You might say there are five Vermeer masterpieces in Amsterdam. Four of the famous 17th-century painter’s sublime canvases (of the total of 34 that still exist) adorn the walls of the Rijksmuseum, that vast red-brick treasure chest of the Dutch Golden Age. The fifth – Restaurant Vermeer, opposite Centraal station – is the Michelin-starred fiefdom of British chef Chris Naylor.
The knocked-together townhouses that accommodate his restaurant date from the 17th century, but everything else – the cool, contemporary decor and Naylor’s clever, stylish, Asian-inflected menu – is bang up to date. Service is very Michelin, with smartly dressed waiters organising pincer movements to deliver dishes simultaneously, jugs of sauces at the ready: modern versions of Vermeer’s Milkmaid.
Dinner was a series of miniatures, many of them exquisite: a flappingly fresh tranche of mackerel, for example, marinated with apple and ginger and served with a red pepper purée and an olive bouillon. A scorched langoustine tail was daubed with mustard-yellow laksa sauce and a slithery slice of just-cooked kohlrabi; plump, barbecued spears of white asparagus were scattered with hazelnuts and spring onions, with an umami hit of miso in their dressing. And a perfect curl of lemon-sole fillet lolled on top of a frothy beurre blanc stippled with steamed mussels.
Naylor is unafraid to experiment with unusual combinations – Jerusalem artichoke with coffee and ginger, for example, or broad beans with tonka bean – but his technical skill helps to persuade the palate, and the no-choice formula, which in lesser hands becomes wearisome, displays his abilities admirably.
There is minimal choice at Mantoe too: this family-owned gem was Amsterdam’s first Afghan restaurant, taking its name from the savoury dumplings (also known as mantu) that are an Afghan speciality, although they bear a strong resemblance to the momo dumplings of Tibet and Nepal. Comfortingly robust and gently spiced, they were slathered in yoghurt, tomato sauce and sprinkled with dried mint.
Other dishes arrived in steady progression: bolani (leek-filled pancakes); a rice pilaf seasoned with cumin, lime zest and almonds; excellent beef kofte in tomato sauce; dopiaza made with veal and onions; cauliflower stewed with turmeric... all cooked and served with pride and love.
Vermeer and Mantoe are, superficially, two very different places: one has a Michelin star and a front-of-house team who would win Olympic gold for synchronised serving; the other offers a nostalgic selection of homely dishes, brought to the table by family members. What they share, however, is passion: a difficult quality to define but tangible in soulless restaurants by its absence, and in places like Vermeer and Mantoe by its thoroughly joyful presence.