Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Lunch at Tomatillo

The day after moving into my new apartment it seemed sensible to start exploring the neighbourhood. Happily, Charlie and I found this little place on a stroll down Overtoom.

The food is fresh, the flavours are truer than the average Tex-Mex place but not quite authentic Mexican. The place itself is best suited to take away food as there are only a few tables and the decor can only be described as industrial chic (and chic is really stretching it). They’ll prepare your order before you arrive if you call ahead (or you can now order online for delivery) but I love sitting watching my meal being put together and the meat thrown on their charcoal fired grills.

The first time I visited I was beginning to regret my choice until the food arrived. Despite the cold weather I was craving lettuce (this happens when I’ve had a few too many glasses of wine or if I’ve had a gluttonous week) and the wild salmon taco seemed like a good idea. Two large salmon fillets were hidden under chopped Cos lettuce, slices of red onion and lashings of mango salsa- it was the perfect fix. The salmon was cooked perfectly (still a rich pink in the centre) and the flavours were perfectly balanced. The wedge of lime was the perfect addition to cut through the otherwise (healthily) sweet dish.

My lunch partner ordered a steak burrito and was not disappointed when a huge plate arrived piled high with meat, beans, cheese and tomato sauce. Though I sampled a good chunk of it, my lunch buddy still struggled to finish the meal. It was the succulent chargrilled steak and fresh tomato salsa that spurred him on. This was definitely something from the more North American side of Tex-Mex.

Tomatillo has a great selection of organic meat as well as having excellent meal options for vegetarians and coeliacs (who often feel like an afterthought). The staff are very helpful and will be happy to answer any of your questions and will allow you to sample any of their salsas before making a decision. They serve a small selection of beers (Dos Equis, Pacifico, Corona and Negra Modelo), wines by bottle or half bottle as well as delicious non-alcoholic blended drinks (the mango liquado is delicious). The food is simple and very fresh- if you’re in the area on a sunny day opt for takeaway and head to Vondelpark.

The prices are very reasonable (especially considering the portion sizes and the quality of the food)- mains range from 4€ (for a vegetarian taco) to around 13€ (for a steak burrito). You can request your choice of salsa- typically they have tomato, Pico de Gallo, Tomatillo chipotle, sweetcorn and the infamous habanero as well as more interesting blends that will change depending on the menu Roasted tomato with orange and their pineapple salsa are both treats to the palate.

If you have room, or decide to split a main meal, make sure to order dessert. Their rhubarb crumble is divine- orange and aniseed is used to add complexity- and they often do specials such as chocolate brownies.

Overtoom 261, 1054 HW Amsterdam, Netherlands
020 683 3086

Cats of Amsterdam

A few years ago a friend rented an apartment in Amsterdam for a week. Charlie and I were among the group of five along for the ride.

We were shown in by a man who looked like he belonged on the New Zealand rugby team rather than the little moped that he arrived on. He ran through the ground rules and reminded us not to leave food out as ‘mice are all over this city’. (I’d already checked out tripadvisor reviews on the apartment and there were numerous cautionary tales from previous guests who’d suspected mice were nibbling at their purchases.)

On the second night the four guys were insisting that a mouse was in the apartment. After returning from a wine tasting session I didn’t care and let them chase the poor, terrified thing around the apartment. It was only when one of them suggested flushing it out from behind a cabinet and stomping on it that I decided to get involved.

I ran to the kitchen grabbing a colander and a fish slice, insisting that capturing it was kinder than death-by-stomping. It must have been a ridiculous sight and they had the attitude of ‘stand in the corner and we’ll take care of it.’ The cabinet was pulled back and the mouse panicked to find a safe place to run. Apparently where I was seemed like the best option.

Without thinking I threw down the colander and, to everyone’s surprise, there was a little brown town mouse doing laps inside. The mouse, who was later named Johan, was put out the window but came back the following night regardless.

A lot of people and establishments have resident cats to stop madness like this.

Whether it’s Café Luxemburg’s grey tabby or the mellow black cat of a coffeeshop you’ll notice them everywhere. I brought my rescue cat over from Ireland and within weeks of arriving I had acquaintances asking if they could borrow her to deal with their mouse problems. I don’t think she’s ever even seen a mouse.

One friend has an apartment on Singel and he swears he hears them ‘dancing’ around his kitchen in the middle of the night. Another Ex-pat told me about a dinner party she held and a mouse climbed onto the table in the middle of the room before starting to sample from the serving bowls.

Mice of Amsterdam are bold and plentiful.

A lot of tourists, particularly North Americans and Brits, find it concerning when there are cats strutting around restaurants and cafes, wandering in and out of the kitchens and joining you if they approve of your meal (every time I order salad niscoise at Café Luxemburg their cat wants to make friends with me). It helps that I’m a cat person but even my mother, who has a cat allergy, finds the situation pleasantly charming.

Plus, I’d rather have a cat meowing because he wants to share some tuna than a mouse who’ll silently nibble a bit of everything.

