Wednesday, 15 July 2015

A Little Taste of Heaven on Earth at De Librije

Spinhuisplein 1, 8011 ZZ Zwolle, Netherlands
+31 38 421 2083

Tastiness Factor: 10/10

Atmosphere: 6/5 (yes, better than perfection)

Service: 5/5

Locavore Approved?  Overwhelmingly YES- Chef Jonnie Boer grew up near Zwolle and his fondness for the ingredients produced here is clearly manifested in his food.  He uses produce from local farmers, as well as local beef and lamb that can be seen freely roaming the fields on the train ride in from Amsterdam.  On a walk before dinner, we even discovered a mini-garden at the back of the kitchen, growing herbs and a few vegetables of his own.  Chef Boer is a very experienced locavore, who latched onto the “trend” long before it became fashionable to do so, and he truly has mastered his craft.

After dining at our first 3-Michelin Star restaurant last year (Arpege in Paris), I was beyond excited to  visit another 3-star on this year's trip to Amsterdam.  After doing extensive research, Hubby and I finally settled on Dr Librije, located just outside of Amsterdam in Zwolle.  While I knew that De Librije would be great, I could never in a million years have dreamed how magical an experience it would be.  

Zwolle is a very pleasant hour and a half train ride away from downtown Amsterdam, through farmer's fields and a few small towns.  It is the most charming little town you will ever find yourself in, and it is worth spending a day or two leisurely strolling though to take in a few historic sites (including some of the most famous churches in the Netherlands) and doing a bit of shopping in the chic shopping area.

When you get off the train, De Librije can be a bit difficult to find on foot (we found that out the hard way) so I suggest taking a cab or, better yet, ask in advance for De Librije's amazing butler Karime  to pick you up (he was nice enough to drive us back to the train on our departure day).

De Librije is a very impressive building with a history almost as rich and exciting as the food it offers (I repeat, almost!).  As we were told by Karime the butler when we arrived, Dr. Librije was built as a women’s prison in the 1700’s, and continued to be used as such until the mid-1990’s at which time it was transformed into temporary lodging for refugees.  In the mid-2000’s, it was sold to Chef Boer and his partner Therese, who initially encountered some challenges along the way when it was discovered to be an archeological site, causing construction to grind to a halt for a period of time.   Fortunately, they are now on the other side, and have succeeded in creating an awe-inspiring transformation, making it feel sinfully luxurious, while still retaining some of its “jail features”, such as bars across the windows, a few cell doors and some aspects of the hotel room layout.  Every room offers something new to discover, from the brightly decorated reception area, where you will enjoy a little nibble when you arrive to the narrow halls leading back to the restaurant with its eclectic artwork, including a caricature of the Boer husband and wife team as jailbirds.

The guest rooms are also full of character, and named after different edible plants and herbs (in Dutch).  The personal IPad in each guestroom displays  a picture of your room's plant on its home screen.  Our room was modernly decorated, with a black and white animal print duvet on the king size adjustable bed and a very snazzy bathroom with a large walk-in shower.  Karime gave us a “tour” of our room when we arrived, showing us how all of the appliances worked and filling us in on all of the building's amenities.  As he was leaving, he presented the  “fruit de mer” on our desk, an edible display of handmade chocolate “shellfish”.  Talk about bells and whistles!

Just when we thought things could not get any better, we discovered the dining room which is one of the most spectacular dining spaces I have ever seen.  This courtyard dining room is the newest piece of De Librije, which opened a few short months ago in January 2015.  The room, with its glass-covered ceiling, treats guests to a different experience depending on the season and the time of day.  I recommend dining at a time when you can experience both light and dark, if the time of year allows you to do so.  The large space, with its mix of white tablecloths and rustic accents, allows a lot of space between tables so that you can have an intimate experience with your dining companion(s).

To end the tour, there are a few other rooms worth noting.  Prior to dinner, we were welcomed into a lavishly decorated room for aperitifs (this night called for champagne!) and a few amuse bouche before dinner.  We also received a tea made from red cabbage that, as we were told, would “stimulate the digestive system”.  I was already feeling like royalty!  There is also the breakfast room that once again has its own flair, all dressed up in red, black and gold.  Lastly, you will not want to leave without paying a visit to the De Librije shop which sells housemate preserves, sauces, jams and condiments so you can bring a piece of this magical experience back home.

