

We knew we were going to get a bunch of dishes but we could not believe how many.  They kept coming and coming and coming.  I didn’t think there was any way that all this food would fit on the table, but it was obviously designed to handle this.  The waitress expertly put all the meats and seafood dishes on the warming grill and positioned the vegetables, rice, condiments and skewers along the sides.  In total, we received 17 dishes which consisted of chicken and goat satay skewers, turmeric beef, spicy beef, sweet soy pork, curry fish, spicy fish, egg in sambal sauce, tofu in soy sauce, vegetables in peanut sauce, vegetables in coconut sauce, sweet and sour cucumber, fried potatoes, white rice, a crispy noodle-like dish, roasted coconut and finally deep-fried banana as dessert (although the banana came at the same time as all the other dishes), for the cost of 31.5 Euros per person.  The food was all very good and flavourful, but what we will never forget are the volume and variety of dishes.  It was fun but overwhelming watching them arrive.  Blauwe also has a great marketing policy of taking a photo of each group of diners with their table full of food and placing the photo on their website for you to retrieve for free.

We went to the French restaurant De Belhamel as much for the view and décor of the restaurant as we did for the food.  The beautifully Art Nouveau decorated eatery is situated in the trendy Jordaan area, at the junction where the Brouwergracht and Herengracht canals meet. We were seated by the window with a magnificent view of the canal and the outdoor patio, which would have been lovely to sit in, had it not been such a cold day.  Since the patio area was empty, everyone else must have agreed.

Our main courses of sirloin steak with king mushrooms, Swiss chard and roast potato, and veal chop with potato dauphin, grilled zucchini and morel sauce were tasty, but not that memorable.  There is not that much creativeness that you can instill in a serving of meat with vegetable and potato sides.  As with many restaurants, the appetizers were the highlights. Since it was the start of asparagus season, I selected the white asparagus spears with pesto sauce, which were so sweet and tender.  I was leery of Rich’s choice of velouté of eel and crayfish with croutons, until I asked for a little taste.  It was so delicious and flavourful that I was jealous and wish that I had ordered a bowl for myself.

Getting back to our search for Dutch dining experiences, we wanted to try the Dutch pancakes which are extremely thin and delicate compared to North American pancakes, and come in savoury as well as sweet options.  They are a cross between a crepe and a pizza.  We chose the restaurant “Pancakes!” since it was always packed each time we passed by, (usually a good sign) and how can you go wrong with a place that has an exclamation point in its name? Rich and I both chose the same tasty set combination of paprika, bacon, mushroom and cheese.  To see what we missed out on, we spied on some of our neighbours who were having smoked salmon pancakes, and sweet pancakes containing apple slices, mixed nuts, apple brandy and cinnamon. We did see one table order the “American” pancakes with maple syrup, which we thought was a boring choice when in Amsterdam.

Touted as a restaurant serving “authentic Dutch food”, we tried Hap-Hmm which was located close to where we were staying in the Vondelpark area and is frequented by many locals.  The Dutch must eat early (especially compared to the Italians and Spaniards who start eating after 8pm) since the hours of this restaurant are from 4:30-8:45, and the place was packed when we arrived just after 5pm.  It is also closed on the weekend, so it must count on the after work crowd.  We picked the house specialty of beef stew with vegetables, although we switched from the traditional boiled potato to roast potato.  The meal was hearty but a bit bland and the vegetables overcooked for my taste.  For me, the best part of the meal was my sparkling Nestea iced tea.  I have never had fizzy iced tea before and really liked it.

Some of our most fun dining experiences were not from formal meals in sit-down restaurants, but from quick, grab and munch snacking opportunities.  Our best adventure occurred in the FEBO automat shops, which specialize in hot snack foods dispensed from 1950s styled coin-operated vending machines.  By inserting 1.5 to 3 Euros in coins into a selected window’s coin slot, you can open up the door of that window and procure a piping hot hamburger, hot dog, kaassoufflé (melted cheese wrapped in deep-fried dough), or meat krokets (Dutch for croquettes - minced meat in a thick sauce rolled up in bread crumbs and deep fried).  My piping-hot beef ragout kroket for 1.6 Euros was one of the best quick snacks I’ve ever had, and the most entertaining to purchase.

We first discovered the croquette on a previous trip to Barcelona and have craved more ever since.  Having enjoyed the FEBO kroket, we decided to also try ones from Holtkamp, reputed to be the best in Amsterdam.  The Holtkamp krokets were plumper and crispier than the ones from FEBO and came with not only beef but also shrimp fillings.  But at over twice the price and only available in one single remote location, I would happily settle for my FEBO croquette in a pinch.  Akin to the croquette is the bitterballen – breaded meatballs served with a mustard sauce, which we tried at the cafeteria in Eye film museum.  We enjoyed eating the crispy French fries served in a paper cone that came with a choice of over 10 different sauces including several varieties of mayo, curry, chili, gravy and more.  These fries are sold everywhere but we got them from the punfully named “Chipsy King”, which had a sit-down counter with holes drilled into it for you to put your cone into.

