1st Visit: Lunch Saturday 30 September 2017
(15.5 / 20) Very enjoyable addition to the upper echelons of the casual fine dining scene in Amsterdam, and here with a sincere mission. That it seems is to put out a high standard of dishes, each clearly well thought through and generally well pitched in terms of flavour, at an accessible price point. For me Jacobsz it’s not yet as good as the leaders in the price bracket – the Daalders or Breda’s of the world, but to be fair its not that far off. We’ll watch this place with some interest.
(Click on the score to see the rating system and why I write these reviews)
€€€€€ 5 course dinner €49
The restaurant scene in Amsterdam is bubbling away nicely. The economy is doing well, house prices skyrocketing, and almost every week there are new openings of pop-ups, bars, cafes, full-blown restaurants, and sometimes even as in this case, a pop-up becoming permanent.
For a city of its modest size Amsterdam really has more than its fair share of top-end establishments; A gaggle (I think that’s the collective noun) of two-star joints, and one place maybe even ‘worth a special journey’. Though at the moment it’s in the area of ‘casual fine dining’ where a lot of the innovation and vibrancy is. This sub-asset-class of proper haute cuisine sits itself somewhere in between the Le Fooding neo-bistro movement that started as a rejection of the absurd levels of stuffiness of the Parisian stalwarts, and modern Michelin fine dining – itself increasingly casual in many ways. Its mantra is one of cutting overheads, de-cluttering service, and finding a strong price/quality point, whilst still delivering on interesting, artistic food. Tackling any one of these is challenging enough but all at once is a balancing act so death-defying that few are really ever that successful.
I’ve found these places producing food impossibly complex for their own clientele, rammed to breaking point with covers to try to reduce per-plate costs, under serviced, over serviced… every which way but loose. A common issue is Michelin chefs looking to downsize everything but their food. And whilst that initially sounds quite appealing, there is good reason why fine dining restaurants are quiet, well spaced-out affairs; The surroundings support your ability to enjoy what you are eating. Yes the food comes first, but if you can’t decipher what the dish is at first sight and you can’t hear the waiter’s long-winded explanation above the birthday group screaming at the table 1 ft away from you, no amount of talent from the chef will save the day. As a food writer recently and wonderfully succinctly put it to me, ‘it’s like buying couture at H&M’.
Nethertheless there are a few places in town which, though certainly not yet faultless, are at least getting somewhere in this new space for casual fine diners. Amongst the more successful I would count Daalder, BAK and Breda (not in order) – which all produce, albeit quite differently, very interesting food in unpretentious surroundings but which still deliver on service and come in at a decent price point.
So when I heard there was a new contender in this cohort I was initially overjoyed. That was until of course it was ‘blogged’ about, instagramm’d within an inch of its life, gushed over by people apparently unaware of what they were actually eating, and badly photographed by every person living in Amsterdam with the most passing interest in food. The interior was a particular point of interest it appeared, which was slightly reminiscent of the supernova of superficiality which occurred when the (actually pretty good) one-starred Vermeer re-opened after renovation and the bloggers reacted by posting pictures of its new wallpaper rather than its new menu. So, by the time the free-meal-eaters and restaurant marketers masquerading as sincere food writers had done their worst, poor Jacobsz had somehow been transformed in my mind from a point of real interest into a poster boy for all that is wrong with restaurant social media marketing.
At least twice I made reservations then cancelled them; I felt myself preparing to want to hate it, preparing to write the most withering take-down since our unbelievably bad meal at faux-sashimi hybrid Izakaya (another local blogger favourite). But that was of course until a photo of a new desert featuring a caramel of bay leaf appeared on my feed. At once, with the thought, despite all the increasingly tedious hype, that someone actually quite talented was probably in the kitchen, all the bubbling negativity was instantly forgotten, we took a deep breath and just went.
First I should add that the dining room is indeed beautiful. The stark Skandi minimalism is very nicely countered by a quirky sense of homeliness that emanates from the unique coffee-come-bar section at the far end – complete with mustard coloured tiles and cabinet straight out of a Home & Garden village kitchen shoot. This was a design job done carefully and with a proper budget – we have the same lights at home and I can confirm they are both beautiful and expensive.
