Amsterdam Culinary Desert

I just read the double interview in Amsterdam Weekly with Johannes van Dam and Undercover Glutton. It is a lovely interview and their combined knowledge of food is certainly impressive. What I am a bit less impressed with is their knowledge of metropolitan cuisine. At one point in the interview van Dam extolls the culinary variety in Amsterdam and there I must take offense. I have traversed the city far and wide and I have come up empty more often than not for many a dish. Eventually I gave up and moved to warmer culinary climes.

Unfindable Treats

The problem in Amsterdam first and foremost is that many dishes and types of food lack proper representation. There are even entire cuisines missing. It is a long list, but below follows an attempt to distill my years of disappointment:

Breakfast
Try to find a place in Amsterdam to have a decent meal1 at 08:00 and you’ll come up empty. This is tied mainly with the departure of blue collar work from the city and the city getting a more languid touristy character. There’s the mad commute around 08:00, but nobody goes in for breakfast except a take-away coffee and croissant.

Brunch of any type
Tied to the previous, there is hardly a brunch offering to speak of. This is a ridiculous poverty compared to San Francisco or even Copenhagen. Most Sunday’s are highly improved by this type of food, though it can also very quickly degenerate into a fad.

Full English breakfast and the British kitchen
There are a couple of touristy places offering something like the Full English and there’s one lunch place that does a meagre version, but the city all in all lacks greasy spoons. The British have elevated eating disgusting things to an art and we should take notice. With the breakfast already unattainable, don’t even look for more specialty offerings such as the Scottish Egg or Welsh Rarebit. Relatedly I have not been able to find a reliable and affordable source of Eggs Benedict in the city in my years.

BBQ
London has recently been treated to the best BBQ this side of the pond with the opening of Pitt Cue but Amsterdam doesn’t even sport an attempt at this discipline. The festival of the Rolling Kitchens had some attempts in this direction, but the quantities were not enough for the appetite of the audience and an availability of one week a year does not amount to much.

East-European or Russian cuisine
In the Netherlands we pretend that Eastern Europe does not exist, except for Polish people who we use for scapegoating or when our pipes are clogged. The Slavic treats of Borsht, Perogi and the likes, are impossible to find and in the whole of Amsterdam there is not even one Russian or similar restaurant.

Ramen
There is currently one location in Amsterdam that does Tonkotsu Ramen and does it excellently but it only serves them a handful hours every week. You do not need to be a nippophile to be hit by a sudden ramen craving, but you will be coming up empty.

Burrito
There is also now only one place in Amsterdam that does an acceptable burrito and it is swamped on Sunday evenings. It isn’t Californian, but that is a minor detail.

Proper Coffee
Coffee in Amsterdam has been improving and there are some players that have upped the city’s game reliably. That success has however prompted a lot of douche places that look nice, but where the coffee is undrinkable. Add to that, some places (outside of the center) ask €2,50 for a mediocre cappuccino. Kees Kraakman is about to open up North any day now which will give that area a much needed caffeine boost but overall it is not enough.

Pasteis de Nata
Here in Berlin you are nearly smothered in this treat at an affordable price (the same in London). In Amsterdam, they are near unfindable and expensive when you do. The general pastry situation is laughably poor compared to either Lisbon or Paris.

Taco adds the following:

@alpercugun Add to lacks: really good tapas, more than one korean restaurant, authentic schezuan, good southern US style BBQ —Taco Ekkel

I treated the BBQ above. I can agree about the Korean offerings which are few and too expensive. I rarely ate tapas because most taperias are ballententen. And I have never had Schezuan, so I can’t comment on that.

Problems in the Fabric of Eating

The shortcomings above may be fixed in the future, but progress will be slow and incomplete because the Amsterdam culinary scene is broken on a deeper level. I can best explain that using two factors:

No 24 hour availability
Peter reminded me of this one, which is pretty important. I have long bemoaned the lack of a 24h diner in Amsterdam. I would take any diner by now, but for a city pretending to be international, the lack of food options for a traveller touching down on Schiphol between 02:00 and 07:00 is rather dismaying. Amsterdam is not ‘the city that never sleeps’, so much is clear, but allowing the people that don’t sleep to cater for themselves, would be tolerant for a start.