Every time we visit a new city, we always check out the Mcdonalds to see what different items it might offer that reflect the local culture.  In Amsterdam, instead of chicken nuggets, we found the McKibbeling – nuggets of white fish with tartar sauce.  Because of this experience, I thought for days that kibbeling meant fish but eventually I realized it probably meant nugget since all further offerings were made of chicken and not fish.  Wandering around the canal streets, we found a fish stand that was selling mackerel (makreel) sandwiches.  Mackerel seems to be quite popular in Amsterdam and much less available in Toronto, so we decided to try a sandwich.  We were not brave enough to try to Dutch tradition of eating a raw herring (haring), which is to be eaten by tilting your head back, holding the herring by its tail and letting the slippery raw fish then slide into your mouth.

One Dutch delicacy that we did embrace wholeheartedly was the stroopwafel, made from two thin layers of waffle-ridged cookies sandwiching a sweet caramel filling consisting of syrup, brown sugar, butter and cinnamon.  We bought ours from a stall in a farmers market while on our walking tour, but versions of the stroopwafel can be found in most bakeries.  While eating the crispy cookie right out of the bag was really tasty, our tour guide clued us in on how the locals often eat it.  They make themselves a hot cup of tea or coffee, place the stroopwafel on top of the mug and let the steam slightly melt the cookie and filling so that it becomes gooey.  Both ways are really good!

Because we were spending entire days in museums, by necessity, we ate in many of their cafés.  Luckily they were usually beautiful, with some décor aspects reflecting the contents of the museum and the food was quite good.  One of our favourite venues was the café in the Bags and Purses museum.  The smaller museums situated in old canal houses all seem to maintain beautiful gardens and we were able to snag a table overlooking the one in the back of this museum.  Looking out at the flowers and greenery, I noted that someone had left their purse by a bench, until Rich pointed out that it was actually a really realistic garden sculpture of a purse.  Our quick meal consisted of sharing a sausage roll and a grilled cheese sandwich.  But what really blew us away was the chocolate hazelnut coffee, consisting of individual layers of rich dark chocolate, coffee and hazelnut flavouring, topped with a dollop of whipped cream, resulting in a lovely presentation and a delicious drink rivaling the ones we were ordering in Vienna.  It even came with a small chocolate brownie on the side.  These drinks were so good that when we were wandering around the canal area another day and wanted a coffee, we headed back to the Bags museum.

The walls of the café in the Rijks museum contain the same red brick that covers the gorgeous exterior of this building.  On display was one of the giant Delft porcelain flower vases that we had seen in the exhibition area, but this one had actual flowers in it, so we could better envision how they would have been used in the past. They also had a version of the eel soup that I regretted not ordering at De Belhamel, so I decided to redeem myself and get it here.  This one was made with Abraham mustard, smoked eel, crispy fried potato and eel foam.  It was really good with a strong mustard taste that I’ve never experienced before in a soup, but not quite as good as the gold standard one at De Belhamel.  For my main course, I had another Holtkamp kroket on a bed of greens accompanied with a potato salad and piece of country bread.

One of the biggest advantages of staying in a home swap residence out of the busy tourist area is the opportunity to shop at the local grocery stores, delicatessens, bakeries and meat shops and be able to prepare, or at least reheat a meal at home.  After long days of sight-seeing, we often did not feel like sitting in a restaurant.  It was much more comfy and economical to dine at home in our jammies.   Being able to grab a quick breakfast in the morning before heading out was also convenient.  We stumbled across the bakery Simon Meijssen with its amazingy savoury and flavourful ham and cheese croissants and bought them several times to eat at breakfast with some fruit and coffee.   The excellent local deli, Keurslager, just two blocks away from our home, became a regular haunt for us as we tried their many meats and prepared foods, including a scrumptious pork and mushroom casserole with a creamy sauce, piri-piri salad, breaded chicken kiebbling, rare roast beef slices with truffles, and a sausage that had melted cheese rolled into it.  It was also great being just a block away from the local grocery chain Albert Heijn, which provided us with all of our regular staples.  We took advantage of it being asparagus season to cook some white asparagus with mushrooms and onions.

Towards the end of our stay in Amsterdam, we stopped in at one of the higher-end grocery chains, Marqt, to see if we could pick up something special for our last meal.  It was really fun traversing up and down the aisles checking out all the different offerings. The fresh food items were often labelled only in Dutch so I used Google translate up on my IPAD, with varying degrees of success.  Often the translation is guessable if it is close enough to English or French spellings (e.g aspergesoep = asparagus soup), but for a few items, I had to ask for translation help.  We ended up getting a zucchini soup, crab cakes, white fish cakes, a home-made mackerel salad which we made into a sandwich with some fresh buns and cucumber, and some Sicilian sparkling lemonade to wash it all down with.

When we were arranging our home swap, we agreed with our fellow exchanger that we would leave each other a sample of local chocolate. We chose a box of Dufflet’s chocolate covered pistachios, one of my favourites, and she left us a big bar of Tony’s Chocolonely Hazelnut milk chocolate.  We fell in love with the rich, creamy, chocolatey taste of this bar and went out to buy another one from the Albert Heijn.  Then in Marqt, we found an even larger selection of different varieties and had to get some for our ongoing travels to Ireland.  We bought a dark chocolate with meringue and cherries, and a milk chocolate coffee crunch.  Both were good, but I do miss our original hazelnut variety and hope to find some more at the Amsterdam airport on the way home.

This marks the end of the blogs for the Amsterdam leg of our trip… on to Ireland!

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