Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Cod, duxelles, chervil, at De Altena
other photos:
April 3-7, Leerdam-Buren
April 7-11, Buren-Ochten
April 11-15, Ochten-Wyler
April 15-18, Beek, Apeldoorn, Amsterdam

Apeldoorn, April 21--

When I first came to The Netherlands, in 1973, the food was not very good. Well, that's not quite true. Some of the food was quite good: it was the restaurants that were not good. One of the first Dutch sayings I heard about was: God sends food, and the devil sends cooks. In the thirty-three years since, I've run into the possibility that this saying was not original with the Dutch. It probably goes back to the invention of cooked food. But it seemed particularly appropriate here.

One of the first things I ate was groene haring, raw fresh herring. I'd read about it in one of the helpful tourist introductions to the country that I read while preparing for that first flight across the Atlantic. Apparently a Real Dutchman can be recognized by, among other things, the way he'll hold a raw herring by the tail, flop it on one side and then the other in a bed of chopped onions, and then hold it over his upturned face and drop it into his eager mouth, chomping down on it, quickly chewing and swallowing it, and following it with a good draught of beer -- unless there's some delicious Dutch gin handy.

I tried it, of course, in The Hague I think it was, April 1973, and I've been hooked since. On the same trip I discovered Broodje van Koortje, the sandwich chain that had an outlet on the Leidseplein in those days: at B v K you could get a tartaarbroodje, a soft sweet roll something like a hot-dog bun, filled with freshly chopped (not ground!) beef, and flavored again with those sweet chopped onions, and pepper of course, and just enough salt, and maybe a slice or two of sweet-sour cucumber pickle. I miss the Broodje van Koortje; it disappeared long ago from the Leidseplein, a victim either of increasing rents or increasing governmental regulation, who knows which.

In both those cases the food was delicious because it was the food you tasted, not its preparation. If you went to a restaurant in those days you basically had two choices: a rijstafel -- mediocre Indonesian food, mainly rice, chicken, peanuts, and satay-sauce -- or a Traditional Dutch Restaurant.

The latter, of course, emphasized Quantity. Potatoes provided the, um, meat and potatoes of the meal; but there was also overcooked vegetables mostly related to cabbages -- cauliflower, cabbage, and cauliflower, the latter thinly disguised by nutmeg -- and uncooked cabbage mixed with suspect mayonnaise in a sort of slaw (the word itself is Dutch: sla, salad); and, of course, potatoes -- fried, croquettes, steamed, boiled, and/or deep-fried. Often two or three of these at a time.

There was Dutch Beefsteak, a thick cut from a mature animal, cooked a considerable while and served with a milk-based gravy turned brown with something from a bottle. There was of course chicken. And there was fish, generally deep-fried.

We kept coming back to The Netherlands nonetheless, and over the years something wonderful happened, and I'm still trying to figure out how it happened. What it was, was, the restaurants improved tremendously.

Of course that's happened in the United States as well, but it seems to have happened in a more consistently planned way here in The Netherlands. For a long time I suspected that it was a deliberate move on the part of the government -- partly, I suppose, because my first trip here, my introduction to this wonderful, enlightened country, was the result of planned marketing: I was a journalist on a junket sponsored by the City of Amsterdam, the Dutch Tourist Board, and the then-new Van Gogh Museum.

The Dutch were early discoverers of the importance of tourism as a national industry, and they were hawking their best. But their best, in 1973, did not include restaurants. It was at least a decade later that things changed. My theory is that someone in the HoReCa industry, or more probably the HoReCa education industry, had somehow slipped across the border and discovered that food could be lively and interesting and pleasurable even when cooked.

He wouldn't have had to travel far. In 1974 we noticed that the restaurants (and charcuteries) improved noticeably when we travelled from The Netherlands into Belgium; that it was better yet in Luxembourg; that it was really quite delicious in Burgundy. It continued to be delicious in Italy; but then it backed off across the Swiss border and then, markedly, in Austria, which reminded us of what we'd eaten in Amsterdam.

* * *

But it's all changed. One of the reasons we like to come to this country now is the dependability of the restaurant food. At its best it can be really quite extraordinary, and that's nice: but on the day-in, day-out level, in suburbs and villages, it is flavorful and nourishing and fresh and dependable, and that's what we like. In the larger towns, of course, you find international cuisine: Italian, Belgian (a bit different from Dutch), and Indonesian -- the latter with subcategories: the other night we had Moluccan take-out. But even in the tiniest villages, where there may be only one restaurant, the menu will include dishes with tomatoes, peppers, garlic. It's not the Middle-America desert it was thirty years ago.

We've been here seventeen days now, and we've had five memorable restaurant meals. Two of them have been in Amsterdam at Marius (Barentszstraat 243; tel. +31 020 4227880. We were there Tuesday night again, eating the table d'hote: skate wing; a turbot-like fish the Dutch call griet; lamb two ways (chop; roast); a fabulous cheese board; a crèpe with strawberries and vanilla ice cream. With that, a fine white and an organic red, both from Provençe.

