Sunday, December 18, 2005

Restaurant 74: Tempo Doeloe (Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

RESTAURANT: Tempo Doeloe
LOCATION: Utrechtsestraat 75 Amsterdam, The Netherlands
DATE: September 17, 2005
FOOD: Nasi Koening - Indonesian festive dinner with yellow rice and the following dishes: Sajoer Lodeh, Ajam Opor, Ora Arie, Daging Semoor, Paksoy, Godon Dari Sapi, Sambal Goreng Beans, Sambel Goreng Oedang, Sambel Goreng Tempeh, Oerapan, Ajam Roedjak, Sateh Ajam
BEVERAGE: Bentang (Indonesian Beer)
PRICE: 32 Euros

Thai is known for the fiery intensity of its sauces. Chinese Dim Sum is a kaleidoscopic view into the cuisine’s diversity of small plates. Indian shares the heat of Thai, but its spiciness is more upfront, its bread, rice, and meat combinations with a distinctly contrasting heat to that of Bangkok. Vietnamese food is lighter, often based around soups and noodles; Malaysian is a conglomeration of exotic sensations. Then there’s Pakistani, Afghani, the stewed meats of Himalayan and Tibetan, not to mention the beautiful simplicity of Japanese. Asian cuisine presents seemingly endless possibilities, few, if any, which when prepared in authentic style could ever bore a diner.

And then there’s Indonesian. Though uncommon in the United States, the Netherlands, especially Amsterdam, has embraced rice tables and gado gado with the famous Dutch open-mindedness. For every canal in the city, there appears an Indonesian restaurant to match. The question is which restaurant is the best.

Tempo Doeloe has accrued a reputation as one of (if not the) premier destination for the art of Indonesian. Situated in a posh street in the city center, the restaurant’s name means “Old Days” and to enter, patrons must ring a bill before the hostess grants them admittance. The effect of this procedure is less pretentious than one might expect and shows more about the seriousness with which the restaurant prepares their dishes. Walking into Tempo Doeloe is like stepping into a culinary sanctuary – while the ambience is courteous and inviting, chefs prepare and waiters serve meals with a disciplined attention to detail.

While the menu offers both appetizers and entrees a la carte, it’s the tasting menus, specifically the rice tables that are Tempo Doeloe’s most popular options. The full rice table consists of over 20 petite dishes, while there are also two smaller and less expensive meat and vegetarian tables. The large one contained five beef dishes, making the nine-course meat table more appealing to me.

Tempo Doeloe took the foundations Tanjung San had laid and did to them what Frank Gehry’s brilliance did for Minnesota’s architectural scene – namely expanded it and caused the basic to flourish. From the night’s initial bite to its cessation, every flavor was enhanced, every course offering insight into new worlds. This started with prawn and rice crackers, Indonesian snacks which Tempo Doeloe easily could have overlooked without sacrificing the pleasure built by the entire meal. But the two types of crackers exploded with crunch and the refusal to submit to the mundane. The rice was a cross between gourmet potato chips and rice cakes, while the prawn crackers dazzled with their oyster cracker like thickness and traces of shrimp.

A chicken skewer in peanut sauce announced the opening of the meal in full. The peanut sauce was astonishingly singular, a true feat considering how many version of peanut sauce are available. It had the hue of rich chocolate and a similar viscosity. It coated the tongue with a marvelous blend of sweetness and the natural salty cream of peanut butter. The sauce was close to a nut gravy and for it alone, Tempo Doeloe is a master restaurant.

The rijstaffel then descended in all earnest, including a notable pot of baby shrimp in red pepper broth. Holders contained cabbage, cucumber, and tomato courses which though distinct in their own right, were linked b y the heavy application of vinegar in their sauces. A chicken dish illustrated the milder side of green curry, the aromatic tang of cilantro mixed with meat in a dynamic fusion. A pork dish mirrored Himalayan Yak’s stewed goat. It was a personal Indonesian buffet, mounds of yellow rice with friend and green onions serving as the starchy platform for the spectrum of flavors. Even the toasted coconut, mixed with peanuts, was above and beyond the ordinary.

