If you are going to Amsterdam to experience the outdoor markets and the meandering through the tangle of alleyways, you might want to choose a different month than February unless you just really like walking around in freezing rain. Oh, and if you are going for just a weekend, you might want to plan most of your sight seeing and shopping for the Saturday and not the Sunday when everything is closed.
That's what I thought we'd do when we went to Amsterdam this weekend... a quick trip with our friend's Sean and Stef to celebrate her 35th birthday. Walk around, outside, take lots of photos and do some great shopping. Fate had other plans. Fate wanted us to eat. Fate didn't want me to keep fitting into those size 4 pants I just bought. And, as everyone knows, Fate always gets what she wants.
We arrive around 8am on Saturday morning and since no one in Amsterdam wakes up until at least 10am, we had a very quiet drive to the College Hotel. The hotel is gorgeous. Rich colors and fabrics, sharp contrast between light and shadow, modern yet old design. We check our bags, and since we can't yet get into our rooms, we go for a walk. It's misting lightly, not unlike a typical day in Seattle. We walk up to the public market, and wander through. It's 9am, and about 1/2 of the stalls aren't yet set up, so we just browse. The fish looks incredible, as does the produce and flowers. I snap a few shots, and keep moving.
We are getting chilly and hungry, and looking for some espresso and something tasty to eat. Near the Rijkmuseum, we spot a little Italian cafe that serves up Illy espresso. Sounds good to us, so we pop in. First cafe, and we score. A great little cappuccino and lemony-cream filled croissant for me, and Cam got a wonderful little fresh panini with proscuitto and bufala mozzerella on ciabatta. I don't normally like ciabatta, as it's often too tough but here it was fresh from the oven and delightful.
With the espresso buzz kicking in, we decide to go ahead and hit the museums. [Note: this turned out to be a mistake, as the museums are open on Sundays]. We wander through both the Rijk and the Van Gogh, both of which are fabulous. The Rijk hosts 4 Vermeers (my favorite artist), and although they aren't my favorite of his work, they are still stunning.
Getting hungry again, we wander back to the hotel, hoping our rooms will be ready. They aren't, so we plop ourselves down in the bar and order up a snack and a couple of beers. The food menu is small, and we all end up ordering the Haloumi grilled cheese sandwiches... 3 of them with tomatoes, and one with ham. The cheese is a little odd, staying a bit stringy instead of melting into creamy goodness. But the bread is perfectly toasted and we make quick work of them.
And with that, our rooms are ready. Yay! We try to sleep off the jet lag, and get up at around 6pm to start making our dinner plan. Now, one would think that we might have done some pre-planning to try to get Saturday dinner reservations at one of the best restaurants in Amsterdam. But, no. We didn't. We put it off, and tried our luck. And so, after about an hour and a half of Cam calling restaurants and pleading for a table, we still don't have a booking. What we do have was a possibility of a booking at a restaurant that we knew nothing about but that was recommended by the hostess of one of the better Italian restaurants. It was new (only about 6 months old) and they said that they might have a table at 9:15. We take our chances, and headed down to meet our friends in the bar. We join them in a few cocktails, including an amazing cucumber-mojito which goes down very quickly, before hoping into the cab to go to Restaurant Incanto.
We arrive to some confusion. They still aren't sure if they can fit us in, as the table they planned for us was still occupied by customers lingering over their desert. We suggest we go get a drink and return, and they offer to call us when the table is free. We walk down the street for a quick pint, and return a half hour later. They unnecessarily apologize for the delay, and treat us to glasses of champagne, and seat us about 15 minutes later. The wait staff, despite being quite busy, is incredibly friendly and our waitress for the evening is Natalie, who is also on her first night as the manager on duty. She is the reason that we even have a table, and she explains that the normal manager told her to take it easy while he was out of town but that she decided to ignore him. Then, she starts to describe the chef's 4 course menu, and we all decide it is a must have after hearing the first 2 courses.
The meal starts with a prosciutto-wrapped tuft of arugala accompaniment to two beautifully seared scallops. At that moment, we know we are in for a stunning meal. The courses that follow also do not disappoint. A gorgeously creamy black-truffle risotto. She-devil (sea bream?) filet that is meaty and tender. A rich slow-cooked lamb stew. And then desert. Oh. My. God. We sample all four: a well-balanced cheese plate with 6 extraordinary choices neatly arranged to be eaten in clockwise; pear gelato that is subtle, spicy, creamy and sweet... everything that a pear gelato should be; a warm chocolate cake that is just past molten, so it holds it's shape but completely dissolves in your mouth; and a heavenly tiramisu that is so light and rich it is like eating a cloud topped with chocolate. We couldn't have asked for a better meal, and we feel incredibly lucky that we have stumbled into this one.
