Travel/Restaurants

Amsterdam and South Africa Vacation

So we put away the pans and hit the sky for some excitement and a change of scenery.

We haven’t been to Europe in 15 years and now realize we have been really missing out. The food is immaculate and the culture even cooler. Everywhere it seemed food was so elevated with the masses it made me think that the gains in American cooking in the past decade were mute. I thought for sure that we as Americans have come far enough to overtake the Europeans at their own game. How wrong I was. We are still stuck in second gear and they’re purring along well out in front. I was most blown away with their smoking and pickling of fish. Superb! Also their subtly and refrained use of anything overpowering. It all seemed to sing in unison, how blunt we still seem to be.

Some highlights in Amsterdam

The French Connection:

Tapas

  • Beef Tartare with oyster, dashi, and leek.
  • Pickled Mackerel with quinoa, tarragon, and beef stock.
  • Both were excellent but the Pickled Mackerel was stellar and something I need to seek out. If I can’t find it in San Diego, I will learn to do it on my own. It was that good.

Mains

  • Cod with broccoli and a beurre blanc of smoked Sprat. I have never heard of Sprat before but the fish (Sprat) gave the beurre blanc an amazing flavor. Sprat I have learned is a herring type of fish and I will be on the lookout for it.
  • 12 hour smoked Duck. The duck was out of this world and a completely new taste and direction for me. So unique. I loved it.  We both went nuts over it.

The other Big Hit – an amuse bouche of a frozen olive. It looked like a black olive served in a wooden spoon but it had been liquefied I believe then frozen back in shape with hydrogen. Or it was just flashed.? How ever it was done, it was such a unique, fun, and tasty surprise. Just like a cool liquid shot of olive essence.  It awoke our palate after a long day cruising around the city, a refreshing boost before dinner.

I’m very bummed that I didn’t get any more pictures but busting out a phone at dinner in Amsterdam seemed so faux paus. No one does it. They enjoy the experience, company and ambiance of their day or evening. As a side note, it was interesting seeing a couple in their mid 30’s next to us leave the restaurant to go outside after their first course and came back in after smoking some Cannabis out front. It was cool seeing that and put a smile on both of our faces.

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Frozen olive amuse bouche at the French Connection, Amsterdam.
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This wine was stellar. The French Connection, Amsterdam.

 Hoofdstad Brasserie – Hotel De L’Europe

App

  • Smoked Mahi Mahi. This dinner was a lot of fun. We had a ton of cocktails and wine but what I do remember is that I loved the smoked Mahi and can’t wait to do it on my own. The flavor and subtlety drove me nuts in an inspiring way. What have I been missing all these years?!  Foie Gras was listed as a starter and I thought before going on the trip I would be indulging on it left and right, but after the previous nights Pickled Mackerel app, Foie Gras fell off my radar completely during the trip. What a good call and a bit of paradigm shift for me. Loved it.

Mains

  • Cod “en papilotte” celeriac and hazelnut cream. This one came out beautifully and I was pleasantly surprised when I first saw the dish and saw that the “papilotte” was a cabbage leaf. A little while back I did a chicken recipe from Paula Wolfert that used the same technique, unfortunately I did not master that technique on my first try and it ended in frustration. This was done with precision and made me smile. The cabbage leaf was bright green with clear windows looking through the leaves at the dish below. I was so moved I forgot to take a picture and dove right in. I then realized an interesting moment just passed without taking a pic but it made it even more, dare I say, transcendental. Great dish.
  • Duck Breast, lavender, poached potato and pepper duck sauce. Excellent and my wife loved the subtle use of lavender with the duck. It was a great taste.
  • Desert was a stroopwaffle eclair and something chocolaty. Very nice. We did get a pic of that.

I would have loved to have gone to Hotel De L’Europe’s 3 Star Michelin restaurant below the Brassiere we were in. After walking and biking for miles, a huge tasting menu seemed too much. Plus, I believe they use the same kitchen :). Tasting menu’s are all the rage over there right now and rightfully so with what they are producing. We have just had too many tasting menus over the years and a bit exhausted from them. The Brassiere was a perfect fit us on this trip.

My take away from Amsterdam…The locals  seem to embrace the meeting of friends at the outdoor cafe’s and NO one busts out their cellphones. They converse over great, light food and drink. I was envious and dejected at how I have been conducting my life. After the second beer, I felt the fog had lifted and realize I can enjoy my life as much as they do when I get home. It’s all our own world and experience. BTW, I found a new appreciation for lagers. I forgot how much I enjoy them. These damn ultra hopped out ales we have been churning out turned me off from beer years ago. I do enjoy beer. Pils please.

