The New Dutch Masters
Amsterdam’s Moon opened in the spring of 2016, and the city’s clamour over it rivals the cheerful clang of plates and pans shuffling through its creative kitchen. For good reason. Built onto the 19th floor of the landmark A’dam tower, the restaurant rises high above the city’s landscape. The dining room is laid out on a platform that slowly rotates on its tall perch, continuously circling over a city that suddenly can’t sit still.
A revolution has finally come to town, and Moon isn’t the only high-wire act in Amsterdam. Leading the charge is a fresh wave of wunderkind chefs. Take Moon’s 32-year-old executive chef, Jaimie van Heije, whose food is a match for the restaurant’s revolving bravura. “There is a whole new generation of cooks now opening so many new restaurants, and we all inspire one another,” he says.
A signature plate of pork belly reflects van Heije’s blended heritage, which includes an Indonesian father; the pork comes infused with rosemary, thyme, Dutch lemon and an Asian accent of coriander. Equally exuberant, on the five-course tasting menu, is a dish of scallops laid over an eggplant puree and topped with shaved truffles. “In the end,” van Heije says, “I want my food to be playful and fresh, my own style.” That means even a bowl of Wagyu tartare, rich enough on its own, comes anointed with leeks, herring roe and shiso broth.
Sitting just across the water, on the lip of Amsterdam’s refurbished harbor front, Wolf Atelier exemplifies the city’s new propensity to tuck restaurants into odd places. In this case, an enclosed glass bridge — hoisted on metal pilasters above the dockland waters like a balance beam — doubles as a restaurant. The dining room is a long tube of industrial chic, with concrete floors and hanging copper lights, nestled beside the open kitchen where 32-year-old chef Michael Wolf and his team move as perpetually as the water beneath them.
“I came to Amsterdam almost eight years ago from Austria and never left,” Wolf says, “partly because the food scene here is becoming more and more exciting. And because Dutch ingredients, especially the quality of seafood, is so fantastic.” His menu — which shows off the kind of pristine catch that is pulled daily in a country built on water — is proof.
Silky slabs of fish are a homage to the fresh Dutch herring sold in every local street-food stall, and are meant to be eaten Amsterdam style: held by the tail and swallowed whole. Wolf’s rendition is paired with sweet red beets that play off the briny fish. His grilled sea bass, robed in a champagne curry, comes coupled with a homey, Dutch-country- kitchen carrot puree; a mackerel ceviche is dotted with lemon meringue. Follow any of these with a plate of Wolf’s foie gras, crowned by Granny Smith apples, and the payoff is surf and turf in an authentically Dutch style.
Away from the docklands and in Amsterdam’s historic core, the culinary masterworks keep mounting. At the year-old Breda, on the edge of the gentrified Jordaan neighbourhood, another young chef is plating his version of a culinary call to arms. “I mix in French, Asian, Latin and Dutch accents,” says Freek van Noortwijk, who at 29 is already sure of his culinary direction. Speaking of Amsterdam’s young chefs, he says: “We don’t restrict ourselves to stale rules other people invented years ago or to old-fashioned luxury ingredients like caviar and truffles. We just want to cook what we want, with the most flavour, using the simplest, rustic, Dutch products.”
That results in a seamless, frequently changing three-course lunch. A dish of cured haddock dressed with wild watercress, herring roe and smoked crème fraiche may be followed by a plate of brussels sprouts, fried and blanched, tossed with pickled onions, autumn truffles and smoked ham. The kitchen’s rib eye is sourced from a plump Dutch dairy cow that lends a deep, gamey flavour; dessert is often a simple sorrel granita topped with a ginger yogurt that pays a second tribute to Holland’s wide swathe of dairy lands.
The same patriotic salute to local foraging is being dished up at Rijks, located further south in the city’s revitalised museum district. When the restaurant opened in the autumn of 2014, in a wing of the Rijksmuseum, it attracted a lot of attention. The Rijksmuseum, the showcase for every Dutch master from Rembrandt to Vermeer, is a national treasure house, and the debut of its namesake restaurant was a major culinary statement. Two years later things are quieter, and executive chef Joris Bijdendijk has had time to refine the menu beyond the public glare, resulting in a restaurant that has fully come into its own.
Like almost all of Amsterdam’s chefs, Bijdendijk sources as much as possible from a slow-food network. “Dutch veal, beef and pork,” he says, “are as beautiful as our fish.” But his cooking gets added inspiration from the museum itself. “When there is, for instance, a big Asian exhibition, we invite an Asian guest chef to help cook and create dishes that run the duration of the exhibit.” But even when there is no linked exhibit, the dishes streaming from Rijks’s open kitchen into the sleek, airy dining room seem infused by artistry.
Langoustine bundled up in tempura batter comes laid over mango butter infused with a wasabi tang. Slices of duck breast, resting on pumpkin puree, are drizzled with chopped hazelnuts and barley pearls. Ginger-glazed veal sweetbreads are complemented by a Malaysian peanut sauce that references a colonial past, when the Netherlands controlled Malaysia and much of South-east Asia. For dessert: a rice pudding, a traditional Dutch feast-day and wedding treat, paired with kaffir-lime leaf that imparts a subtle accent.
“Never,” Bijdendijk says, “pile too many flavours on a plate.”
And even away from the city’s grander addresses, the culinary scene remains exciting. At Restaurant C, in the eastern district, (where C stands for Celsius) it divides its menu into sections based on four variations in cooking temperature: raw and cold; low temperature; steamed and cooked; and grilled, plancha or tempura.
The result is a meal that slowly changes shape and literally heats up. Dinner may start with a chilly dish of tuna tartare cooled by scoops of curry ice cream. Then it slowly builds to dishes like a monkfish paired with a tangle of crispy rice noodles, followed on a recent menu by a cooked mushroom pasta under truffles and a bubbling egg yolk. Final entrees, like an octopus barbecue tossed with pepper and chorizo, or a duck masala, heat things up to a full sizzle, in terms of both temperature and spice, before dessert brings the meal back down to the freezing point, often with a whey granita.
The roller coaster of a menu, slowly playing with the palate, is meant to be rousing enough to jolt the diner awake, and it does.
For anyone dining out in Amsterdam and sampling the full range of local restaurants, it can also make for the perfect last meal in town.
Maybe the city used to rely on its scenic charms — and it still emphasises those with a new architectural playfulness — but now its artful dining scene has added the masterful char of culinary perfection.