Kees, the chef, did two one-year stints in the Chez Panisse kitchen, and has taken Chez P. in a new direction in Amsterdam. His dining room seats two dozen, and there is only one seating. (A terrace seats another dozen or so in warm weather.) In addition to the fixed menu there are certain standbys, including a wonderful vitello tonnato and an indispensable, I suppose, ribeye steak. But the chef's menu's the thing; and it mediates beautifully Chez P's resolute loyalty to the purity of fresh ingredients and the chef's awareness of a Dutch culinary tradition, or rather its values: honesty, wholesomeness, local provender. His work can be complex, and I don't know anyone better at bringing a complex set of ingredients to a single, focussed point: but the food is homey and familiar. And the place is informal, and fun.

On our walk along the Lingepad we ran into two quite remarkable restaurants. First came De Twee Gezellen (the two companions) in Rumpt (Dorpsdijk 39; tel. +31 0345.549349), a tiny village halfway between Leerdam, if you can find that, and Nijmegen. Here a married couple with a background at KLM left their air career to open a neighborhood resto relying, again, on fresh and local. The menu is longer than that at Marius; perhaps they feel they can't impose limited choice on their clientele. I don't think, though, that the menu relies on frozen or vacuum-packed courses, which can be the case even at well-known several-star restaurants.

Where Marius brings the homey and familiar to an exalted level, de Twee Gezellen restores substance and flavor to a cuisine whose origins are in post-Nouvelle Cuisine professionalism. Each dish flirted with the problem of too many ingredients, too much texture and color and even surprise; but each dish also stepped back from that temptation. Just one example: the first course, a green salad (tiny lettuces, of course; drizzled Balsamic on the plate, of course) with halved cherry tomatoes that could in all honesty have had more flavor, atop it a cylinder of tuna tartare wearing a lid of tuna roe. The girls had shrimp scattered among their salad; I did not. The dish was delicious; fun; nourishing.

Six days later we lunched on a dike along the Waal at De Altena (Waaldijk 38, Oosterhout; tel. +31 0481.482196). I'd call the cuisine here Modern Classical: smallish plates; lots of technique; awareness of all the current trends; but again a grounding in a Dutch set of culinary values. I think I described this meal earlier: salmon tartare with asparagus soup; perfectly poached cod on a square of duxelles bound with cream; duck breast with green asparagus and a slice of potato, with rich but not cloying reduction; panna cotta, chocolate sorbet with sugared hazelnuts, and a surprise cookie involving chocolate and marzipan. Again, simple fresh French country wines with lots of character.

And in Nijmegen, two days later, we tried Altena's sister restaurant Plaats 1 (Franseplaats 1, tel. +31 024.3656708). (The owner-chef, a woman by the way, also owns De Altena.) This place is trendy, even brash in a way; absolutely up to the minute; with striking decor, menus presented on huge flat-screen displays overhead (they continually cycle through drinks, appetizers, fish, meat, and dessert); and you can compose a two-, three-, four-, or five-course meal at set prices each.

The place is only a little over a year old -- the girl behind the bar mixed her first Martini for me (perfect ingredients and proportions; not quite cold enough) -- but it's already Number 20 in the SpecialBite survey of the country's top 100. (More on SpecialBite a few paragraphs down.) Again, the cuisine is based on Dutch traditions: good solid fish, lamb, vegetables; a certain amount of spice, a nod to southeast Asia. But the execution is fun, almost edgy, though without ever overreaching toward the merely silly -- no foam here.

The Dutch temperament does tend toward comfyness (Dutch gezelligheid and jocularity. Little concrete kabouters -- trolls and gnomes -- pop up in every sixth or seventh front yard. Living-room windows are given to symmetrical groupings of austere vases and tulips, but whimsical wire or glass sculptures are often just on the edges. The kitchen at Plaats 1 is happily in this tradition, perfectly aware of the Seriousness of High-Art Cuisine but ready to have a little chuckle about it. I like this quality, and I'll go back to Plaats 1 happily next time we're in town.

How do we find these places? Serendipity, for the most part. When you're walking town to town you don't have that much choice. We always ask counter-people in impressive-looking butcher shops or cheese stores, too. And I use two restaurant guides in The Netherlands: Iens, named for its originator, to be found only (as far as I know) on the Internet at; and SpecialBite, an annual magazine-format guide that also maintains a Web presence.

Iens is something like the American Zagat, though more heavily influenced by a staff (or for all I know single proprietor). I like it because there's a version that lives on my Palm handheld computer, very nice when you're walking. Like Zagat, though, its reviews have as much information between the lines as within them.

SpecialBite seems more consistently discriminating and perhaps more seriously informed -- not in terms of its content; both are quite dependable in my experience as to factual material, but in terms of the scope and intent and possibilities of restaurants as cultural statements. I'm not fond of the idea of numerical ratings -- how do you decide who's number 63, say, and who's 64? -- but I'm glad Marius is number 7, and therefore boasts the second-highest rating in Amsterdam. (And I'm even happier that SpecialBite then goes on to point out that when it comes to table d'hote restaurants, it's Number One.)

Okay. I haven't mentioned the lasting pleasures of simpler Dutch foods, at least not this time around. But I'm sure I'll get around to that, too.

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