ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

'Dam you, 'Dam you all to Hell!

This isn't the place for me to bang on about the (mis)fortunes of my football team. There's enough reporting elsewhere of the shambolic clusterfuck that is Coventry City and the clueless Hedge Fund managers destroying our poor club.

Suffice it to say that when new owners come in to save you from Administration, you don't expect to be in a situation five years later where your squad has been asset-stripped to the barest of bones, you've been relegated to the lowest division you've played in for 50 years, you're in self-imposed exile from your own fucking stadium for not paying the rent for a year, you've alienated the vast majority of your supporters and you've still fucking well ended up in Administration anyway!

Amsterdam, home of window shopping...
What's more, the day-to-day running of the club is now so shockingly bad that no new depths of incompetence can surprise me any more.

We were supposed to be playing Dutch side Go Ahead Eagles on Tuesday, but ironically the game didn't go ahead, and was replaced at the last minute with a fixture in the middle of nowhere, the other side of the German border - completely inaccessible for us fans who had already booked flights and accomodation in Holland.

And so, that's how Mrs B-V and I happened to have a couple of completely unplanned days hanging around Amsterdam this week instead of watching a 6-0 win against non-league German minnows Wachtendonk.

Still, I'd never actually been to the Dam (or indeed anywhere in Holland) before, and was vaguely hopeful of some good beer and interesting food...

What were you guys shmoking?

We all build up mental images of places before we go there - in some cases the fires of perecption are allowed to burn for years, fuelled by easy stereotypes, before we get a chance to hose them down with reality.

...and getting caned
In my minds eye, Amsterdam would be all Whores in windows and Coffeeshops full of stoners and slacktards. 

But, in fact, from what I saw, the window-whores only occupy a single block in the Red Light district, and while there are quite a few coffeeshops, mainly in the 'Green Light' area (we smoked some skunk and some 'White Widow' in Abraxas), there are many more regular bars, cafes and restaurants.

What there are lots of, however, are canals. And bicycles. Way too many fucking bicycles. Everywhere.

Even when you think you're on a nice, safe, pavementy bit there's always the imminent danger that you'll hear a bell ringing frantically before somebody speeds past you on two ancient wheels, almost knocking you sideways into the waterway. I've never seen so many bloody cyclists in one place, coming at you from all angles...

I don't know, maybe it just annoys me because I can't ride a bike myself. Anyway, some more White Widow will calm me down...

Or possibly some beer? I like beer.

The Arendsnest (Eagle's Nest) specialises in Dutch draught beers and there are clear signs that the nation is latching on to the American-style 'craft beer' bandwagon with styles that go beyond standard Euro-lager.

I hadn't heard of most of these Dutch brewers admittedly, but beers like Maximus 'High Hops'. a 6% ABV pale ale, Oedipus 'Mama' (5%) and Jopen 'Extra Stout' (5.5%) suggest that Holland might be the next stop on the wagon's trail. No bad thing for a country that has historically, at best, been on Belgium's coat-tails.

Our next stop for liquid refreshment - after a brief trip to the medieval torture museum (some interesting rusty implements on show but a bit small) - was Cafe Gollem, with a smaller beer range and, although their house blonde was OK, the place was a bit dingy and much less enjoyable to drink in than the Eagle's Nest. Which is odd as after the darkness of the torture museum, it should've felt bright and airy, so it's possibly even more dingy than it seemed!

Interestingly, although the bars are copying the American style taphouse in atmosphere, they are all very much 'wet-led' as we'd say in Blighty. No kitchens serving up huge plates of buffalo wings here. Yet.

You might get a stick of beef jerky or a bowl of nuts, but if you want a proper meal you need to go to a proper restaurant.

Cocks and chicken

The Sex Museum, close to the Centraal station, is well worth a visit if ancient stone phalluses and Victorian-era porn are your sort of thing.

This museum holds the record for most glanses in one place
It's possibly not a place to take elderly baptist relatives, but I think most folk now wouldn't be too offended and would be able to laugh it off. Yes, tt's hardcore, in parts, but not extreme, and you can see stronger stuff in the low countries just by watching the prime-time panel game Schlap my Schlong.

On balance I think they've done the right thing by tailling off after about 1980 rather than attempting to include internet-age sex in their collection.

At only 4 Euroes it's priapically good value too.

Very close by is the All Stars steakhouse where we ate. Al Fresco.

Full of chickeny goodness
For some reason Steakhouses completely dominate central Amsterdam. There are more 'Argentinian steakhouses' than there are coffee shops (though not as many as there are fucking bicycles, obviously) so it made sense to try one.

(I was wondering, where the actual fuck is the Dutch food?!? Certainly not here. The nearest we got was buying some Stroopwafels.)

The All Stars menu is actually less steaky and more about chicken and ribs. We tried the chicken which was a big, spatchcocked whack of bird, nicely seasoned and cooked until tender. The fries, salad and rather garlicy sauce were all perfectly fine, though I'm not sure how Dutch (or Argentinian) any of it was.

The ribs came up in two big racks. Again, wonderfully tender, but I found them a tad under-seasoned. A smokey, bourbony Barbecue sauce was provided on the side, but I'd have liked the ribs to have been cooked in it to make them a bit sticky.

At close to 50 Euros for a fairly basic (though substantial) meal with a beer (Heineken or Amstel or somesuch), it's not cheap, but then this is the heart of the tourist trap and it's easy to spend that amount just having a few beers round here.

