God I needed this.
The last time I departed England's shores it was in a different, more heroic age of travel, before Google Maps, before Kindle, before Spotify. Before, if you young herberts can envisage such a time, Android and the iPhone. I'm talking of 2005.
As well as quite a few trips abroad for work that year, including Las Vegas and Doha, I went on holiday twice. I took my beloved Fiat Coupé 20V Turbo over to Spain and spent two weeks driving down to Andalusia from the Basque region and back again, ending with a few days in Bilbao eating my weight in pintxos.
The second jaunt was to New York, staying at the Hudson. These are just the places I can recall eating at: Nobu, Gramercy Tavern, Brasserie les Halles, Bar Masa, Balthazar, Babbo and Lupa. There were more.
The travel was all part of my increasingly frantic attempts to convince myself that I was ALL RIGHT REALLY and not hopelessly and dangerously fractured. Because in late 2004, with my drinking well out of control, I'd had a breakdown, bodged a suicide attempt (diazepam/vodka/stanley knife/warm bath), and had to resign from the all the projects I was working on. Then I started pretending. Apart from the travel, here's what else I did: went into therapy; started going to AA; spent money I didn't have; went on a diet; bought a whole new wardrobe of clothes; started having regular sessions of reflexology and acupuncture; spent more money I didn't have.
It was all to no avail, of course, and the wheels finally came off the bus after a year or so.
But now, after bankruptcy, homelessness, metal illness and years on the sausage, here I am in 2014 with a paying job, a brand new passport and public sector annual leave coming out of my trapdoor. So when I was invited to come and speak at a recovery conference here in Amsterdam, flights paid, it seemed too good an opportunity not to tack on a holiday to the trip.
One of the things that I used to find fascinating about travelling is, despite all that global village bollocks, the differences you find, how some countries do some things much better than others and some things inexplicably worse. Here in Amsterdam instances of the former far outweigh those of the latter.
For one thing, if you're going to create a city, making one out of canals is just shitting brilliant. Large swathes of Amsterdam are remarkably quiet and peaceful. Things seem to move at a relaxed pace and I'd say that's, in part, down to having ancient waterways everywhere.
Then there's public transport. On board the buses here they have LED displays showing the times of arrival at the upcoming stops. And a typical main street is laid out like this: a central lane for trams and buses to whizz up and down freely; either side of this, lanes for cars; outside of them, cycle lanes; and, finally, footpaths.
Then there's the not inconsiderable matter of the frites. Whereas in the UK chips and curry sauce are the sole preserve of the shamefully drunk and schoolchildren, or shamefully drunk schoolchildren, here you can find elegantly dressed women sipping their negronis at a bar while tucking into a cone of deliciously crunchy frites and curry mayo (see Frites uit Zuyd below).
But then, heavily in the minus column, there's the bloody cyclists. They're everywhere. In London they are regarded as vermin to be mown down without compunction by all right-thinking motorists. But here they are the dominant species and are a serious danger to the innocent tourist. Vast, seemingly CGI-generated swathes of the fuckers come at you from all sides. They do, admittedly, sometimes ring their bells, but as these have all the warning capacity of an angel's tear landing on a mound of goose feathers, the danger remains. But if you can view them from a place of safety they're fun to watch. Again in contrast to their British masked, lycra-clad counterparts, they all just wear ordinary clothes. They also make the most of their rides by doing something useful like smoking, chatting on the phone, or eating a sandwich. I didn't see any one reading a book while cycling, but I wouldn't have been at all surprised. And I didn't see a single one of them wearing a helmet - and why should they, they have no natural predator after all.
Oh, and Dutch bicycle design seems to have stopped sometime in the 1950s:
the cultural bit
This trip was all about walking around, relaxing and, of course, food. So the only cultural thing I did was visit the Stedelijk Museum to see the Marlene Dumas exhibition The Image as Burden. She's one hell of a figure painter. It's coming to the Tate Modern in February.