With such successes, Tempo Doeloe might seem a culinary utopia. Yet for all its triumphs, its lone failure was also a huge cause for complaint. The spice levels at Tempo Doeloe purportedly attain Gobi desert temperatures, yet for all the hype, none of the dishes in the rice tables exhibited anything more than the mere building blocks of concentrated heat, a true disappointment I must say. Thus, a meal bordering on the sublime, was unable to take the final step. Tempo Doeloe was a fantastic experience, the rice table a breadth of new marvelous tastes. But with the spice levels turned down to low, an essential ingredient of Indonesian cuisine went missing. However, the lack couldn’t strip the meal of its otherwise delicious combinations, and for that, Tempo Doeloe was worth every Euro.

RATING: 8.0/10

Restaurant 73: Vlaam Frites (Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

RESTAURANT: Vlaam Frites
LOCATION: Amsterdam, The Netherlands
DATE: September 16, 2005
FOOD: Fries with Green Peppercorn Mayo
PRICE: 2.50 Euros

It’s extraordinary that the Dutch people are so thin considering the fried food cornucopia that is part of their culture. However, they do have junk food down to a science. Fries with one of a myriad of dipping sauces are available all over Amsterdam. Though mayo and curry ketchup are the standard flavors, green peppercorn mayo was an interesting alternative. It tasted like steak au poivre in liquid form. Peppery, but not spicy, it would have been better if the taste of pepper was stronger and that of the mayo more subdued. As for the fries themselves, crunchy but flavorless, a small order killed any desire to eat fries for countless days to come.

RATING: 3.0/10

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Restaurant 72: Tanjung San (Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

LOCATION: Amstelveensaweg 156, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
DATE: September 16, 2005
FOOD: Rice Menu with Curried Lamb, Coconut Relish, Pickled Vegetables, Sliced Cucumber, Spiced Green Beans, Soy Sauce Tofu; Sambal Goreng Telor (Egg in Tomato Sauce); Krupuk Crackers
PRICE: 10.50 Euros

It is commonly known that the Netherlands resides below sea level. The canals and windmills may make nice postcards, but they serve the more important purpose of preventing the nation from sinking into the North Sea. However, with the onslaught of rain battering Amsterdam the night of September 16, it seemed only Noah’s Ark could keep the city from drowning.

Danny and I had spent nearly an hour and a half searching for a vegan restaurant with three euro dinners. When we finally found the place, the owners politely informed us it was only open three days a week. Thursday wasn’t one of them. Dejected and hungry, Tanjung San appeared like a wet mirage up the street.

Indonesian food and Amsterdam are as synonymous as the city and coffee shops, but only the former will reduce one’s appetite. Neither of us had tried the cuisine previously but Tanjung proved a memorable introduction. We both ordered combination rice plates and the flavors ran as wild as a naked toddler on a Slip ‘n Slide. The meal started with the wafery crunch of Krupuk crackers, delectably puffy and hinted with tangy shrimp. My main plate was suffused with food. The green curry lamb was exotically spiced but not hot, the curry integrated deliciously into the chunks of meat. The toasted coconut added a cascade of sweetness to the proceedings and a bite of meat, coconut, cucumber and rice was enough to convince me Indonesian food needs to become as ubiquitous in America as Chinese take-out and our disinterest in Arena League Football.

The green beans and red peppers raised the heat of the meal, but in a very composed manner. It wasn’t a light your mouth on fire after one bite heat, but a gradual, almost sexual build. Cold tofu in soy sauce was more chicken than vegan, meaty and substantial. A separate order of hard-boiled eggs in a tomato sauce with the consistency of sweet-n-sour sauce highlighted a link to Chinese, but showed how Indonesian goes off in a more complex direction. The tomato sauce was all things at once, sweet, spicy, almost like a thin jelly. But most importantly, it tasted sensational.

