Monsieur Poirot is pondering a vexing forensic problem in the heart of old Amsterdam: how might whipped cream be made to melt very slowly into a hot velvet crab bisque? Not that Poirot; Aurélien Poirot, chef de cuisine at Bridges Restaurant near Dam Square, and one of a handful inspiring a renaissance in Dutch cooking. Combine that with a flowering of boutique hotels around the canal district, and one would have had powerful reason to visit Amsterdam last year – but for one thing: through a lack of co-ordination that has astounded citizens and would have aroused the suspicions of Agatha Christie’s legendary detective, many of the city’s important museums and galleries closed simultaneously for restoration. Happily, that situation is set to improve, with almost all due to reopen at various points this year and in early 2013.
Crookedly beautiful architecture, canal cruises and a tolerant environment; to which add superb art, hip hotels and some serious culinary engineering. Who needs Dutch courage? These days, Amsterdam’s multilingual hospitality is complemented by fast rail links that bring it within easy reach of anywhere in northern Europe. By Eurostar from London, with a platform change in Brussels, it’s less than five hours city centre to city centre. Nor is there any shortage of flights into Schiphol, 20 minutes away. On arrival, almost everything in Amsterdam is within walking distance – if one can avoid being run over by cyclists.
Where to visit is a less straightforward matter, one being spoilt for choice. The most interesting shopping and vivacious café life is still found along De Negen Straatjes, the nine streets that radiate outwards across the concentric horseshoe of canals lined with narrow 17th- and 18th-century houses. Each street has its own character; specialisations are to be found hereabouts, two of my favourite boutiques on Runstraat being a vendor of vintage bow ties next door to De Witte Tandenwinkel (The White Teeth Shop), a place selling only toothbrushes. Less manicured is the Jordaan district to the southwest around the Prinsengracht (the Prince’s canal), full of galleries and boho pubs known as brown cafés, distinguishing them from coffee shops wherein the smoking or eating of hash is licensed.
Youth culture is stalking the old centre around Dam Square, home to the Royal Palace and the overwrought gothic of the 17th-century Nieuwe Kerk. Nonetheless, the best business hotels are still located in the environs, enjoying Amsterdam’s ultimate luxury – space. Current favourite among them is the newly renovated Sofitel Legend The Grand, home to Monsieur Poirot and his Bridges Restaurant, and formerly the art-deco seat of the burgemeester (mayor). It still radiates Dutch atmosphere despite the Francophile influence, and many of the calm, modern rooms look out over canals.
Meanwhile, the imagination of long-weekenders is focused on two hip boutique hotels. The Dylan must still surely qualify as the most adventurous stay in Amsterdam, with its cool interior design. The rooms in the three adjoining canal houses range from romantically cosy to luminously spacious – try the all-white attic serenity of a loft suite. Chef Dennis Kuipers’ Vinkeles restaurant has been starred by Michelin for its delicate French dishes. Further north on the Keizersgracht, the Canal House hotel by Jessica Sainsbury’s Curious Group features an edgy confluence of laid-back flair and chic design. Like The Dylan, it comprises three 17th-century merchants’ houses and a courtyard garden with a gazebo for romantic dinners. The 23 guestrooms are decorated from the rich palette of the Flemish masters. Not all are equal, but those overlooking the canal are worth the premium. Others are accessed via the kitchen – an interesting detour, given the experimental European menu.
A long-standing favourite for romantic assignations is Seven One Seven, an eccentric luxury B&B in a discreet canalside location to the east, at Prinsengracht 717. This exclusive guesthouse was the 19th-century residence of an art collector of unexpurgated tastes; nine spacious rooms are named for his artistic preferences.
Art buffs might do well to consider the Conservatorium, a newly opened five-star hotel occupying the city’s former music school in the Museum Quarter to the south, designed to rigorous contemporary standards by Piero Lissoni. No surprise that the shimmering Tunes restaurant, show kitchen, bar and smoking room have enjoyed immediate embrace by the city’s art and fashion nexus, intrigued by pigeon in raspberry syrup and the impressive vegetarian tasting menu.
The Stedelijk and Van Gogh museums are right there, the Concertgebouw hall within earshot and Rijksmuseum an easy walk. The latter’s collection of Dutch mastery from the Golden Age is undergoing a rolling reopening; think four Vermeers and roughly 40 Rembrandts. Also resurfacing is the Stedelijk collection of modern and contemporary art, with a spectacular corner on Piet Mondrian’s early and late works. Happily for those who suffered the dearth of museums during what become known as the “Dam reset”, the Hermitage has, since its opening three years ago, filled the gap with a sparkling collection of works on loan from its namesake in St Petersburg: it continues to be a hugely popular draw. Indeed, for all of these, queues tend to be long – but The Dylan and Canal House both offer VIP services, while the Sofitel Grand secures tickets in advance.
Design matters in this city, inviting visits to some of its exceptional furniture emporia. One must-see is Droog on the Staalstraat, for its fusions of ingenious ideas and pleasing form. An interesting example is artist Heleen Klopper’s Woolfiller, a creative means of repairing holes and hiding stains in woollens and even carpets. Contemporary furniture by leading Dutch designers such as Richard Hutten and Marcel Wanders can be found at the Frozen Fountain on the Prinsengracht; the space is also the retail outlet of the Netherlands Textile Museum, with unusual European fabrics on sale. For fashion, the starting point has to be Van Ravenstein on Keizersgracht, starring Holland’s couture maestri Viktor & Rolf and the Antwerp Six, plus a carefully curated collection that includes Carven, Givenchy and Balenciaga.
Beyond, in the city’s cobblestoned lanes, there is no shortage of collectables to be discovered, from Delft china at Aronson Antiques to antique door handles at the chic Noordermarkt Saturday market – ostensibly a farmer’s market, but aspects of the Monday textiles fleamarket have crept into the weekend fare. If you are here around lunchtime, treat yourself to chef Wil Demandt’s unorthodox fare – bouillabaisse with North Sea shrimps, for instance – at airy, bright Bordewijk. One might end an afternoon’s excursion at the floating Bloemenmarkt (flower market) along the south bank of the Singel canal, where a black tulip in a tin can be yours for €3. Or indulge the inner artist with original paint colours as employed by Vermeer, which may be found at AJ Van Der Linde on the Rozengracht near the Westerkerk, along with specialised brushes handmade from the most improbable animals.
A few doors up is Long Pura, one of the few remaining Indonesian restaurants to offer a rijsttafel (shared rice table) with authentic dishes such as rendang padang (spiced beef in coconut cream). While it is difficult to eat badly in Amsterdam, it can be hard to eat really well; that has been especially true aboard canal cruise boats. Now The Dylan’s Dennis Kuipers has come up with Vinkeles on the Water, a private dinner for four cooked aboard a restored sloop on a sunset cruise along the canals. At the other end of the cost spectrum is the improbably cool surf’n’turf at Red on Keizersgracht – although it is the succulent lobster at modest prices that seems to be causing the excitement. Gourmands will want to make the pilgrimage out to De Kas, a converted greenhouse that has become a beacon of locavore good eating: think micro-greens from the terrace plot just beyond the door, served under glass ceilings hung with local designer Bertjan Pot’s iconic Random lights. And then there is Poirot’s solution to the velvet crab bisque problem: like many of the dishes at Bridges, it owes much to the simplicity of sea-fresh ingredients supported by clever hydraulic engineering. So Dutch.