So what about the food then? My overall conclusion, from an admittedly partial sampling, is that the local scene is pretty good but, with one brilliant exception, not great. You'll have fun, you'll meet warm and friendly people, you'll eat well but not fabulously. Too many places seem to have the form right, but not the content. To put it another way, if you were to plonk (to take just a few examples from Peckham alone) Peckham Bazaar, Artusi and Ganapati down in Amsterdam they'd blow the town away.
Anyway, here's where I stayed and where I went. Apologies, as ever, for the appalling quality of the photos.
where i stayed
The concept of the hotel is to cut out all hidden costs and remove all unnecessary items, in order to provide its guests a luxury feel for an affordable price. The rooms are prefabricated produced in citizenM’s own factory and easy to transport. The rooms are stacked on a ground floor with a dynamic lobby / living-room space. - from the Concept website
citizenM is an achingly hip hotel chain for the cost-conscious urbane, bohemian, metrosexual (and you know I tick all those boxes). I have an awful feeling the 'M' stands for 'mobile'. There are two in Amsterdam - one at the airport and one in a soulless location a few minutes walk from the World Trade Centre, which is where I stayed. The location didn't bother me though, because a tram stops just around the corner to whisk you into the centre. Room rates can vary wildly; playing around on their website I could get a room in January for €67 but they told me it can go up to as much as €199. My rate was €140.
The rooms themselves are what the crew cabins on the Starship Enterprise would look like if Nathan Barley signed on as Interior Design Officer.
Despite including the largest fucking bed in the entire world (it could comfortably sleep four) which takes up at least a third of the room, design quirks mean that the room is really only suitable for one person. For one thing there's little storage space, just a drawer under the bed, a small chrome rack on the wall by the door with three hangers supplied and a couple of shelves by the sink for toiletries. And nowhere to put your luggage.
More importantly, as you can see from the photos, you'd be showering and shitting in full view of your partner.
But for the solitary traveller with only one suitcase it's just fine. Because you're not really meant to spend that much time in there apart from sleeping. The whole focus of the hotel is on that 'dynamic lobby / living-room space'. Front and centre is the 24/7 bar/eating area with communal tables, with the rest of the ground floor given over to lounging/working spaces. Once I'd got over the shame of bringing out a battered Sony laptop rather than a MacBook Air LIKE EVERY OTHER SINGLE PERSON THERE, I rather liked it.
The staff are, every one of them, warm and friendly. It's not their fault that the CitizenM brand takes the right-on trendiness to laughable and annoying extremes. To take just one example, the trash receptacles have this stencilled on their sides: 'citizenM says: put your trash here, sorry seagulls'. There's far too much of the 'citizenM says...' branding around the place. None at all would be my suggestion.
But, to quote Nathan, 'You should come, dollsnatch. It's gonna be totally fucking Mexico'.
Right, let's get this one out of the way first. Lots of people recommended this place as the best restaurant in Amsterdam, so I went and I chose the chef's four course menu. The first two dishes were pretty good. But the beef was tough as old boots and woefully under seasoned. And the dessert was just a really, really bad idea - slices of beetroot marinated in anise, a beetroot foam, a brownie, gingernut bits and ice cream. It was disgusting.
Having said that, there's obviously talent here and I would definitely go back. I'd just make sure to order from the à la carte menu. And avoid any dessert featuring beetroot.
the golden bend
The area around the Herrengracht and the Keisersgracht between Leidsestraat and Vijzelstraat is a great place for a quiet, meditative stroll.
Oud-West is a lively, urban neighborhood between the Overtoom and De Clercqstraat, just north of the Vondelpark. I went for these two places:
staring at jacob
Amsterdam is big on brunch (see also Little Collins and Paper Planes below). Most of the write-ups I came across mentioned how packed these places get. But that must be a weekend phenomenon, because they were all empty when I went. Staring at Jacob is a great spot on a sleepy street running alongside a canal.