Usually first impressions are marred by awkwardness and noticeable silences. In my initial encounter with Indonesian cuisine, there was no room for quiet, every forkful referencing other Asian cuisines while maintaining a uniqueness all its own. The new acquaintance had left me enamored. Enough so in fact, that Tanjung San became the warm-up act for the premiere Indonesian restaurant in Amsterdam. Two days later I was to experience Templo Doeloe.

RATING: 7.4/10

Friday, December 09, 2005

Europe 3: A Taste of The Netherlands

Clockwise from top left: The Falcon windmill in Leiden; St. Xaiver church in Amsterdam; One of Amsterdam's countless canals; Delft china

Spice bread and Stroopwaffels


PLACES AND DATES: Rotterdam – September 13, 2005;
Amsterdam – September 14-17, 2005

DAY TRIPS: Leiden – September 15, 2005: Leiden is like a Dutch Oxford. A quaint and pretty town about thirty minutes outside of Amsterdam by train, Leiden is home to multiple universities and close to 20,000 students. The town’s bakeries present a wealth of enticing options, even a multi-grain croissant. The Van Delk (meaning Falcon) is a fully restored windmill open for tours. It costs just 2.50 Euros and gives a reaonsable history of the functionality and utility of windmills in Dutch culture. But the town’s system of canals are the main draw, less crowded than Amsterdam, and surrounded by a mix of Dutch and English architecture. A half-day visit is a great way to gain a sense of how the non-coffee house Dutch live.

Delft – September 16, 2005: You can see the two factories where Delft china is still made. Every piece if made by hand during and the process is amazingly laborious.

HOSTELS: Rotterdam – Stayokay Hostel

Amsterdam – Flying Pig Palace – Cheap bar with a nightly happy hour, free internet and breakfast and a surprisingly reasonable noise level.

SITES: Rotterdam – Erasmus Bridge is an incredible sight and a symbol of Rotterdam’s prestige as the world’s largest port.

MUST SEE IN AMSTERDAM: Anne Frank House; St. Xavier Church – Interior is an astonishing piece of Baroque art at its pinnacle; the interior includes gilded statues, kaleidoscopic stained glass and an altar that is a testament to how faith can instigate great art; Albert Cuyp Market – Everything is for sale here. Fabrics to incense, to authentic Dutch cuisine (herring broodjes, stroopwafels) along with fresh fruit and veggies, cosmetics and pharmaceutical products. It’s a vibrant strip of Dutch life with the beautiful drowsy branches of willows overhanging the street and children galore.

FOOD: Rotterdam – Incredible mix of African and Asian cuisines

Amsterdam – Indonesian cuisine (reviews to come); Stroopwafels – Sweeter than a Halloween candy bag, these paper thin waffles come in hefty sacks and are filled with a layer of either caramel, honey, or butter syrup. Delicious in small quantities but addictive enough to cause consumption of an entire bag, ending inevitably in stomach aches and a desire to swear off all sweets forever more; Spice breads – Rather flat tasting. Heavily flavored with cinnamon and nutmeg, the bread is too dense, feels like a brick, and would be well-served by nuts or dried fruits to break up the thickness. Beware, those aren’t nuts on the top of the bread, they’re pieces of rock sugar.
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Restaurant 71: Maoz (Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

LOCATION: Five Locations Throughout Amsterdam
DATE: September 14, 2005
FOOD: Falafel with unlimited salad bar
PRICE: 3.50 Euros

When it comes to the art of the cheap eat, perhaps no food better satisfies both stomach and wallet than falafel. The idea of frying ground chick peas is simple enough but a successful falafel rests on the spices used in the process. In New York, Alfanoose has perfected the recipe. But in Amsterdam, we were dealing with uncharted territory.

We had discovered the Maoz chain while in Madrid and been delighted by the backpacker friendly price and unlimited, free salad bar. As Amsterdam is the home of the chain, we decided to give it another go, as it’s hard to beat a 3.50 Euro dinner.

