you will forever feel as if you are eating dinner in a 60’s built university refectory, or a prison canteen – albeit a well lit one
I spent the summer of 2002 travelling around Europe. Spain mostly. My travelling companion at the time was, and remains, a good friend. He goes by the name of… actually, in order to spare any blushes and protect his anonymity, let us call him Rick.
The plan was to saunter down to Paris, put ourselves about a bit there, hack our way down to Spain on the sleeper, circumnavigate the Iberian Peninsula before returning north for a romp through the Netherlands like a pair of dashing, sixteenth century Habsburg Holy Roman Emperors, finally finishing up in Amsterdam.
Naturally, things started off with a booze-fuelled sprint across the Fifth Arrondissement at midnight in order to catch our connection at the Gare d’Austerlitz. I say ‘fuelled’, I meant ‘hindered’. Thanks to an evening long blend of Sorbonne Guinness, wine, Southern Comfort and cheap, student-grade weed, ‘dashing’ was more akin to being a passenger on frantically scissoring stilts over which I had no control. My vision span before me like the altimeter of a nose-diving plane but we made it – just; the train practically pulling out of the station.
Waking up in the early hours with a hangover that felt like my ganglia had disintegrated into jelly, I did not reckon on discovering the journey had terminated not in Spain but Toulouse. Which was lucky in a way. Had Rick organised we probably would have found ourselves pulling up in Stavanger about now.
Previous forays into Europe had seen Rick variously drive a hire car off a cliff; be pursued from Greece all the way to Italy by a mob of Greek lads who, for reasons still unknown, were baying for his blood; wake up one morning to find himself in a garage lock-up belonging to a gun-owning Rastafarian and have a policeman climb into bed with him, naked, in a hostel in Bruges. Yet it is utterly beyond me how he manages to become ensnared in these often ludicrously comical, occasionally life-threatening situations. And if I happen to be with him then I end up as an accessory. As an example, we have both been banned indefinitely from the bar at Calais ferry terminal. Perhaps one day I shall find out why.
Yet you would meet him and wonder how any of the above could possibly be true. He is not some tiresome, thrill-seeking Party Boy and neither does he suffer from personality-altering psychotic episodes. He wears cords, is softly spoken and looks like a 1970’s sociology teacher. He would never dream of seeking out conflict or confrontation yet he just finds a way of attracting the kind of people and situations where it is all but inevitable. He is also the ultimate free spirit. You would call him up wondering if he wanted to go for a beer only to find out he was in Cambodia somewhere – probably by accident. On that occasion you do go for that beer together you end up on a stage in one of Soho’s most boisterous gay bars, as is what happened recently. Either that or you will wake up somewhere next morning only to find yourself trapped inside a Wicker Man.
So now, here we were; seemingly off on holiday by mistake and finding ourselves adrift somewhere in the south of France. Ok, so not exactly the Darién Gap, you’re probably thinking. But we received no satisfactory answer as to why the train would not be going any further. So instead we got onto a coach. The wrong coach as it turned out – very wrong indeed. It wasn’t even a coach. Or a bus. In fact it was just a bloke with a minibus and we clambered into it. And here we were now heading in completely the wrong direction up into The Pyrenees. So: in a van, with a man, going up into some mountains. You see? These are the sorts of things that happen when you are with Rick.
Somehow we made it to Barcelona. For me, it is exactly the kind of city that you could arrive at again and again. It was everything I wanted it to be at 23 years of age: warm, endlessly sunny, bright, vivid, colourful, bars everywhere. This was the first time too that I had ever sampled Churros con chocolate on the beach front. Or real Jamón Serrano costing a pittance in the Barri Gotic. Naturally enough we didn’t hang around. Tarragona a few miles down the coast was our next stop. It was here, knocking back seemingly endless tiny glasses of rough, local tinto overlooking equally as endless sea views we both wasted no time in concluding that we could do this for, well, eternity. Yet such halcyon interludes cannot last: they never do.
Valencia next, and like an Eastenders Christmas lunch, things unravelled in spectacular fashion. We somehow ended up out of town in the sort of neighbourhood where you would reasonably expect to have tyres thrown over you and set alight at any moment. The abridged version of events is that Rick had a breakdown during the night amid all the gunshots, knifings and gang warfare that was taking place both inside our hostel and out. He then proceeded to contract a baffling and rare tropical virus so thought it prudent to return home sharpish. Although not before he had the opportunity to flood a bathroom, bring an entire breakfast service to a standstill, get lost in somebody’s back garden and be chased by a territorial peacock along a busy dual carriageway.