As I have already alluded to, the service at De Librije is second to none, well deserving of its Chateau and Relais designation.  We were pampered from start to finish, from the ever-gracious butler Karime, to the front desk staff, to all of the dining staff for both dinner and breakfast.   During our pre-dinner aperitif, the Chef himself came around to ask if we had any particular food restrictions, intolerances or dislikes and his wife Therese was bustling around the room the whole night ensuring that everything was running smoothly.  Our sommelier was also outstanding, spending ample time describing each of the carefully selected wines from all over the world (even one from near our neck of the woods in Washington State).  While we certainly had every need attended to, all the staff at De Librije were also very genuine and easy to chat with, leaving us feeling relaxed and at ease so we could truly enjoy ourselves.  They have managed to discover the ideal service sweet spot.

My recommendation for a first visit to De Librije would certainly be the "Eat-Sleep-Dine" package, which includes a welcome reception with tea and a nibble, a pre-dinner aperitif, a 7 course lunch or dinner, a one night stay and a signed copy of the Chef’s new book "Eating, Drinking, Sleeping".  It is offered from Tuesday-Thursday and is almost 100 euros cheaper/person than staying on the weekend and, at the end of the day, pretty good value considering all that is included.

Now for the star of the De Librije experience- the food!  There are a number of different menus available, including a la carte and the 7 course tasting menu that we enjoyed as part of our package.
There is also the “Librije Mini-Menu”, where dishes are created around a number of local ingredients chosen by the guest.  Chef Boer's cooking style is supposedly French-influenced, but interestingly there were a number of Asian and East Indian flavours throughout the meal, such as lemongrass, curry and cumin.  Additionally, the chef seems to be a fan of tea, serving up a lovely lemongrass and chili tea at the reception when we arrived and then incorporating it multiple courses that evening (who knew kombucha could be made to taste so good!).

We had high expectations of Chef Boer's 3-Michelin-rated meal and fortunately, our dinner turned out to be everything we could have hoped for.  The presentation of the dishes was breathtaking, with the generous use of edible flowers and herbs and the playful plating (we cannot stop talking about the course "plated" on the back of our hands!).  Every component of the dish was prepared to perfection and each ingredients complemented the other.  Compared to other Michelin Star meals, this one was certainly smaller than most at only 7 small courses so we were certainly not feeling stuffed at the end, but after the last few extra sweet goodies at the end, we left the table feeling just satisfied.

Here is a glimpse into this oh-so memorable evening:

Oyster with shaved liver, crispy fish skin, cod bites

Beef tartare/roasted eggplant with oyster cream (yes, they actually prepare it on your hand, and they give you a how-to guide to how to prepare it at home!)

Brioche balls with bacon, dusted with mushroom powder

Diced foie gras and cabbage leaf

Raw fish/shrimp preparation with tomato (pescatarian substitution)

Langoustine with pea puree

Bread with goat butter

Trout with fennel and foam

Monkfish tail with blueberry 

24-hour slow cooked lamb shoulder with green strawberries

Baked cauliflower with Madras curry  (pescatarian substitution)


Dessert 1- beetroot with sorbet

Dessert 2- coffee ice cream

Espresso and handmade chocolates 

Waffle sandwich cookie 

And back in our room waiting for us, in true Netherlands style- an “edible joint” made of hemp oil and white chocolate!

Suffice it to say, after that amazing meal (with generous wine pairings!) and the ultra-luxurious bed in our room, we slept like babies that night.  We woke up the next morning, dismayed at the reality that we would soon be leaving this magical haven, but excited for one last hoorah at breakfast before saying our goodbyes.  It is a good thing we were not stuffed by dinner a few short hours before, as this was one impressive spread!  Our breakfast included:

Assortment of juices- apricot, peach, rhubarb, orange
Espresso and tea
Cheese stuffed brioche balls 
Brioche with smoked salmon
Homemade bread
Homemade jam, chocolate spread and peanut butter
Selection of cheese and meat
Egg (poached, basked or crispy with hollandaise
Mini-burgers (beef/vegetarian)
Sweet pastries
Muesli and yogurt
Field berry soufflé with white chocolate

This was certainly quite the lavish way to start the day, and there was no way we could possible finish it all!  Fortunately, they very cleverly packaged some items up to go prior to setting them on the table so that we could take them with us to keep us fuelled for our long journey back to Canada!

And with that, it was time to bid farewell to my dear De Librije with full tummies and heavy hearts.  As we were pulling away, I vowed that I would return to this surreal piece of heaven someday.

Until the next time De Librije!