Five large pieces of falafel, prepared just moments before, crowded into the cushy envelope of a whole wheat pita. The falafel had the crunchy exterior all good falafel should have. While the predominant spice was parsley, there was still enough variety of flavors to keep the falafel interesting. Maoz’s falafel might not be on par with Ataturk’s regime, but it’s far better than the Ottoman Empire’s final triad of hapless pashas. What makes Maoz so appealing is the salad bar. Nothing is spectacular, but my love of olives and beets found satiation. The carrot and tabouleh salads were delicious and the butter pickles, downright outstanding. Combine that with sauces ranging from yogurt dill to tahini to hot sauce, and Maoz was a fantastic break from our normal pork based diet. The only US location is in Philadelphia and if I ever have the misfortune to find myself in the city of brotherly love and the last place Eagles, I might have to chow down on some falafel instead of a cheesesteak.

RATING: 6.3/10
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Thursday, December 08, 2005

Restaurant 70: Le Dix Vins (Paris, France)

Clockwise from top left: Dix Vins in Paris; Avocado Terrine; Lavender French Toast; Grilled Tuna

LOCATION: 57, rue Falguiere, Paris, France
DATE: September 12, 2005
FOOD: Terrine d’avocats aux herbes; Steack de thon et la crème aux poivrons doux; Lavender French toast
PRICE: 26.40 Euros

It was like dining in a cliché. Dinner at a Bistro in Paris – what more could a foreign tourist crave? The Eiffel Tower at night? Already seen it. Timeless works of art? Already examined courtesy of the d’Orsay and Pompidou. So what was left of the stereotypical Parisian experiences other than bistro fare?

So the first of our four great meals was upon us (one for each month we would travel). With meals in Amsterdam, Rome, and Barcelona still to come, Dix Vins, voted as the best bistro with a menu under 30 Euros by a leading Parisian food magazine, heralded a break form the cheese and meat sandwich diet we’d been surviving on for weeks on end. For once, we’d throw expenses to the wind and indulge in Dix Vins’s 24 Euro, three course menu.

Located in Montparnase, south of the Latin Quarter on the city’s Left Bank, Dix Vins interior exhibited the same simplicity French bistro cuisine is known for. There was a small wine bar and a scattering of baskets and paintings on the walls. Nothing flashy, nothing to indicate this was one of the city’s most affordable gastronomical pleasures.

The menu was written on a chalkboard. Five selections, including three terrines, pate and a vegetable flan for the appetizers, while the main courses consisted of three varieties of steak and a grilled tuna. Dessert was a choice of a lemon tart, chocolate mousse, or lavender French toast. Aside from the beef dishes, the menu was thoroughly appealing and I would have been happy ordering anything.

I started with a terrine of avocado and herbs. While not a bad decision, Danny’s peppery house pate and the beautiful vegetable flan would surely have both been better choices. The avocado terrine was like a refined guacamole. Nicely matched with quarter sized tomato chunks, the avocado was pert and tender, hinted with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. And though the medley of herbs crowning the terrine blended mild parsley with the more forceful bliss of fresh cilantro, in the end, the terrine was too simple for its own good. More robust spicing, from the basic pepper and salt it lacked, would have helped make the dish something greater than ordinary. As it was, there was nothing remarkable, nothing to suggest the heights of French cuisine.

