3rd Visit: Dinner Saturday 10th June 2017
(17/20) Thoughtful dishes full of flavour, with a heavy focus on vegetables, presented in a calm and well proportioned dining room. This is a little oasis of fine dining right in the middle of one of the most raucous parts of central Amsterdam, and on this performance certainly in the top few of the one star restaurants in the city.
(Click on the score to see the rating system and why I write these reviews)
€€€€€ 4 course dinner €65 / 8 course dinner €85
1 Michelin star since 2011
I fondly remember our first trip to Vermeer. It was two years ago, also in June, and we went to celebrate our first wedding anniversary. We had just begun to start going back out on dates when Sophia was old enough to allow her parents to sneak off largely guilt-and-worry-free for a few hours every Saturday. The restaurant was already long under the stewardship of British chef Chris Naylor, and over the course of the previous decade had gone from two stars to one, then to none, and finally back to one. And there it stayed. I remember thinking the food was good though lacking a specific character. Before starting to write this review I reminded myself by looking at some photos I had taken on the phone (this was before the Instagram account ever started). And yes already the heavy influence of vegetables was there, already there were vibrant, inviting colours. But there was a lot of shtick too… a liquid nitrogen ice cream trolley, white gloves, wood panelling on the walls and chandeliers from a different era.
Last year the restaurant closed for a full refurbishment and the whole kitchen decamped into a space at a nearby church to do a temporary pop up. It received rave reviews and the working holiday seemed to reinvigorate both the restaurant and indeed it’s reputation. When they returned to the now thoroughly modern and Instagram-friendly new dining room, people were tripping over themselves to hail it as a triumph.
I for one sadly didn’t wholeheartedly share the enthusiasm. Whilst I throughly supported the further focus of vegetables and the local-sustainable concept of the roof garden, I found some of the dishes a little mundane and the whole meal lacking in sufficient oompf. The old school fine dining cart had seemingly careered off the tracks and crashed head first into a raw food cafe. As much as I enjoy a radish, it had better well be the best radish of Arpege’s gardens if it rocks up solo as an amuse on a Michelin starred menu. So whilst the bloggers and chefs raved, I remained silent, wondering if I had even eaten at the same restaurant.
We go back. If this blog is anything I hope its fair, and so if I’m really unsure at the first visit, and there is still some hope to be more pleasantly surprised (and let in) again, I’ll often not write about a place at all, prefering to wait until the second round. Of course as blessed as we are, we also aren’t really inclined to keep paying Michelin prices to eat food we’re not sure about, so at some point you have to come to some conclusion. Luckily after this last time at Vermeer that is possible and doubly lucky that it was a great meal.
What we got was the continued focus on vegetables, and whilst there were still some raw elements, they felt far more considered. The meal was playful, vibrant and interesting, showcasing a range of different cooking techniques, each clearly targeted at getting the best out of the specific ingredient. Naylor’s cuisine is not overly fiddly; He has a few things on the plate and they largely all have purpose. The plating is simple but elegant…. again, its really thoughtful.
The amuses came out. The first plate was a stick of rhubarb with cane sugar (and a lot of black pepper) served with a small spoon of rhubarb ice cream. The fruit was crunchy, tangy and astringent, with a delicious sweet-savoury, spicy finish. It was beautifully countered both in texture and temperature by the slightly sweet and perfectly smooth ice. We had the same opening last time we came without the ice cream and it wasn’t half as good as this. It didn’t look much but boy is this a clever dish for an amuse And clever continued with the next little bowl containing a haystack of string beans (I haven’t seen them cut like this since I was a child in England), with an amazing smear of gooseberry puree. Again, textural contrast, umami, both tartness and freshness, with a slight sweet note from both underpinning the whole. This was quite a start.
A bit of fun next with a DIY scallop which had been baked with an edible bread crust to keep all the delicious juices within. The waiter left it still sealed at the table and wished me the best of luck openingn it before disappearing. Thankfully I’m quite accustomed to opening a scallop even when it hasn’t already been cooked but I can’t apparently say the same for my poor fellow diners; A confused soul across the room from us just stared blankly at the plate for 2 minutes before vigorously complaining to her husband. Once opened, the interior revealed the bivalve had been steamed with some celeriac, and no sooner had I thought about actually eating it than the waiter re-appeared at table side with a teapot of BBQ’d celeriac bouillon which the scallop was then drowned in. It was rich and deep with flavour from the roasted veg, with a welcome load of seaside sweetness, but the scallop was overcooked and beginning to get stringy. There was also far too much boullion added for quanitty of solid ingredients, turning it into a kind of soup. In the end I threw out etiquette and mopped up the last of it with some of the bread crust, which itself was soft and flavourful.