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Way Too Much Attitude at Amsterdam's Yamazato

Ferdinand Bolstraat 333, 1072 LH 
Amsterdam, Netherlands
+31 20 678 8351

Tastiness Factor: 6/10 for complete meal  (9/10 for sushi specifically)

Atmosphere: 3/5

Service: 0/5

Locavore Approved?  Not really- Yamazato focuses on authentic Japanese cuisine and therefore more on traditional Japanese ingredients then local ones.  Having said that, their fish was extremely fresh, making me think that it is caught closeby, and they do have a “Chef’s Recommendation Menu” that changes monthly .

"If you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all".

Although this old adage still holds true, I feel compelled to say a few, not-so-nice words about Yamazato.

Yamazato is a one-Michelin Star Japanese restaurant located in the Hotel Okuro in Amsterdam, which also houses the swanky two-Michelin Star Ciel Bleu.  Yamazato caught my eye as I was scouting out restaurants prior to our trip as it is the only Michelin Star restaurant outside of Japan to serve "kaiseki" Japanese cuisine, a special type of Japanese dining that was served at elite tea ceremonies in earlier centuries.  It emphasizes harmony between the food, the plates on which the food is served and the surroundings.  As per the website, they strive for excellence from start to finish, from the ingredients to the presentation, at all costs.

Unfortunately, I think they lost site of something very important in their quest for excellence- some guests may actually want to have a good time.  Because at the end of the day, no matter how good your food and your plating are, what is the point if your guests feel too unwelcome and uncomfortable to enjoy it?

Our unfortunate experience at Yamazato started hours before our reservation time.   We were out for a walk around Amsterdam and happened to find ourselves in the neighbourhood so we decided to stop in to check it out and confirm our seating time.  As we approached the entrance of the restaurant, the women at the front desk glared at Hubby disapprovingly and tersely told him that the restaurant had a dress code and that he was “ not to show up like that tonight” (meaning in shorts).  Hubby was quite taken aback by her uncalled for scolding (we were out for a walk for Pete's sake!) and this really left him with a bad taste in his mouth heading into the evening.

Unfortunately, things only went downhill from there.

The service blunders continued again just seconds after we were seated.  A server who was present for Hubby's "scolding" earlier in the day just happened to walk by our table, took a look a Hubby's attire (a suit, with tie) and gave him a thumbs-up as if to say "OK, we now you make the cut".  As if we really needed to be reminded once again of the disgraceful earlier episode.  We then noticed the sign on the table, showing a phone with a line across it, indicating that we were not to have cell phones out at all during the meal.  I felt as though I was in grade school again.  The snobbery just kept on coming, with stone-faced men in suits (? managers) pacing around the room staring at guests and ensuring that cell phones were out of sight and keeping the noise level at an acceptable level.  I felt as though I needed to sit up pin straight and whisper the entire time.  I have had few experiences when I have felt that uncomfortable and uneasy.  Lastly, there was the issue with the actual food service, when Hubby requested a chicken appetizer which he wanted served before his sushi.  Our server denied his request, saying that cold food needed to be served before hot food.  Sorry, who is the paying customer here? There are other smaller beefs that I could bring up, but I think this will suffice as it makes me too cranky to spend more time thinking about it.

So as you can probably tell, the service ruined our night and I don't think that even the best food in the world could have resurrected it.  With the exception of the Omakase sushi which Hubby considered well above average (it should be considering it was 45 euros for a dozen pieces of simple nigiri), the meal was nothing to write home about.  Although I did quite enjoy the seaweed salad (Kaiso Avocado Salad) with its many varieties of seaweed, my eggplant with bamboo shoots (Naso Takenoko Hasami-yaki) tasted like something I could get at a nice Japanese restaurant in Vancouver for a quarter of the price (boring).  Hubby's deep fried marinated chicken from the appetizer menu (Tori Tatsuta Age) was also a real flop- 20 euros for plain dry deep-fried chicken with no sauce to save it.  There was also the 7 euros for the teeny-tiny bowl of miso soup we had to start.  Hubby and I certainly do not mind paying for Michelin Star meals but we expect quality that usually comes with it!

Overall Verdict? 
As you can probably guess, we will NEVER be back.  I cannot comprehend how such an stiff and pretentious experience could appeal to anyone and frankly, even the food did not impress us all that much.  This is BY FAR the worst Michelin Star experience Hubby and I have had, and unless you enjoy sitting through uncomfortable and unpleasant meals, I would advise you to skip Yamazato on your next trip to Amsterdam.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Charming Beyond Words at Restaurant LaStage

Geldersekade 29, 1011 EJ 
Amsterdam, Netherlands
+31 20 737 0811

Tastiness Factor: 9.5/10

Atmosphere: 5/5

Service: 5/5

Locavore Approved? YES- Restaurant LaStage's constantly evolving tasting menu is built around local and seasonal ingredients. On our visit in late spring, we were treated to radishes, mushrooms, spring peas, strawberries and even a taste of asparagus which we were told was late this year due to the unseasonably cold temperatures.  What a treat!