By appearances alone, the tuna entrée promised better results. The steak was thin, seared to the appetizing off-white color of grilled chicken. Accompanied by potatoes au gratin and a sea of red pepper cream sauce, the plate barely made it to the table before my fork sliced into the fish. For the most part, my excitement was justified by the taste. The cream sauce was magical, lighter than lobster bisque but sharing that soup’s velvety richness. And the potatoes were by far the pinnacle of the meal’s savory courses. Firm, yet in the same instant miraculously pliant, the potatoes dazzled, along with the creamy cheese coating them. The slices were as smooth and mouthwatering as fondue. I especially appreciate the bold pairing of fish and potatoes, a combination I’d only seen once before at King Louis' in St. Louis. Yet the tuna itself was a tad dry and stringy, the result of overcooking. The course had come so close, but like reading Moliere in translation, there were just some elements that would never be perfect. Again, I had to add pepper and salt, something I’m not in the habit of doing. Thus, while I respect the fundamental simplicity of bistro fare, it shouldn’t give a chef carte blanche to dramatically under-season.

Only with dessert did Dix Vins finally present a taste both distinctly French and universally spectacular. In the lavender French toast, everything worked. The bread consisted of two thick baguette slices, grilled so the ends had an attractive char, while the interior retained a cushy chew. This wasn’t your IHOP French toast and they were far superior to even Wylie Dufresne’s French toast dessert at WD-50. Resplendent syrup was sprinkled over the bread, like a superior French honey. Full lavender seeds added an unusual flavor that was less about sweetness than about the garnering the same satisfaction one gets from the smell of fresh flowers. All in all, the dessert was exactly what I’d hoped the entire dinner would be.

If I lived in Paris, I’m certain Dix Vins would be a favored haunt of mine, the ideal restaurant when gourmet is too much and grab and go too little. The menu changes daily and no doubt, I’d have many a memorable meal. But strictly on my one visit, the restaurant was far from perfection. There were promises everywhere but to be truly satisfying, a meal must have more than unfulfilled potential.

RATING: 7.0/10

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Just Desserts 16: Berthillion (Paris, France)

RESTAURANT: Berthillion
LOCATION: 31 Rue St. Louis En L’ile, Paris, France
DATE: September 18, 2005
ICE CREAM: Cone with a scoop of fig and a scoop of honey nougat; mini chocolate fondue; cup with scoop of hazelnut and a scoop of tiramisu, topped with Chantilly crème
PRICE: 7.60 Euros

Notre Dame Cathedral and its centuries of significance tower in the background. Pont Neuf, inspiration for Renoir and impressionists galore, is a ten minute walk west. Yet on the Rue St. Louis En L’ile, a line has formed. It isn’t history the crowds have come to see, but rather ice cream they’re longing to taste.

Located on the island in the Seine directly east of Notre Dame, Berthillion Ice Cream has made a name for itself, gaining in Napoleon like prominence with the publication of each new tourist guidebook. Yet ,despite the prestige, the scoopers still smile, the prices remain reasonable, and the product itself, is sinfully scrumptious.

The fig sorbet was as sweet and juicy as the fruit, bits of seed furthering the illusion one was enjoying the freshly picked and not the freshly creamed. However, the honey nougat, like Baklava cream in a cone, literally caused me pause, so subtle was its sweetness, so multi-faceted its flavors. The honey and cream played a boisterous game of cat and mouse, each taste emerging and then re-emerging as the ice cream melted on my tongue.

But once tasted, a solitary cone wouldn’t suffice. On my second go-round, the tiramisu proved the French do understand Italian, tiny chocolate morsels strewn throughout an ice cream bursting with rum and cocoa flavorings. The hazelnut was too straightforward and slightly disappointing, the only ice cream of the afternoon that wasn’t ebulliently original. However, the mantel of Chantilly cream adorning the cup’s two scoops more than made up for the hazelnut’s failings. This was the way all whipped cream should be, airy and deceptively vanilla, sugared, but not sweet. One last indulgence was the mini-chocolate fondue, a near perfect dark chocolate replica of the Modern’s spectacular chocolate soufflé. The cake was pure chocolate, pure, rich, and intense, chocolate for chocolate’s sake. Nothing interfered with the chocolate’s statement. It mirrored Berthillion’s achievement. The crowd’s may flock and the traveler’s handbooks advise, but in the end, none of those things overshadow the greatness of the desserts.

RATING: 8.7/10