Barbecue ribs at the All Star Steakhouse
After Zurich, Dubai and Moscow in the last year, you'd think that I'd be setting the co-ordinates for somewhere cheap by now...

Pipe down, you!

The pipe museum, above a tobacconists and pipe shop to the south of the centre, hosts a fascinating collection of smoking apparatus spanning hundreds of years.

Now, I struggle to walk the fuck past a proper, old fashioned tobacconists without both having lengthy conversations about smoking with the proprietor and parting with my money.

This was no exception, and as well as picking up some Peterson's Special Reserve 2012 and Alsbo Black tobacco I got a new pipe - a ceramic Dutch one to go with my collection of briar and meerschaum efforts.

On the second day we really got into our stride on the beer front too.

The Brouwerij 't IJ is located in an old Windmill on the Eastern edge of the central area, but easily accessible by tram. Or bicylcle, I suppose, if you want to be a twat.

They brew about eight different beers on the premises ranging from a refreshing Czech style Pilsner at 5% ABV up to their Belgian Tripel-style Zatte (8.5%) and Columbus (9%).

It was entertaining to watch the brewers at work, shovelling spent grain out of the kettle. Small-scale brewing is well and truly happening in this country. Hopefully the next step will be for some of them to embrace real ale.

We ate some salami and Belgian Trappist cheese while sampling most of the range - I was expecting the 7% IPA to be my favourite, but it disappointed in the hop department. I'd actually choose the Pilsner or their Blond ale in preference.

Brewery in a Windmill
I needed a few to brace myself for the lengthy queues for Anne Frank's house, which is an overly expanded and commercialised tourist trap and not worth visiting.

Strangely, despite the 'Dam being chock full of tourists (Brits, Yanks, Germans etc.) the other museums we visited had no queues whatsoever. I guess people are more interested in Anne Frank than in sex, torture or pipes...

Back to the beer

Probably my favourite bar turned out to be the Beer Temple which boasts a huge range of both draught and bottled craft beers from Holland, Italy and the USA.

It's the kind of place that's hard to leave because there's so much tempting shit on the beer list.

Wanting to 'go Dutch' as much as possible, I tried a Hereng 'Jan Pils' and Tempelbier IPA (very nice stuff indeed), before moving on to the Italian brewery Loverbeer's 'Beerbera' - an 8% sour ale with grape juice. But, fucking shit, they missed a gaping trick not calling it 'Sour Grapes' though didn't they?!?

We also had a bottle of Southern Tier 'Imperial Creme Brulee stout' (9.6%) one of the greatest of the new wave of 'dessert beers' from the States.

Stout bloke drinks Stout
As expected, all of the 'draft' beer in Amsterdam is keg - well almost all of it... at the In De Wildeman bar they sometimes feature real ales, and as luck would have it, one was on when we visited on Wednesday night.

The bad news - it was an English beer that we could've got back home. The good news - it was an English beer I'd not had before. Old Dairy 'Tsar Top', an Imperial Russian Stout at 10%.

And it wasn't at all bad. Dark and strong with bitter coffee and only a hint of licorice.

They also had a decent range of rare European beers on tap, including a nice Geueze. It was a shame to have to leave to get some late-night food somewhere before the last train back to Hooffdorp where we were staying.

It was a generic and indifferent pizza/pasta place that did an unadventurous carbonara and a bland seafood pizza that managed to be too salty despite having precisely zero anchovies on it. Oh, and they served us a spaghetti aioli on the side that we didn't order and charged us for it.

Non-magic Mushrooms
The best bit about the meal was the garlicy mushrooms and warm ciabatta with garlic butter that we had to start.

No half measures? I wish!

One thing that did annoy me was the size of the glasses. I sorta get the whole Belgian thing of each beer having it's own uniquely shapped drinking vessel'n'shit. I just like my glasses to have a capacity of , ooh, I don't know, about a pint. Or bigger. If you're going to depart from the tried and tested formula, go bigger!

But in all the places we drank in, the largest measure of draft beer available was considerably less than a pint. In some it was less than a half - though still often close to the price you'd pay for a pint in London - and that's barely acceptable to me.

(It's not just getting ripped off, it's the hassle of having to accost the bar staff more frequently because Ben's run out of beer again isn't it?!?)

Perhaps the Dutch government regulate the measures because they're worried about inebriated cyclists falling into canals?

But if you can live with tiny beers and a struggle to actually find any Dutch food, I can recommend a trip to the 'Dam.

Particularly if you like smoking, sex and torture.

1 comment:

  1. Such a contrast to my week-end in Amsterdam, over 26 years ago! The plan had been to have a final big holiday abroad before having children, but other commitments meant we ended up with a week-end in Paris, followed by one a month later in Amsterdam. But by the time we departed, I was pregnant. I had no problems with pregnancy, and no cravings, but managed to have an 'I don't fancy eating anything but an omelette' whilst in Paris, seemed rather a waste. But was fine in Amsterdam, raw mince sandwich, mussels on toast, no problem. I can't remember the main meals in detail now, but know they were enjoyable. But being pregnant I missed out on sampling any alcohol at all :( Didn't bother with Anne Frank, did go on a canal tour which was relaxing and interesting, and to a diamond merchant. He wouldn't buy me one. And the breakfast in the hotel was far more interesting and filling than the one in Paris (which was the basic croissant and coffee), in Amsterdam it was a range of cold meats and cheeses. You've probably gathered I preferred Amsterdam!


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