Some cities are obvious destinations for food lovers – Paris, Barcelona, even Copenhagen these days – but the Dutch capital is not generally numbered among them. Play a word-association game with “Amsterdam”, and “cuisine” is likely to be a little way down the list of responses; hardly surprising, given that its most famous delicacy is space cake.
Traditional Dutch cooking is a hearty, hefty mix of dishes such as stamppot (a sort of bubble and squeak) with smoked sausage; sweet or savoury pannekoeken (pancakes); and a thick pea soup, offputtingly called snert. One might wonder whether “clog” refers to footwear or arteries, but there is also soused herring, available from fish shacks dotted around the city: very good, lightly cured, a sort of Calvinist sashimi.
None of this finds its way onto Delft-born executive chef Dennis Kuipers’s menu at the Michelin-starred Vinkeles, the beautiful restaurant in the equally elegant Dylan Hotel, a lovely old canalside building with – unusually for Amsterdam – a central courtyard. Kuipers’s background is in French cuisine, and he combines exemplary technique with a playful touch and a keen sense of flavour and texture that makes dinner at the well-spaced tables in Vinkeles a delight.
I have been to Amsterdam many times, and this was, by some distance, the best meal I have had there. Having spent the day sharpening my appetite – not with potent local herbs, but by steaming around the Vondelpark on one of the Dylan’s splendid, sturdy white bicycles – I demolished the bread basket and the first couple of dishes in seconds.
The first courses I remember accurately were a perfect langoustine paired with a wafer-thin slice of veal knuckle, a marinated tomato and a delicately spiced mayonnaise, followed by a chic little dish of warm potato, crème fraîche ice cream and Chinese Asetra caviar, which I could happily eat every day for the rest of my life.
Glazed John Dory, into which Kuipers had miraculously introduced the scent of smoked eel (maybe there is a touch of Dutch in his cooking, after all), partnered hispi cabbage, raw almonds, tiny cubes of black pudding and some lovely little chanterelles: a small masterpiece of a dish.
I loved his deconstructed pigeon: rare breast, confit leg, stewed heart and soft liver – but my companion eyed it suspiciously, pointing out that an avian serial killer would probably display his victims in a similar fashion. When I reminded her of the time a pigeon redecorated the saddle of her bicycle, she tucked in, pour décourager les autres.
Wines were imaginatively chosen and knowledgeably explained. I particularly enjoyed a Sardinian Vermentino called Terre Blanche and a white Corbières (Château Ollieux Romanis), the only note I made for which was “stonking”. Cheeses and coffee – served with excellent petits fours at a table in the courtyard – rounded off a fantastic dinner. In the city of canals, Kuipers’s success is alimentary.