Photo credits:
Nel (the cute black cat) - © Katie Lips
Ginger and Black cross - ©  Enric Martinez
Pub cat - ©   Jeremy Keith
Molly's kitten - © Helen Olney

Venezia Del Nord

Every so often there’s a restaurant that lures you in on scent alone.

Venezia Del Nord is on the corner where Keizersgracht cuts across Rozengracht. Walking down this street on a few occasions I’ve found myself stopping and sniffing the air like a twitchy rabbit- it just smells that good. The air is heavy with the sweet scent of freshly baked dough and hints of tomato and garlic swirl around the doorway.

The signage is tacky but the third time I found myself on this corner I just had to go inside.

It’s a funny little place but pleasantly kitsch. There is a wall covered in bank notes from all over the world (and even a few dead currencies like the lira and guilder), fishing nets hang from the ceiling with plastic fish and crabs being held captive and another wall is covered with the business cards of happy patrons. I decided not to analyse it, so I got stuck into the menu instead. I’ve since heard that they have a resident cat but didn’t spot it on this trip. (So many restaurants in Amsterdam have cats that’ll sleep on a stool in the corner and upset patrons who are used to clinical dining but as my mother would say ‘rather a cat than a mouse’.)

The selection appeared to be authentic and I was pleasantly surprised to see only one pollo pizza on the menu- chicken generally dries out when used as a pizza topping and most good Italian places won’t push to have it on pizza.

I found myself struggling to pick between the calzone and the beef pizza. Fortunately Charlie was having the same dilemma so we ordered both and swapped halfway through.

The pizza base was Roman style- perfectly crisp then topped with a precise smear of sauce and plenty of ground beef, onions and peppers. With the addition of a little more pepper and a sprinkling of parmesan it was unbeatable.

The calzone was huge (and soon dubbed the Stegosaurus) but surprising, it was faultless. The dough was crisp on the outside yet had the right amount of ‘chew’. The filling was piping hot with a sweet, flavourful mix of vegetables and meat. The menu promised it would be served with a meat sauce and sure enough a simple bolognaise was served alongside in a glazed terracotta pot. It was completely unnecessary but incredibly delicious.

This food isn’t going to win awards but I’ll be going back again and again because it does exactly what any good Italian bistro should- classics that are perfectly executed. This is another one of those places that I can’t resist because it’s authentic. It’s not trying to be a novelty or claiming to be haute cuisine and that’s fine because you can go there and believe that a kind mama has made your meal with love.

If you find yourself nearby on a cold winter’s night call in; it’s the place to warm you belly and your heart.

Rozengracht 1, 1016 LP Amsterdam, Netherlands
020 624 7896

The Bad Italian

My last experience of Italian food in Amsterdam was an exceptionally bad one. I was visiting the city with a friend who, on this particular day, was suffering with a severe hangover and didn’t get out of bed until 8pm. 

After dragging him out we stayed close to the hotel and ended up at a restaurant in Leidseplein at 10pm on a week night- the Dutch don’t eat late and many restaurants had already stopped serving. There was only one other occupied table in the restaurant and they left shortly after we were seated. I remember clearly what I ordered even years later. I am truly haunted by the experience.

My starter of bruchetta arrived in the form of three mammoth slabs of stale bread topped with cupfuls of unseasoned, flavourless tomatoes. There was nothing redeeming about it but it remained a better choice than my poor comrade. He’d ordered garlic escargot which turned out to canned and then
My main was supposed to be chicken in a red wine and tomato sauce- something I thought would be too simple to screw up. How wrong I was.

A huge plate arrived piled high with greasy-skinned chicken and undercooked sauce and, to my great concern, a second plate followed- it contained enough spaghetti to feed a family of four and even that was overcooked and sticky and had been microwaved until it was steaming.

It was possibly the worst meal I’ve ever been served (I didn’t eat much) and what made it worse was the owner and three members of staff watching our table and becoming offended when we said we didn’t like the food. This, and the Dutch reputation for bastardising foreign cuisines, put me off Italian food in Amsterdam for a long time. However- I am now back on the horse.

Pancakes! in Nine Streets

This unassuming pancake house can be found in the heart of de negen straatjes- an area that is well worth a visit. A few years ago, after a morning of shopping (Marlies Dekkers has a branch on the same street) I stumbled across this place and thought ‘why not?’ so wandered inside.

It’s tourist friendly with menus provided in Dutch, English and even Japanese, but it remains incredibly authentic despite many non-traditional pancake toppings.

This small bistro has a charming blue and white colour scheme, the main dining area is on a mezzanine level and if you want to snoop at the kitchen head downstairs towards the restrooms and you can say hello to the chefs and you might even see them preparing your lunch. 

The washrooms are small but adorable- they have a discreet stash of deodorant and hand cream (if you’re caught without) as well as post-its that well-wishers write notes on before pinning them to the wall. (Not that I knew at the time but the last thing I wrote before getting engaged was a little note that I stuck on the wall in here.)