I went intending to order the fried chicken with waffles, poached egg and maple syrup, but changed my mind at the last minute and ordered bacon, scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, pancakes and maple syrup. It was well Jackson.
De Hallen is a newly renovated tramshed now containing a hotel, a cinema, shops and studios. And also (huzzah!) a brand new food hall with something like a 20 or so food outlets surrounding a central bar area with tables. An effortlessly civilised spot to hang out in - like almost everywhere else in Amsterdam.
This is the area I kept returning to most frequently during my stay, and the one I reckon I'd like live in if I ever moved to Amsterdam. It struck me as just a great neighbourhood, based as it is around the thriving street market on Albert Cuypstraat, with dozens of restaurants, bars and shops, and with its own delightful little park, Sarphatipark.
So, my conference duties are finished, I've checked into the hotel and, with no particular plan in mind, I take an early evening stroll around the Pijp and stumble on this place. Looks pretty good and so I pop in and ask if they've a table. Yes, says the ebulliently friendly owner Suzie, if I can vacate by 7.45 (it's 6.15). 'OK' says I.
It's a lovely room, if maybe a tad expense-account-ish. But that impression might just be because, by the time I left, the place was rammed to the gunnels with large parties of suits.
The cooking was faultless. It turns out that it was voted the second best restaurant in the Netherlands this year by Trip Advisor (make of that what you will). Whatever, it was the best meal I ate in Amsterdam until my final night's experience at Fraîche (see below).
Great little coffee bar, saving for the fact that they've got that precious, fascistic no-sugar thing going on (if you can be a precious fascist). When I asked for some the barista said 'our coffee doesn't need sugar'. 'That's as maybe, treacle, but I find that my coffee, and by that I mean the one that I'm about to pay you several euros for, thus transferring ownership from you to me, is immeasurably improved by the addition of a scant half-teaspoon of the sweet stuff'. I didn't say that of course. I just stared at him for several, agonisingly long seconds until, with a visible wilt, he finally said simply 'I'll bring you some sugar'.
frites uit zuyd / café par hasard
One room of this operation is an upmarket chip shop, a temple to all the fried Dutch delights; the other is a restaurant serving things like steak tartare, salads, soft shell crabs, fish and chips etc.
But you can also sit at the restaurant's cocktail bar while eating your snacks from the takeaway. Which is what I did. Seeing I was uncertain what to order, the guy behind the bar set me up with an enormous tray loaded with lots of deep-fried, crunchy snacks (see below).
Again, lots of recommendations for brunch at Little Collins (they do dinner too), but my order of corn fritters with bacon, guacamole, tomato salsa and sour cream was an unedifying mess of a plate. The bacon would have been better streaky, the fritters tasted mainly of pepper, the avocado was a bland sludge and the rocket added nothing.
The rest of the menu reads well though:
The only 'fail' of the entire week - I couldn't get into Moksi, it was full. It serves supposedly the best Surinamese food in Amsterdam. Mind you, it doesn't take much to fill the place up as there's only five (I think) tables.
But just a short walk away was the back up of Albina, where I had a very tasty Moksi meti - roasted chicken, pork, and green beans in a dark, soy-sticky sauce .
I forgot to save the exterior photo of Albina, but no matter because just a few doors down from it is the Nieuw Albina, which is identical in that both are two units knocked in to one and both have based their decor and layout on the British transport caff.
the 9 streets and the jordaan
Fabulous, picturesque and adjacent areas to wander around in, shop and eat.
The De 9 Straatjes are actually three streets intersected by two canals, Herengracht and Keizersgracht. They're bordered by Prinsengracht canal on the west and Singel canal on the east. It's kind of Amsterdam's version of Carnaby street, but more laid-back and bohemian. And much, much prettier. And with added water.
The Jordaan is a once working-class, now gentrified, neighbourhood strewn with art galleries, courtyards, cafés, restaurants, bars and markets.