This is a symptom of the Dutch mentality to create rules for everything, even the things that would otherwise sort themselves out. Dutch regelzucht nips a lot of otherwise nice things in the bud. This has effects on the opening times of restaurants, but also on the (im)possibility of food carts and other displays of eating and drinking outdoors, but probably also on the ways you can prepare food and who you can hire to do that. I’m not advocating total abandon of rules here, but I am quite sure the Dutch implementation errs too far on the side of caution.

Absurdly poor price/quality ratio
The rampant inflation of housing in the city also has had an effect on culinary offerings. People paying upwards of €1200/month in rent, don’t quaff at a single sit-down dinner costing around €20 for the simplest of meals2.

Many of those people are new entrants to Amsterdam which is the biggest city they have experienced thusfar. These people are really nice and they mean well, but they are still hicks who are easily impressed by the trappings of the big city village that Amsterdam is. Their newfound abundance in cash and lack of taste spoils the market and makes good options for the discerning eater, harder to find.

Conclusion

The fact that Johannes would not mention these issues and he gives Turkish charcoal grill after charcoal grill 9 marks every week3, testifies to his age and his local knowledge. Most of the people I know consume food with a global or at least an European perspective and given the best there is on offer there, Amsterdam cannot compete.

I know the scene is improving and ever in flux, so some of the things I have mentioned above may no longer be true, but I haven’t even been gone two months yet. Additions and discoveries are of course welcome here or via more private channels.

  1. None of this granola/muesli crap, eggs at least.
  2. I pay half that in Berlin.
  3. Nothing wrong with that, I love ocakbasi.

4 thoughts on “Amsterdam Culinary Desert”

  1. Where to start in responding, probably by me nodding my head again and again.

    Yes, Amsterdam’s culinary scene is a weird morphology. Some of the strange outliers are:
    – 100’s of Argentinian steak houses and a few up-market gourmet versions, not that they yet have a Peter Luger http://www.peterluger.com/ level place yet.
    – 100’s of thai restaurants which has been a good thing as its given all neighborhood access to better widespread food a cheap prices as thai food is healthy and tastier than average dutch food (IMHO).
    – ‘Weird, poorly done, just wrong fusion cooking’ – it’s an old story and continues to infest most urban restaurant scenes.

    The brunch situation is miserable. I once created a brunch for 3 months at loc. of current Nieuwe Anita together with Sunday New York Times and jazz band, eggs benedict or florentine, blueberry pancakes, etc. Sad, that i was reduced to waking up at 5am to cook myself and others brunch because no one else offered it. Try to find homefries or non-dutch pancakes anywhere in the city, or bloody mary’s with huevos rancheros. Blankety blank.

    Missing as you mentioned better and more Mexican, BBQ, Korean, Vietnamese. It’s really sad that there is not more mexican and korean food here. The ramen situation is a tragedy. What makes people open restaurants? Communities of people who come to live in NL and can cook this type of food or passionate outsiders. Maybe just not enough Koreans or Mexicans. More likely we need more Rick Bayless’s (the amazing American non-mexican fellow cooking at topolobampo http://bit.ly/zXBWQm).

    Bread has improved a lot, patiserie still is woeful.

    So we need to change to law vizaviz 24 hour places to eat, yes! Need to attract more passionate cooks who want to open restaurants in Amsterdam who are not mediocre.

  2. Evert + Jasja: I’ve been to Rotterdam often enough and though I haven’t kept up, I imagine I would be served even worse there on nearly every point above. Amsterdam itself is rather cosmopolitan if you manage to get out of the city center (which many people don’t).

    And Jasja: is food in Amstelveen affordable at all?

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