If you’re new to the city and want something traditional, a pancake with apple, cinnamon and stroop (rhymes with ‘hope’ not ‘hoop’) is a good plan and there are always excellent daily specials. Regardless, here are my favourite three from the regular menu: 
  • Number 27: Goats cheese, spinach, garlic oil and pine nuts (although Charlie always has bacon added to his) 
  • Number 28: Camembert with ham, chicory and raspberry 
  • Number 31: Salmon, crème fraiche, guacamole and chives
Pancakes! serves very tasty orange juice (squeezed to order) as well as delicious juices (either pear or apple) from a local organic farm called Appelaere. You can also buy their juices in any good Dutch supermarket.

They also serve poffertjes here- they’re the small, round pancakes you often get drenched in Bailey’s or fruit syrup at festive markets. Don’t let that put you off; the stalls can be hit or miss so if you fancy trying them, this is a good place to order from.

Bad service is something I won’t tolerate, even in Amsterdam. The staff here are incredibly friendly and helpful, feel free to ask about anything from the menu to the surrounding area. 

Bear in mind that there is limited seating so prepare to wait if you go on a Saturday afternoon. You’ll get a little wooden clog keychain with your bill and I’ve such a fondness for them that this year I made one into a Christmas tree ornament.

Incidentally, Pancakes! is also a good choice for kids (but be prepared to clean up sugared little fingers) and has colouring cards and crayons as well as some games to keep them entertained while you enjoy the food and company.

Berenstraat 38, 1016 GH Amsterdam, Netherlands

Dinner at Moeders

This charming little bistro will soon celebrate its 25th anniversary. It’s one of the few restaurants you’ll find in Amsterdam with traditional Dutch food that your oma (grandmother) would make. What it lacks in style in makes up for in charm. You enter through the discreet side door into what always reminds me of a cloakroom rather than an entrance.

Pass through a floor length curtain and you’ll find yourself in a cosy dining room with a bar spanning the left side and plenty square tables throughout. The tables are so close together you may make friends with other nearby diners but it adds to that homely feel. The walls are lined (from skirting board to ceiling) with pictures of ordinary women often brought by their sons or daughters who’ve visited previously- ‘moeders’ is the Dutch word for ‘mothers’.

There are framed pictures on the window sills and passport photos tucked into the corners amongst artefacts from another time- a clay and wooden butter churn, a telephone with a twirling dial pad, a heavy typewriter and lots of little lamps that were donated in the spirit of an authentic atmosphere. The tables are all laid with mismatched plates and cutlery that was brought along on opening night by the first patrons.

Order from the excellent beer list (La Chouffe is a favourite of mine (although it's Belgian rather than Dutch) or from the dessert menu and only then will you be given crockery or glassware that was bought for purpose. Everything else has been previously loved.

The restaurant itself is on the corner where Rozengracht meets Groenmarktkade. In the winter you can watch boats lit by fairy light pass along the canal through Moeders’ huge windows and in the summer you can sit on the terrace and people-watch.

The menu has most traditional Dutch meals and sides but the real treat is in ordering the rijsttafel. It literally means ‘rice table’ and comes from 19th century Indonesia (which was once a Dutch colony) but now it’s easier to think of it as a selection of dishes and doesn’t always include rice. You’ll need to bring a friend (as the rijsttafel can only be ordered for parties of two or more) and an empty belly as the portions are generous.

Typically suddervlees, hachee and stampott will be delivered in coloured enamel pots along with sides of deliciously floury boiled potatoes, fried potatoes with the skins on, spiced red cabbage, dark poached pears and apple compote. These won’t be on any menu at a brown café but it’s exactly what you’ll get if a Dutch family invites you over for a traditional meal.

In December a Chinese friend was spending a fortnight travelling through Europe and met Charlie and I for an evening in Amsterdam. He wanted traditional Dutch food so this is where we took him.

He hadn’t heard of the word gezelligheid before that night but he left Moeders with a full understanding.

Prices are reasonable by Amsterdam standards; 40€ per person will get you a few beers, a main and a starter or dessert. Whether you’re a tourist wanting a traditional Dutch meal or a nostalgic local you’ll love this place.

If you can squeeze it in order the ‘Dutch Delights’ for pudding and you’ll receive a trio of samplers. Creamed curds with a little fruit compote, speculaas (spiced biscuit) ice cream and a few perfectly cooked poffertjes (mini pancakes) dusted in icing sugar. If you fancy something sweet but don’t want to commit to dessert just order a hot chocolate- it comes topped with whipped cream and mini kruidenoten as well as a biscuit tin from which you can pick what you like.

Every December I take inspiration from the dark poached pears (that my oma also used to make) and stew my own with red wine, sugar, star anise and cinnamon. I let them bubble away for hours until the pears deepen in colour and a sweet aromatic syrup lies at the base of the pot. I serve them with home-made English custard or make pastry tarts to be filled with almond custard and topped with slices of the pear and toasted almonds- it’s a delicious treat.

Moeders is open until midnight every night. On weekdays it opens at 5pm and weekends it opens at midday.

It can get busy so I recommend booking a table to avoid disappointment, call 020 626 7957 if you're in the Netherlands (or 0031 626 7957 from overseas).

Rozengracht 251, 1016 SX Amsterdam, Netherlands