Don't you love when you stumble on an unexpected diamond in the rough?

I sure do, and this was just the case with Restaurant LaStage.

Restaurant LaStage was a later addition to our Edinburgh-Amsterdam restaurant list, somewhat of an afterthought when I was looking for somewhere a little more low-key and casual on our travel day between cities.  On paper, this place seemed to fit the bill- small, casual and right on the edge of the Red Light District which I thought would be cool to walk through on our first night in Amsterdam.  And hey, it was a 1 Michelin Star so the food had to be decent too.  Little did I know that Restaurant LaStage would end up serving some of my favourite food of the whole trip.

You may walk right by the inconspicuous entrance to this little gem if you are not looking for it.  Although it is near the Red Light District, it is off on a quiet side street shielded from all the hustle and bustle.  The front of the restaurant reminded me of Paris, with its smart black awning and flowering plants near the door, which is quite appropriate considering Chef Rogier Van Dam's classic French training. When I entered the doorway and pushed aside the curtain that shields the downstairs diners from the cool night breeze,  I had even stronger flashbacks of Paris. The tiny interior, seating about 25 guests, is divided into two levels. Its cream walls are adorned with some charming artwork, including a wall-long picture of a vintage butter knife upstairs adjacent to our table. Hung between the upper and lower level is an eclectic light fixture and the back wall is covered by a tall book shelf that contains wine bottles, wine glasses and, of course, books.  The small kitchen, that I got a peak at on a trip to the bathroom, is a floor below the main level.  The quaint space, with its very simple and loveable decor, made for a very pleasant and intimate experience.

Restaurant LaStage has an exclusively all-female waitstaff who are all extremely gracious and warm hostesses.  The service is very professional (the ladies wear white gloves when replacing table settings so as not to smudge the silverware) but at the same time, it exudes friendliness and approachability.  I asked different servers a variety of questions throughout the meal (origin of ingredients, Amsterdam highlights, recommendations for other travel, etc.) that were all genuinely answered with a smile.  I felt right at home from the second I walked in.

In addition, I feel it is necessary to separately acknowledge the phenomenal sommelier.  She  suggested a beautiful bottle of Spanish wine (a unique white wine made from red grapes) that paired well with all of our courses and was relatively inexpensive. I also overheard her serving wine pairings for other tables, giving detailed descriptions of each wine and chatting at length about her choices with the wine connoisseurs in the room.

LaStage gives diners the choice of a 3-6 course dinner.  The menu is conveniently divided into 6 sections with a choice of two dishes/section (starters, soups, entrements, mains, cheeses and desserts) so making your own multi course menu is simple.  Alternatively, guests can choose the "flight through our menu" where the chef chooses his favourite dishes and surprises you.  This was a great option for us as first-timers as we really got to see what the chef was all about, and they were more than happy to tweak the menu slightly to accommodate my pescatarian request.  We ended up receiving about 10 courses, including the "snacks" to start.  

Of all those courses, there were no dishes that I didn't enjoy, with one or two dishes that were good and the rest that were fabulous/outstanding. The pescatarian menu they created for me was very well thought out, and I appreciated how they served me completely different dishes just substituting fish for the meat on the exact same plate like I have experienced at other restaurants.   While the food is certainly french-influenced, it is certainly not traditional french cuisine, which likely reflects Chef Van Dam's Dutch roots which find their way into his cuisine.  I felt that the menu was a perfect mix of simplicity, showing off all the phenomenal fresh ingredients, and innovation with a few "out of the box" surprises (pickle caviar, quail-sweetbread roulade, kafir-leek rolls) thrown in for added excitement.  Previous reviews have commented on the meal being too long, and yes, the time between courses did vary between 10 to 25 minutes, but who cares?  The lovely evening flew by and frankly I could have sat there forever! Plan to spend the whole evening- sit back and soak it all in!

Here is a glimpse into our outstanding evening.  Without a menu, I cannot do the dishes justice by giving them descriptions from memory, so I will let the food pics speak for themselves:)

Overall verdict?
Without a doubt, the food was absolutely incredible, and I am not sure how they stay so humble about it (our server said they were "surprised to have received a Michelin Star).  For those who have been to other Michelin star restaurants, this one offers something a bit different, with its unique take on producing a perfect meal, with grace and simplicity, in a relaxed atmosphere where you can really put your feet up/let your hair down and enjoy.  Charming beyond words!