Saturday, May 28, 2011

Amsterdam Meals

I'm not going to be posting about any of my own kitchen trials for the next while, but I still hope to be posting some choice "musings" about yummy food consumption! We are travelling in Europe, and one of our tasks is to eat well. I'm excited to start sharing with you readers what we have experienced so far. We've been in Amsterdam a few days now, and have really enjoyed everything we've tried so far.

Food is such a window into culture and people, so we always try to get "authentic" cuisine when we go to a new locale. The Netherlands isn't especially known for it's particular food specialties, but of course there are always popular regional dishes, and locally sourced ingredients also contribute to what a culture traditaionlly consumed. So for our first night, we looked for a restaurant serving "Dutch food." We were very pleased with a little pub called Bistro Bij ons in the Jordaan neighborhood. We tried the "Granny's Casserole" which is a stewed beef with mashed potatoes and red cabbage. Our waiter explained that the way the Dutch eat this - the "secret" - is to mix the three dishes together and eat it as one. The rich flavorful broth and the sweetness of the cabbage (perhaps cooked with apples or beets?) complemented each other heartily and definitely cut through the cool sea wind we'd been walking around in all afternoon. We also ordered the fried mussels, confirming that it was in fact local shellfish. They were small, tender, and delicious, and really were more sauteed then fried to really allow the flavor to shine.

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"Granny's Casserole" - stewed beef and onions with Dutch herbs, mashed potatoes, and red cabbage.

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Sauteed mussels and onions, served with frites and green salad.

Our next great experience came at the most unexpected time, which is partly what made it so good, and also what could have made it be terrible. After a long morning of museuming, we were exhausted and starving. We were also cold, and hadn't planned for lunch in the neighborhood where we were, so we didn't really know where to look, or have any recommendations on our list. We were in the upscale Oud-Zuid (SouthWest) neighborhood, so all the places looked acceptable, but at that point of hunger where you can't make a decision because you don't know what you want and are just simply too tired, we didn't really know what to choose. So we decided on Cafe Gruter (another establishment with a pub atmosphere (we're always in the mood for some good brews on tap!) and a very affordable sandwiches menu. But these were no ordinary sandwiches! Classy and elegant, they were sophisticated, delicious, attractive, and an excellent value at about 6E each. Will ordered an Italian loaf stuffed with mushrooms, melted brie, arugula, and a balsamic drizzle. I was so chilled, I opted for the homemade asparagus soup, which offered a delightful surprise of shavings of smoked salmon, wax beans, and fresh chives. But we were sitting near the bar so we saw every order that came out of the kitchen and I would have loved to stay all afternoon and sample each of the sandwiches that came by on fresh French and Italian breads with Spanish sausages, curried chicken, and loads of luscious fresh vegetables and cheeses.

Italian loaf, scored on top and stuffed with sauteed mushrooms, melted brie, arugula,
and red onions. I love this "stuffed sandwich" idea, instead of stacked. The balsamic drizzle
really complemented the flavors and added an extra touch of sophistication.

Blissfully close to our apartment, but discovered because of the good reviews on, we made a dinner reservation at Balthazar's Keuken.

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I didn't know until I dipped my slice of bread into this lucious asparagus soup garnished
with chives and green onions that it was also filled with slices of smoked salmon
 and wax beans. The salty salmon is the perfect accompaniment for fresh spring asparagus.

Blissfully close to our apartment, but discovered only because of the good reviews on, we made a dinner reservation at Balthazar's Keuken. This charming little place only seats 24 people total, at two dinner seatings - 6:15 and 9:15 (though you can come later than the start time for the seating.) The space is TINY, practically communal tables, though very comfortable, and not noisy. There is no menu to order from, just a weekly update by the chef of the 3-course prix fixe offering. The only choice you make is between a meat and fish entree, and what to drink (a specialty cocktail, and various wines and mixed drinks.) One choice you want to avoid is not coming here! It was a magnificent meal, made all the better by the surprises from the kitchen of dishes we would probably never order on our own, but not only enjoyed as adventurous eaters, but truly relished for the freshness of the ingredients and creativity and quality of preparation.

We started with the specialty cocktail, which I have to assume was also mixed to pair with the meal... it was a prosecco with marsala, brandy, and a ripe cherry.

The five plates of the appetizer course.

The appetizer course consisted of 5 separate tastes (though "taste" is unfairly limiting as there was more than enough food to get a robust appreciation for each dish.) As pictured above (clockwise from upper left): fish mousse... I'm pretty sure it was primarily salmon, because there were delicious pieces of pale pink flakes in the otherwise creamy white spread; octopus with eggplant and mint; goat sausage with lentils and basil; baby artichokes with a parmesan-yogurt raita; sweet ricotta with hazelnuts.

I would have thought I would especially enjoy any of these, but the only thing I didn't care for was the goat sausage; it was incredibly mild, but the texture was pretty coarse. The octopus was an unexpected delight; it was so tender, but firm and smooth. The texture is hard to describe because I would have thought it would be kind of chewy like squid or clams; instead it was almost like a silken tofu, but not so spongy... much more luxurious. The mint was a startling perk-up to the otherwise mild (but not bland) flavor. Fish and mousse are just not two items that I expect to see together, but I spread it on fresh, crusty bread, and I can see how "salmon cream cheese" derived as the low-class version of the same general idea. The artichokes were a treat just because they are so spring-time seasonal; the raita I thought might have been just a little too dull in comparison with the artichokes which also do not have a strong flavor. Finally, the ricotta was practically a dessert, though not because it was sweet, just because it was creamy and crunchy and nutty all together and a fun interplay of textures and mouthfeel.

There were two selections for the entree, so the benefits of being a couple are apparent, as we were able to order one of each and share.  Will ordered the veal which came atop a basic risotto but alongside were an excellent saute of fresh mushrooms, peas, and parsley. I love the idea of a deconstructed risotto, with the components I might normally serve mixed in being separated and served alongside or atop. The earthy mushrooms and the freshness of spring peas were just the right match for each other.
Veal with risotto, peas, and mushrooms.

I went with the fish, a monkfish filet served with two razor clams in a brothy sauce of roasted tomato, roasted grape, and roasted pearl onions alongside some baby potatoes. The sauce was rich and sweet and the fish was firm and fleshy and together they transported me to the Mediterreanean coast (where I will be in person in a few more weeks!) The razor clams are really pretty - the shells have lovely brown and golden striping in a wood-like pattern. The taste is probably even less strong than a regular clam, but otherwise pretty similar and I don't know that they have much in particular going for them culinarily other than the attractive and unusual presentation they bring to the plate.

Monkfish with razor clams with roasted tomato, pearl onion, and grape, along with baby potatoes.

Dessert, ever my favorite, did not disappoint. It was a simple white chocolate mousse but had almost a pudding consistency. It was totally creamy without being too rich, and without the airyness a mousse can sometimes have. Spooned over the top were fresh blueberries which had been stewed or steeped or sauced-up with pink peppercorns. The whole peppercorns were soft enough you could bite right into them like one of  the berries, and they added just a hint of peppery spiciness to counter the sweet berries, and a teensy bit of toothsomeness against the ultra-smooth custard.

White chocolate mousse with blueberries and pink peppercorns.
I think I have to say that the only problem with this restaurant is that after I've spent all this time recreating the wonderful meal we had there, you have to accept that you will never be able to recreate it, because it's based on the chef's intepretation of what is fresh and seasonal and available during any given week in the year. But know that if you are ever in Amsterdam, you can count on Balthazar's for an intimate, romantic, classy, and incredibly fresh and delicious dinner (all for 30E/person!)

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