South Africa :

South Africa was a blast and a bit of a contrast to Amsterdam. They love their Braai which is their BBQ or grilling. Lamb, Beef, Game, it’s all there and celebrated and done perfectly. The portions are huge and the locals are much larger than their European counterparts. Chips (fries) go with everything and they seem to be predominantly the larger wedge cut version.  I’m not really a fan of the wedge cut and theirs wasn’t any improvement. Another interesting note is that a side salad is more of an after-thought in South Africa. More like a garnishment to add a little color to the plate. Salad people will be disappointed traveling through South Africa. It seems it is just like curled parsley of our past. The salads are rarely dressed and the waiters never ask if you’d like any dressing for the salad. At least that was our experience.

Fish – they do fish great in South Africa. One of my favorites was Carpenter Fish. It was grilled with a light crust and served with a simple side bowl of rice and grilled onions. It was extraordinary. I believe its a unique fish to South Africa and I had it at Jeffrey’s Bay at Nina’s. I loved it and relished in the unique taste. Plainly grilled made it shine and made me celebrate the true diversity of fish. I can’t wait to have it again. We had the same waiter on both of our visits at Nina’s and he being a surfer/fisherman, knew his fish and highly recommended it along with the previous visits Tuna which was a knock out as well. I have to mention that I had escargot as a starter with the Carpenter fish. I love escargot and they did it perfectly with a subtle garlic cream sauce that we mopped up with the grilled bread. I was in heaven.

Black Sheep Restaurant – Gardens’ area on Kloop St., Cape Town.

This was our knock out dinner in Cape Town. I can’t recommend it highly enough. We didn’t have reservations so ate at the bar and had a great time.

Apps:

  • Leek and potato soup with croutons and blue cheese. It was delicious and had a luscious texture. It was definitely put through a food mill and strained. I happily helped my wife mop up the bowl.
  • Crisp sweetbreads w/ sauce grabiche, watercress & lemon. Sweetbreads are a bit like escargot to me,  if I see them on the menu, my attention is directly focused on them. These were perfect especially with the grabiche and watercress. Loved it and if I lived there, it would be a staple.

Mains:

  • Seared Tuna w/ nicola potatoes, beans & green peppercorn sauce. This was my wife’s main and it was a huge hit. Such a huge hit that our first dinner home, we searched the internet for a  green peppercorn sauce to go with grilled Mahi. The peppercorn sauce at Black Sheep was exquisite, a touch of sweetness, a small touch of pepper, an amazing combo with Tuna. I have a new voyage to go on to try and recreate it and find our own version we can proudly produce for dinner party’s and weekend dinner. The first version I made when we gor home was close but not quite there.
  • Roasted Kingklip w/ sauteed cauliflower, beluga lentils & garam masala burnt butter. My first inkling was that Kingklip was a type of fish but I wasn’t sure. Was it a game meat? The name sure did sound interesting. The waiter confirmed that it was a meaty tasting fish. I had to order it and I’m so glad I did. This was such and interesting dish with a unique spice undertone from the garam masala. I went nuts over the fish and the whole ensemble. The fish was meaty and the lentil and cauliflower made it hearty but light in surprising way. It hearkens back to a winter fish dish. One that you want around a fire in a cozy room.  How cool, a fish dish that takes your mind completely out of summer state of mind and transports you to winter. Quite the achievement. This dish is for people who enjoy fish or are starting to really get the diversity. My wife liked it but couldn’t quite get her head wrapped around it. We were in South Africa in late May and it was approaching their winter in the Southern Hemisphere.

 

Here’s what I found about Kingklip: – It’s part of the Eel family.

Kingklip is one of the most popular eating fish in South Africa. The name kingklip comes from the old Dutch word ‘koningklipvisch” which means “king of the rock fishes” – because like other whitefish, such as hake, kingklip is low in fat and prized for its delicate flavour and firm white flesh. It is tinged with a light pink colour and covered in irregular brown blotches and can grow to 150cm in length.

Kingklip is a demersal fish, living on or near to the seabed that is often caught in trawl nets together with hake as a by-catch. They are a relatively slow growing and long-lived fish and cannot sustain a targeted fishery so in a managed by-catch programme, catches of kingklip are restricted to a precautionary catch limit of 10% of total hake TAC.

To sum up Black Sheep, no stop in Cape Town is complete without making a visit. Another pleasant surprise was the bill.  $70 US total with cocktails, apps, mains, bottle of wine and dessert. The dollar was STRONG in South Africa.

Wine:

This was another big surprise. South African wine was amazing and so affordable. It seemed predominately Syrahs but the blends blew us away. They even serve South African wine on KLM airlines. I’m extremely excited to start exploring and discovering what is available over here so we can take a quick journey back to our amazing adventure in South Africa.

 

 

 

 

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