Nadya was meanwhile enjoying a vegetarian version of the same dish (sans scallop) and with the addition of a little rainbow chard.
Next up for me a fabulous and deceptively simple dish of perfectly cooked monkfish with a vadouvan sauce and preparations of carrot and radish. Vadouvan, the French first derivative of garam masala, seems to be enjoying a little revival at the moment – only a few weeks ago we were given a little sachet as a leaving gift at another restaurant in town. Irrespective, the flavours of the spice mix went delightfully with the sturdy flesh of the monkfish which can carry a lot of punchy sauce without getting lost at all. Everything on the plate was perfectly cooked and there for a reason.
So too for the next two dishes. Nadya enjoyed a beautiful dish of cauliflower, daikon and almond with which we was very content, whilst I moved on to a really very accomplished, also vegetarian, course of beetroot from the roof garden sitting on a very punchy garlic sauce, topped with a vibrant citrus granola with crispy rice. This was an outstanding dish, with very bold flavours, a rich creamy underbelly, with interesting textural contrast. If you don’t like garlic you wont have much fun with this dish, but to my taste it was perfect – really a very accomplished and gratifying dish.
Finally before mains we shared a yin-and-yang selection of further vegetarian dishes. The first of white asparagus with scrambled egg was not good – the asparagus was watery and lacking flavour, whilst the eggs were heavily under seasoned. I didn’t like this at all. Luckily it was followed quickly by a further bouillon, this time of carrot, served with a ravioli of fresh peas. This was at once somehow both fresh and deeply savoury and really excellent in every respect.
The pace of the meal was so far verging on perfect. We had asked as usual for the lot in 2 hours and they had easily obliged. Its very interesting to see which kitchens can and which can’t cope with such a change of pace, but at Vermeer it was faultless. The service in general was also good but heavily bolstered by a really very amiable and, more importantly, knowledgeable sommelier who helped us ad-hoc with three very good glasses of wine throughout the meal.
For mains, as is my current affliction, I was a little disappointed with the meat dish of beef in a beef and leak reduction sauce. Though the jus was rich with umami and savoury goodness, the steak itself lacked flavour for a cut of that firm texture – I think it might have been onglet but forgot to ask. More successful was Nadya’s vegetarian dish of preparations of fennel with a korma sauce. I tried this too and it was spectacular. Another data point to add to the growing body of stats confirming why sometimes you are better off eating a full vegetarian menu at restaurants who can so clearly cook it so well.
Onto dessert. Last time we came to Vermeer they served a very unfortunate dish of fermented strawberries which to my mind was verging on unpleasant. Later we had a similar dish executed rather differently at Kadeau in Copenhagen, where they demonstrated the slight fizziness of the ferminting fruit could be quite delicious, but sadly the first effort at Vermeer verged a little too close to tasting as if it was just going off. As such, we were delighted to see a far more successful dish using the summer fruit on this visit. We were advised to take a glass of 2005 Monbazillac, whose strawberry, peachy notes went wonderfully with the fruit and could handle the delicious mouse too. In general there was nothing spectacular at all about this dish (strawberries and a strawberry mouse), but the addition of a perfect temperature ice cream of lovage was a masterstroke. The strong grassy notes somehow reminded me a little of the flavour of the base of the strawberry, or indeed the slightly under ripe fruit itself. I’m still not quite sure exactly why but the combination was both jarring and extremely pleasant to eat.
All in all we were pretty impressed with Vermeer 2.0. Nadya thought it should have 2 stars! I wouldn’t personally go that far – perhaps our memory is a little clouded by some quite unimpressive 2 star meals in the last few months. No, this is a good modern expression of a 1 star restaurant and my score reflects that also. I like that they have made the effort to thoroughly update the dining room and whilst it’s clearly aimed at being social media friendly, they have kept the character of the previous place, which includes maintaining a nice quiet dining room and a sensible number of covers. The food here, with its concentration on simple, flavourful preparations of vegetables and the odd meaty punctuation is both interesting and very tasty. And in the end that’s what fine dining is all about.