I myself ambled and rambled contentedly around central and southern Spain narrowly avoiding general strikes, terrorist attacks and bankruptcy before we joined up together weeks later and set about the Netherlands with renewed vigour, yet falling just tantalisingly short of our goal of Amsterdam. We didn’t make it. It was no good, we were both spent: financially and every which way. Our plan of swimming across a lake to the parliament buildings in The Hague and clambering in through a back window sadly never came to fruition. It was time to go home.
But I did manage to get to Amsterdam even if it was a decade later. The place is brilliant quite simply because it is clean, safe and endlessly picturesque, and as an added bonus there are no cars. Clichés of Romford stag weekenders and gormless groups of ganja tourists do the city a great disservice, truth be told. Yes, Amsterdam is great fun but it is hardly the Sybaris of popular reckoning. Although that said, it does have a fantastically graphic museum dedicated to Inquisition-era torture. You really should go, well worth a visit. And if after a hard day poring over Judas Cradles and Breast Rippers you fancy getting pilled off your head in a transsexual fetish bar then you will be spoiled for choice on that front as well. But if that is not your cup of tea either there is a superb art gallery devoted entirely to cats.
What Amsterdam seems not to have is restaurants. Problem is, nobody really has a clue what the Dutch eat – even they themselves do not seem to know which is probably why every other place is Indonesian. Great fun when the menu is in Dutch. Most people would struggle to name something other than chips, waffles and Gouda. In fact most people would struggle, full stop. There is of course the worryingly anatomical-sounding bar snack Bitterballen that bring to mind capsules of emulsified animal slurry and boiled earwax, and there’s Erwtensoep, a thick, gelatinous pea soup also known colloquially as Snert which looks (and sounds) like the by-product of decongested nasal passages and tastes like a cure for Witchcraft.
And with that, we find ourselves in Brasserie Harkema. Brasserie Harkema is in the Nes area of central Amsterdam not far from Dam Square. Located in a converted flour mill the dining room itself is huge – seriously huge – and high-ceilinged. It is the kind of cavernous open space that can only ever really find its true calling in life as a part of some high capacity, high density institution so you will forever feel as if you are re eating dinner in a 60’s built university refectory, or a prison canteen – albeit a well lit one. To be honest, it is an effortlessly stylish and impressive room crying out to be something better and cooler than it is. When we arrived it was empty. The main reason for this was that everyone was squashed into a tiny waiting area off to the side. I had no idea why. I think we were supposed to stand around and have a drink but the sheer weight of seething humanity along with the prevailing atmosphere of mass panic put me on edge somewhat. It felt as if we were evacuating a burning ship rather than going out to dinner.
Brasserie Harkema professes to be Amsterdam’s answer to the “modern brasserie” although the menu is a time-worn mash up of Business Class Bland and Chillax International: all Pinot Grigio glamour and All Bar One lite. It is the tasteless, in both senses of the word, culinary lingua franca of Pan-Asian-Mediterranean – everywhere yet nowhere. You just knew that everything would taste of the background thrum and hiss of generic house music and Ikea showrooms.
An oriental chicken broth was good though: fresh and sharp but not enough ginger or chilli. Shrimp croquettes were flabby and amounted to very little under their Findus-y crisp carapace. Smoked beef carpaccio with Truffle Mayonnaise and Rocket had all the charm of a Dutch Uncle. Mains included rib-eye with béarnaise while the highlight was a tuna steak with yuzu, hoi sin and five spice – that was brilliantly and deftly seasoned. However duck breast in black bean sauce came with water-sodden bok choi and was nothing to shout about. Pudding choices comprised the customary, generic room service selection of Chocolate Brownie and Apple Pie with Ice Cream. Both were probably average, I just don’t recall.
I’m being harsh here but with very good reason. If Brasserie Harkema ever found itself in London it would be in somewhere like Hoxton or Dalston, would have a bang-on-trend menu, serve only micro-brewed beer, and the beard quota of its patrons would be upped considerably. No, I’m serious. In other words, a dynamic restaurant scene and discerning clientele would never allow it to exist in its current guise. Instead it would find itself languishing at Westfield Stratford or Gatwick’s south terminal. Look, everybody knows the Netherlands is no gastronomic nirvana, and the point is it hardly matters. What is infinitely worse than Snertballen, or whatever it is, is this sort of created-by-committee, dishes-by-numbers fare that you find in airport hotels the world over: food for people who don’t care about food and who care even less for travelling.
1012 KD Amsterdam
Tel: +31 (0)20 428 22224