After all, is there really such a thing as Dutch cuisine, or even GOOD Dutch food? The answer might be ... yes. If you're a roving foodie like David Latt, part of the journey to any destination includes unexpected surprises, and Amsterdam didn't disappoint. Read on to find what he uncovered.
In Amsterdam, restaurant food tends to be hit-or-miss. Most dishes are under-seasoned, but that doesn't mean you won't eat well.
The fact is, you're likely to have good cafe food; meaning great sandwiches, delicious cheeses, excellent coffee, and plenty of good breads and pastries. Meanwhile, Amsterdam's various ethnic offerings continually surprise new visitors. The trick is knowing where to find these spots and getting the local experience while you're at it.
EATING AND DRINKING WHAT'S LOCAL
Interestingly, some Dutch export products consumed at home taste much better when you're in Holland. Heineken and Grolsch, for instance, seem to have more subtleties and depth of flavor.
Gouda isn't generally regarded as a particularly interesting cheese, but stop by Kaasland Singel, west of Centraal Station, and have a sampling of the locally produced cheeses. You'll be surprised that the Gouda can have a creamy richness similar to French comte.
What's more, you know you're not in Kansas anymore when you taste Gouda made from cow's or goat's milk and flavored with any one of a dozen herbs and seasonings, including stinging nettle, cumin, pepper, mustard seed, garlic and onions, coriander, Italian herbs (garlic, sun dried tomatoes, and olives), walnuts, hot pepper, garlic, or basil.
Living on the edge of the North Sea, the Dutch have a love of seafood. Walk across the street from Kaasland Singel to the herring shack overlooking the canal for a uniquely Dutch experience: a plate of lightly pickled, raw herring.
Locals will tell you that the best herring is caught in the spring. Purists avoid the traditional condiments, onions and pickles, preferring to savor the fish au naturel. To eat them Amsterdam-style, order your herring whole, pick it up by the tail, tilt back your head, and let the fish descend into your mouth.
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If you want to continue sampling traditional Dutch food, head to Spuistraat and visit D'Vijff Vlieghen(aka, The Five Flies) and its neighbor across the street, Restaurant Haesje Claes and order the Dutch stick-to-your-ribs classic, hutspot: mashed potatoes, carrots, and onions served with smoked pork sausage, thick bacon, and a super-sized beef meatball.
If you can't get a reservation at either restaurant, the locals know that you can order from the Haesje Claes menu at De Koningshut, the homey workingman's bar next door.
Whatever you try from the extensive menus should be accompanied by large quantities of Dutch beer or, an Amsterdam favorite, Jupiler from Belgium.
LIVE LIKE A LOCAL, EAT LIKE A KING
A good friend who has visited Amsterdam many times says that the best way to experience the city is to rent an apartment, cook your own food and live like a local.
If you do that, then you'll want to shop at the open air markets - the famous Northern Market (Noordermarkt), New Market (Nieuwmarkt), and Albert Cuypmarkt - here you can buy high-quality cheese (domestic and imported) meats, poultry, seafood, baked goods, and farm-fresh produce. The Markt near Vondelpark, located at Overtoom 21 25, reminds one of a smaller, more intimate Whole Foods, with an excellent section of seafood, organic meats, fresh produce, wine, and baked goods.
For more foodie adventures, visit our Culinary Travel section.
For your morning coffee and pastry, you'll want to find a bakery like Vlaamsch Broodhuys on Haarlemmerstraat, between Singel and Prinsengracht, where you can sit quietly, read the paper and start the day as slowly as possible.
In the afternoon or early evening, when you need a coffee, sandwich, or beer, stop by a brown cafe-so called because their interiors are almost entirely brown. Originally, the cafes earned their distinctive color not from paint, but years of accumulated cigarette smoke. Today, however, smoking is restricted to outdoor patios and the coffee shops that sell marijuana and hash.
On the other hand, if the weather is sunny, you will probably want to sit outside and people-watch.
Rembrandt Square (Rembrandtplein) is favored by tourists, with its large, Parisian-style cafes, while Leidsen Square (Leidseplein) at the juncture of Weteringschans, Marnixstraat, and Leidsestraat near the Singel canal is preferred by locals. In the summer when it doesn't get dark until 11 p.m., hundreds of people fill the cafes.
There are also smaller but still crowded cafes at the New Market, and a collection of bars and restaurants with outdoor seating where Spui, Spuistraat and Singel meet in front of the American Book Center and the Athenaeum Boekhandel.
For more, don't miss the Off the Brochure Travel Guide: Amsterdam, Netherlands
If you tire of all the hustle and bustle, there is Crea Cafe, part of the University of Amsterdam's cultural programming organization. The cafe, frequented by students, has a narrow outdoor patio where you can enjoy a coffee and sandwich and watch locals row by in their small boats.
Brasserie Harkema is another oasis of quiet, just a few minutes walk from crowded, noisy Dam Square. The simple bistro menu features comfort food like asparagus soup with ham and open faced BLTs with lots of smoked bacon. The small outdoor brick patio is the perfect place to chill out and sample their extensive wine list, the quiet disturbed only by the sound of passing bicycles and the occasional horse-drawn carriage.
Desserts are widely available, as are chocolates. A particular favorite is Puccini Bomboni with two locations: Staalstraaat 17 and Haarlemmerstraat 12.
Here, the chocolates are laid out in great mounds, tempting innocents to lose their self-control. Anyone with a passion for high-quality chocolates should only enter the store with a companion whose assignment is to prevent excessive purchasing and consumption.
ETHNIC FOOD, AMSTERDAM-STYLE
If you're craving ethnic food, there are many Asian restaurants through out the city. Because of the Netherlands' colonial history, Indonesian restaurants serving rijsttafel (rice table) have long been popular. The always crowded, Restaurant Kantjil & de Tijger bills itself as an Indonesian restaurant, but the menu suggests a fusion of many Asian cuisines.
Zeedijk street, from Prins Hendrikkade in front of Centraal Station to New Market, along the western edge of the Red Light District, has dozens of restaurants serving the cuisines of many nations.
If you hunger for large platters of meat, there are Argentinean and Brazilian restaurants. For Asian cuisine, there is Indonesian, Thai, and Vietnamese.
Many travelers I know insist on "going native," but sooner or later tire of the local cuisine and have an insatiable craving for Chinese food. Nam Kee is the most-recommended with its 17-page, encyclopedic menu offering rice, noodle, curry, meat, seafood, and vegetarian dishes. The waiters don't speak English, a rarity in Amsterdam, and they don't take American credit cards, which is true at most restaurants, so bring euros.
Besides the usual Mandarin and Cantonese menus, there is Suriname Chinese, another remnant of the Dutch colonial experience.
Ethnic restaurants are also found in De Pijp (the Pipe), especially on Albert Cuypstraat where you'll find the delightful Bazar. The Middle Eastern dishes are under-seasoned, but you'll spend hours happily talking and drinking, thoroughly enjoying the eccentric interior.