A Year In Food

From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Sept. 17.

Amsterdam, Part Four - So far, I had been trying to stick to Amsterdam's cultural side, but there was no way to deny its more hedonistic impulses. Perhaps more than any other city (Las Vegas?), its image is tied to its permissiveness and indulgence. Even my mother, when I told her that I was going there, couldn't keep from offering a strange grin and warning me not to "smoke anything strange." I assured her I wouldn't.

Instead, I went up to the Red Light District. It was only around noon so I wasn't sure if there'd even be any red lights glowing. There were about ten, scattered around the widespread area, where women in day-glo bikinis sat behind glass doors in claustrophobic little booths. They tried to do their best approximations of sexy as they filed their nails or surveyed the empty streets. A few of the prostitutes were beautiful in the generic Playboy sense of beautiful. The others had bobbling stomachs and massive breasts and thighs. Far more than sexy, the whole scene seemed kind of sad.

Then, finally after that, it was time to disobey my mother. I did my research and found a place called Grey Area, which many call one of Amsterdam's best coffeeshops. Vince and I met up at the small shop on Oude Leliestraat, run by two American expats, and I perused all the interesting offerings. (My plan was to smoke before our dinner at Tempo Doeloe, hoping it'd only increase my already huge appetite.) After a consideration of Grey Area's tempting menu and asking for some recommendations, I ended up going with the Greyberry, which had a light blueberry flavor. John, the owner behind the counter, rolled the very reasonably priced weed for me into a joint. Vince and I claimed one of the tables among the walls plastered with graffiti, signs, stickers and photos, and I lit up. This was easily the best marijuana I've tried. It was like a tasting menu at a four-star after so much mediocre fast food.

From there, we went onto Tempo Doeloe, probably Amsterdam's most famous Indonesian restaurant. After severely missing the heat and spices from Sripraphai, I was ready for all the hype surrounding this place. The guidebooks all warned that the food was blazingly pedis, the on-line reviewers sang the praises of extra spicy dishes and even the restaurant's own menu cautioned to work your way up to the options marked with three red pluses (the ones where "our 'kokkie' (chef) has not shown any mercy with various kinds of peppers.") It sounded perfect. I was so ready that I even ordered the most expensive choice on the menu, the rijsttafel istemewa. The rijsttafel is a rice table, in which small bowls of various entrees are all centered around heaping bowls of rice. My istemewa (the grand rice table) came with twenty-five little courses, with low flames burning under them to keep them warm.

Even without the berry high, I would've been a happy man. The flavors here were multifaceted and beautifully crafted, all the more apparent after comparing to our earlier experience at Tanjung Sari. There was clearly great care put into the shaping of each miniature plate. As our waiter explained to do, I started at the far right with the mildest dishes and slowly worked my way over into the spicier quadrants. I made sure to also follow his instructions and to treat every dish individually, rather than making some mash of them in my rice. A quarter of the way through, my favorite tastes were the Gadon Dari Sapi, or "beef in creamy sauce with coconut cream and fresh coriander," and Orek Arek, or "stirfried cabbage with garlic and various herbs." As I moved into the dishes marked by one plus on the menu, I started to detect some really nice mild heats. The vegetarian options particularly had a sharp pepperiness to them.

Confidently, I pressed on, eager to get to the real firestarters among the bunch. The wonderful and well-crafted flavors continued, but the heat never came. Despite all of the press to the contrary, I found the so-called spicier dishes kind of bland, lacking that necessary spark that can truly elevate a dish. I even started to wonder if I'd been given the wrong table by mistake, or if there might be another one coming. But then, there still stood before me, the two plates that were supposed to be the spiciest of all, the Ajam Roedjak, or "chicken in hot sauce with cream of coconut and tjabeh" and the Daging Rendang, or "beef cooked in tasty, hot sauce with cream of coconut," which came with the dreaded three-plus warning. I tried them both and felt barely a tingle. I was quite disappointed, but felt that at least the dinner was redeemed by how good everything had tasted. Tempo Doeloe may not have produced the heat it promised, but it remained a quality meal. Still, I probably wouldn't make another reservation there without reservations.

After dinner, I went back to the Red Light District to see how it had changed at night. Sure enough, it had transformed from desert to full-blown circus. Over a hundred red lights were glowing, with girls in the same fluorescent bikinis striking poses and calling out to clients. The alleys were packed, mostly with college-age boys in clusters but also crowds of curious gawkers and even tour groups of rowdy seniors. There were also a lot of women taking in the sights. I saw a guy my age unabashedly approach the glass and ask how much "it" cost. "Fifty euros," came the woman's seasoned response. He nodded meekly and disappeared behind the pulled red-velvet curtain. The scene only felt more pathetic to me, as more men disappeared and emerged from the booths. While I'm far from a prude, and don't really see the point of criminalizing prostitution, the Red Light District struck me as perhaps the least sexy experience possible. Even the model-beautiful women seemed more like prisoners in their glass rectangles than prospects. Nonetheless, I was glad to have witnessed this side of Amsterdam, probably as an integral part of a very complex city as any.


Anonymous sarah said...

i love your mom's very motherly warning. LOL!!!!

2:12 PM  

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