Brasserie Harkema

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.

Opinion: 4/10

Brasserie Harkema
Nes 67
1012 KD Amsterdam
The Netherlands

Tel: +31 (0)20 428 22224
Website: http://www.brasserieharkema.nl
Email: reserveren@brasserieharkema.nl

Advertisements

La Trappiste

my personal torment would be being water boarded by a ruddy-faced Bavarian wearing nothing but lederhosen, stockings and his Wehrmacht epaulettes

Just occasionally in life you encounter places that capture the imagination like nowhere else. For good or for ill, there will be these isolated little moments in time that leave an indelible mark on the imagination, an ineradicable footprint on the sands of memory for all time. Oh sure, there will be all those irresistible stirrings brought on by the usual reveries: The Sounds Of Radio Four Coming From The Kitchen Of An Avuncular Great Aunt Living In Devon; That Kiss In The Park By The River On That Summer Afternoon; Vomiting Down Your Shirt In A Packed Bar…

Truth be told, it’s probably not in anyone’s interests to try and turn their lives into a Proust novel. But there are two occasions I can think of in my life where I have tried to retrace my steps somewhere but have simply been unable to do so, second or any subsequent time round.

Both places are restaurants. First was a little trattoria in the side streets up in Paris’s 18ème arrondissement. It was my first time in La Ville-Lumière. 1995, a Sixth Form French trip. It was lunch time, we lost our teachers for the afternoon, found this little place and ordered pizzas and beer and smoked Marlboro Reds. After scraping our money together we hadn’t quite enough to pay but the owner wasn’t the slightest bit concerned. We stayed for hours. And I have never managed to find this place since  – I don’t know if it still exists even. I realise this must say something about me as a seventeen year old, the fact that one of my enduring adolescent memories is enjoying an ad hoc yet rather civilised (surprising, considering the company) extended lunch in Paris.

The second and more recent occasion was a place in the centre of Munich and for the life of me I cannot remember what it was called. All I know is that it was a stone’s throw from the Marienplatz. I’ve tried putting every conceivable combination of words into Google – ‘German restaurants Munich city centre’, ‘local restaurants in Munich’, ‘Bavarian offal fetish dungeon hell hole’ – but all to no avail. The place does not seem to exist on Street View either. And I so desperately wanted to find this place again, really just to see if it actually exists and I haven’t just invented the whole thing.

Since I have no details of the place: name, location, anything at all to point to it actually existing outside of my own mind I can’t therefore review it, as was my intention. It would be like writing a review of The Krusty Krab. So instead I shall adopt a persona – let’s say this character’s name is S Truffle – and write a narrative piece in the first person perspective about the experience of visiting a restaurant in Munich.

***“In the evening I went looking for a restaurant. This is often a problem in Germany”. The words of Bill Bryson in actual fact. And as I was to find out, never truer words spoken. Finding somewhere to go for dinner was such a monumental trial each and every time I began to wonder whether I, S Truffle, was merely a character in somebody else’s mind – a chimera existing solely for somebody else’s amusement. Perhaps their plans for me would be my eternal languishment in a tartarus of Bavarian cuisine right here in Munich. Was being held fast, buried to my neck and slowly drowning in a quicksand of weisswurst and pickled lung stew my nightmare or somebody else’s? Never mind being burnt to death with a lighter or being spoon-fed bits of my own body until there was nothing left, my own personal torment would be being water boarded by a ruddy-faced Bavarian wearing nothing but lederhosen, stockings and his Wehrmacht epaulettes.

Suddenly I was no longer alone. I had a companion. We chose a restaurant. I say ‘chose’, it was more like finding you’ve been entered for Shirley Jackson’s lottery. As we pushed open the door, parted the heavy draught-excluding curtain, I think I actually exclaimed aloud, “Oh Jesus Christ”.

The only free seats were at a large communal table. I thought we had mistakenly stumbled into a private party. Pine-panelled walls, mounted animal heads, various Tyrolean curios and memorabilia all gave the room an ominous mien. Was this in actual fact some clandestine Austro-Bavarian masonic lodge meeting? Everyone in the room was middle-aged, well-to-do and ruddy. They definitely all harboured extreme right-wing views. Maybe they were cannibals? It crossed my mind. The woman seated directly opposite was particularly intent on staring me out. Surreptitious whispering heavy with glottals and menace came from all corners. I’m sure everybody was now licking their lips. We were not welcome here. At all.