We roll our way back to the hotel, manage a good night sleep, and are up on Amsterdam time the next morning, 10 am, to go for some breakfast and do some shopping. It is misting out, so we bundle up and take the tram over to the main shopping district near central station. Grabbing a quick latte and breakfast pizza at a small patisserie, we start wandering over to the 9 streets shopping area. The rain comes harder and the shops are not really starting to open as we had hoped. So, we decide we should just eat again. Just as we start to look for a place, Cam notices that we are standing right in front of Helder, the cafe described as having the best lunch in Amsterdam. It's empty except for one table, but looks very quaint. We decide to give it a go. Good decision.
Choosing from the menu is tricky, and not just because it is in Dutch. Everything sounds amazing. The soups (a French Onion with a Brie Croustini and a Cream of Tomato and Roasted Pepper), a tuscan bread salad, warm arugala salad with bacon, a selection of intriguing sandwiches with fresh greens, veggies and cheeses, and a simple selection of pastas. Between the 4 of us, we get both soups, both salads, a sandwich of fresh goat cheese, roket and balsamic, and a roasted pepper pasta. As we sit sipping on coffee and water, we watch the chef working in the unbelievably small kitchen in the back of the cafe. Here's how fresh the food is: the chef makes the pasta. He has a little hand-crank pasta maker, and he starts with flour and eggs, rolls it out and cuts it fresh. The food comes and it is absolutely delightful. The onion soup is complex, with flavors of fennel and a slight sweetness. The brie crostini is so creamy and warm I don't want to eat anything else. But my goat cheese sandwich makes me change my mind. The balsamic is pungent and smooth and perfectly compliments the chalky velvet of the chevre. And the fresh pasta? Oh, yeah. How does this look?
If you are in Amsterdam, trust me. Do Not Miss Helder.
As we sit there, we glance out the window. Snow. It's snowing outside. It makes us all kind of giddy. We finish up our lunch, and make our way back out into the weather. We stop into a few more stores, round a corner, and find ourselves at the outdoor flower market. We browse through the tulips and bulbs, buy a few to plant at home, and finally get too cold.
Cam and I head back to the hotel for another nap. Thinking ahead, we make reservations for our dinner before the nap. Most of the restaurants we want to try are closed on Sundays for dinner, but there is one, Moko, that is supposed to be quite nice and they had room.
We head over, and the cab drops us off at a very cool looking building housing the restaurant Janvier 11. Unfortunately, we don't see Moko, and wander around looking for the address. It seems to be the right spot, but there are no signs of it as we walk up and down the block. Finally, we go into Janvier to ask. Turns out, Janvier is the right spot. They just changed the name of the restaurant. Oh, and they changed the address. It had been #12 and now it was #2. Weird, but ok. And, esp. because Janvier looked great. The space is a weird blend of modern and old. The menu is a choice between a few different chef's menus. We decide to go for the 6-course "surprise" menu.
So the biggest surprise? It's not 6 courses. All in all, there are 9 individual courses. And some of those courses contain three different dishes. And frankly, there is so much food, it's just hard to keep track, and we keep losing count. This meal is an epic. Each course is inventive, beautiful and delicious. There is a buttery, raw fresh mackerel and a silky poached salmon; there are little cupfuls of soups with truffles and a prawn bouillon, there is a slow cooked rabbit and a beef wellington. There are things that are hot and things that are cold, and even things that are luke-cold (yes, we had to coin a new term during this meal... Luke-cold was the only way to describe it). Dessert itself is three courses, starting with pre-dessert pineapple ice with some sort of creamy foam. Then we indulge in a molten chocolate cake, a lemon tart and a cheese course. We try to decline coffee, and our waiter warns us that there is one more course coming, one that goes well with coffee. So we acquiesce, and get coffee along with our final course of about 4 boxes worth of homemade bonbons. Seriously. There are 10 different candies, one for each of us, ranging from a simple marshmallow to a beet and orange gummy to a dark chocolate and tea truffle.
The next morning, it's just a quick trip back to the airport and a long flight home, our bellies happy and our pants a bit tighter. Looking back, I still can't believe our luck in finding such amazing spots to eat. But I sure am happy that we did!
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Lara Ferroni is a former tech geek turned food geek who spends her days exploring the food culture of the Pacific Northwest. As a food writer and photographer, you might spy her learning to make kim chee in the back rooms of a local church, foraging for wild berries, or snapping away in the some of the Seattle and Portland's finest kitchens. You can find her work in publications such as Epicurious.com, Gourmet.com, Edible Communities (Seattle, San Francisco), Seattle Magazine, Seattle Metropolitan as well as numerous cookbooks, including Doughnuts: Simple and Delicious Recipes to Make at Home.