Another brunch destination. The juice in the photo was mango, coconut water, pineapple and lime. To eat I ordered the pancakes - according to the menu a stack of pancakes, maple syrup, vanilla bean marscapone and strawberries. What I got was a single (though large) pancake, with five blueberries. When I pointed out the discrepancy, the charming staff member (they're all charming, everywhere) looked at the menu with surprise, as it was new to her. So she knocked the price of the juice (€4.50) off the bill.
Nice coffee hangout, offering loads of different brew methods - V60, Chemex, Clever, Aeropress, Syphon and French Press - as well as all the usual espresso-based drinks.
I didn't eat here, but have included it because they serve, by common consent, the best apple pie in the city. Next time.
headfirst coffee roasters
The only micro-roastery I came across in my wanderings. And they've got sugar at the bar. Recommended.
What. A. Fucking. Find.
On Friday late morning when I arrived at the lovely Staring at Jacob there were a couple of builders in there packing away after a little refurb work. Later on, I'm chatting with one of the staff, picking her brains about where to eat on my last night in Amsterdam. De Kas? Daalder? She suggested a Japanese restaurant I've forgotten the name of and then pointed to one of the builders and said 'or you could always try his restaurant'. And that was my introduction to Noah who turned out to be not only the owner of Jacob's but also chef/owner along with his mate Anthony (the other builder) of what became, later in the evening, my favourite place to eat in all of Amsterdam - Restaurant Fraîche.
I loved it as soon as I walked in. I just knew it was going to be good. And so it proved to be. In terms of vibe, of execution, and of presentation it reminded me of nowhere so much as Peckham Bazaar. And I can think of no finer compliment.
I guess I was a little unadventurous in my choices - steak and cheese - but for one thing I wanted to see if the beef at Wilde Zwijnen was a one-off or indicative of the parlous state of Dutch meat in general. And secondly I reckon how a restaurant keeps it cheeses is a good indication of how it does everything else.
Joyously, the bavette was meltingly tender and each of the five cheeses laid before me were in perfect condition. And the selection of four desserts I finished with was divine.
But here's what else I could have had:
And here's the Sunday brunch menu:
Reads pretty damn good, doesn't it?
If I lived in Amsterdam I'd be coming here all the time. A fabulous place and just the perfect end to my trip.
So there you go. One week in Amsterdam and the wellbeing meter reading 'full'. I am restored.
And no, I didn't try out a FEBO automat. That'd be like a Dutch bloke coming to London to eat in a Greggs.
A five-day GMV pass, covering the metro, trams and buses costs €26
9292 is a very useful, simple to use English language journey planner to sort out your tram, metro and bus journeys.
I only discovered this site on my last day. Bugger. Amsterdam restaurant reviews and food news at eat Amsterdam.
A Google map of all the places I visited can be found here.
Prinses Irenestraat 30
1077 WX Amsterdam
Javaplein 23 hs
1095 CJ Amsterdam
Staring at Jacob
Jacob van Lennepkade 215
1054 ZP Amsterdam
Hannie Dankbaar Passage 33
1053 RT Amsterdam
N.B. The entrance is off Ten Katestraat
Daniël Stalpertstraat 103
1072 XD Amsterdam
Frites uit Zuyd
1072 EZ Amsterdam
1e Sweelinckstraat 19-F
1073 CL Amsterdam
Ferdinand Bolstraat 21
1072 LB Amsterdam
Albert Cuypstraat 69
1072 CN Amsterdam
1012 KL Amsterdam
1016 CB Amsterdam
N.B. This is the coffee bar outlet of Screaming Beans, not to be confused with their wine/food gaff on Eerste Constantijn Huygensstraat
1015 NA Amsterdam
Headfirst Coffee Roasters
1015 MP Amsterdam
1015 MT Amsterdam
SHORTLISTED FOR FOOD BLOG OF THE YEAR 2014