A menu nevertheless arrived. As feared it was a veritable biopsy table of internal organs and bits of digestive system. I was able to pick out the schweinehaxe which I somehow knew was a regional speciality of pork knuckle. My companion settled for liver dumplings, whatever the hell they were. If I hadn’t navigated as judiciously as I did the task of rendering what German I have into English I know for a fact that plates of quivering udder and boiled colon would have been placed in front of us. For some irrepressible reason I had the compulsion to order, in English, in a comedic ‘Allo ‘Allo German accent though was begged not to. Our food arrived. Needless to say every mouthful was terrifyingly, nerve-shreddingly horrific. I heard myself scream. I woke with a start. Around me was a sea of leering, ruddy faces. I was held fast in quicksand up to my neck. A faceless man wearing only stockings and Wehrmacht epaulettes advanced upon me with a tray of quivering udders and assorted boiled colons. I began to scream before waking with a start.***

But If I could finds this place to review it would score a perfect ten. Ten for the memories and minus ten for everything else.

chips were of the school dinner variety – pale, flabby, fat and greasy

And so to Canterbury’s titular La Trappiste and the most unwelcoming, uncongenial establishment encountered since S Truffle went on holiday to Munich by mistake. It is a Franco-Belgian themed brasserie and bar in the old city centre, practically under the shadows of the cathedral’s splendid western façade. I still love Canterbury. It manages to be a surprisingly young city thanks to it being home to two universities and countless overseas students.

La Trappiste occupies an impressive and roomy space at the intersection of four streets. It really could not have asked for a better head start in the battle for the hearts and minds of the city’s inhabitants. It can be approached from all angles. If you are going to or from the cathedral you will probably walk past it. An attractive bar provides the centre piece. There is even an on-site bakery whose wares are displayed in the window. It is a damn wonder the space wasn’t made into a Prêt or a Starbucks. It is also a damn shame as well…

On our first visit one summer evening we didn’t even get to try the food. Being shown to an outside table was the last we saw of anybody. After decanting us to our seats and sloping back inside, the waiter then resumed his duties of busily standing by the bar. We didn’t even get menus. I should of course point out that the place was actually empty inside. Plenty of staff though. So industrious was their bar-propping that their elbows must have worn deep furrows into the counter. What the hell was their problem? After a Best-of-British, hand-wringing fifteen minutes of apologetically telling each other “don’t worry they’ll be along in a minute,” I thought about going in to say “look, I’ll cook our meal. Do you mind if I pour myself a Leffe?”

I did go in to ask what was going on. The shift manager’s response was to spit: “right, so are you gonna leave then now, or what?” in the same tone a chap might employ for requesting another chap’s presence outside for fisticuffs.

And that was that.

I just knew I had to go back again. This time for lunch, labouring under the misapprehension that things couldn’t possibly be any worse. Once more I was shown to a table but this time hidden behind a pillar and to get to it I had to squeeze between it and the next table, depositing my scrotum – accidentally, I hasten to add – into their food whenever I passed by. The table was so tiny it would have been more comfortable eating off my lap.

I kept things as simple as possible by ordering Steak Frites and a beer, a Grimbergen Bruin. It was tart, brown and fizzy and pretty damn good, and sadly the only thing to scale the lofty heights of above average. The steak, a sirloin, was requested medium-rare but arrived torched to oblivion and devoid of any kind of discernible characteristic that may have identified it as sirloin steak. All essence and flavour must have been surgically removed before it left the the kitchen, thus leaving it with less taste than the guests at a Jeffrey Archer dinner party.

Chips were of the school dinner variety – pale, flabby, fat and greasy – and bore not the slightest resemblance to any French or indeed Belgian Fries I’ve come across in my lifetime. In fairness though an accompanying Béarnaise sauce was decent.

La Trappiste is utterly half-arsed and breathtakingly arrogant to boot. I cannot decide whether management don’t know how to run a café restaurant or simply don’t care. It cannot be stressed enough just how much this place has everything going for it. Even the affected interior rough-and-readiness really does look like that of a continental café. And by god, Belgium really does know how to produce stuff people love to eat: fries, mussels, chocolate, waffles and seemingly innumerable varieties of really amazing beer. But sadly not here. Canterbury: so close to Belgium yet so far.

Opinion: 2/10

La Trappiste
1-2 Sun Street
Canterbury
Kent
Tel: (01227) 479111
Website: http://www.latrappiste.com