The amuse, a perfectly pleasant little bite cucumber marinated in Moscow mule and wakame, came out. As did two wine lists. Jacobsz is also curating, quite well I might add, an image as place where they really know their wine, and that much was quite entertainingly demonstrated by the delivery onto the table of a hipster handwritten notebook of their most recent discoveries. Of course it’s too easy to be cynically dismissive of this kind of thing, however it actually said more about sincere passion than it might about fashion. And to underline the point, in the distance (by the kitchen cabinets), three staff were enthusiastically sniffing, tasting and discussing a few freshly opened bottles. It can only be a good thing that the concept of price/quality and innovation also extends well into the wine list.
We each opted for the 5-course menu, let the kitchen give us whatever dishes they wanted and asked, as per, that we try to keep it to two hours. First up, a kind of deconstructed sushi of raw mackerel, kohlrabi, a crisp of furikake (the rice seasoning mix of bonito, sesame, nori etc.), cream of basmati rice, watercress purée and lemon verbena. The fish was fresh, rich and oily and given a nice kick of texture and umami from the cracker which worked well with the ingenious puree of rice (first time I’ve seen this). But the dish was also washed out a little by the ‘veloute’ (more a purée) of spinach that left the whole thing crying out for just a touch more seasoning and/or more obvious acid from the lemon verbena.
Nadya meanwhile was impressed by a very pretty, delicate little dish of melon gazpacho, with haricot blancs, an acid-marinated fennel, goats cheese from Heeze (a village in the south of the Netherlands largely famous for having a really very good restaurant in it), coriander and fennel tops. She said it was bright, fresh and a very pleasant opening to the meal.
The menu at Jacobsz is set up as starter, ‘between’, main, cheese and desert. Not entirely sure what to expect by the intermediate course, we were really pleasantly surprised when it arrived. Big pieces of burnt and marinated coeur de boeuf tomato, a very clear and punchy tomato consommé, umeboshi cherry purée, toasted hazelnut, served with a slick of coffee and tonka bean oil. The rustically chopped coeur de boeuf maintained just enough of its meaty character whilst the sweet acidic punch of tomato sparred perfectly with a really very clever oil that had a real cloying (but very nicely so) whole mouth texture to it. The umeboshi cherry concoction I wasn’t quite so sold on, but as a whole the dish was nicely seasoned, offset by little pops of hazelnut and pepper from the nasturtium, and a good example of that tenet that doing simple things well is very hard indeed.
We were being waited on by three people seemingly on rotation for most of the meal and in general they were great. The quite extensive descriptions were given with legitimate enthusiasm and almost faultlessly in English (less the umeboshi which was described as an apricot). Looking around at our fellow diners, and with the greatest respect, the long lists of sometimes obscure ingredients did engender some quite bewildered expressions and/or laughter at various points, and again I wondered how well the complexity (of description) really suited the setting. That also given we were eating from 6-8 pm when it was relatively sparsely populated and still quite quiet. Given the number of tables arriving as we were leaving I doubt it stayed that way.
To mains, and a pretty disappointing dish. Iberico neck was served with burnt baby corn, dark chicken jus infused with Ceylon tea, sesame, purée of the spiced Moroccan soup Harira, with rose-flavoured yogurt. Despite the pork being nicely cooked, the rich wagyu-like fattiness you normally get with Iberico was missing and the use of chicken jus I found quite disconcerting. Pork and chicken is quite a strange mix of flavours to my palate even when the jus is this dark. The Harira turned into a thick puree was a nice idea but it lacked enough punch and the corn, well I’ve never really understood the point of baby corn.
The vegetarian main fared much better, with Nadya receiving a nice made plate of Gnocchi of beurre noisette, comté in both creamy sauce and crisp formats, globe artichoke, chicory and lemon. This one I also tried and can confirm the gnocchi was quite light and well seasoned, though hardly much to get too excited about.
At this point I had to remind myself we were paying less than 10 euros a plate and so really we shouldn’t be expecting the world – which was then confirmed by a completely forgettable cheese platter.
Moving to deserts and the dish which had really sparked my interest in finally coming to the restaurant – I got a kind of inverted cheesecake with a deep-black muscovado crumble hiding a parfait of the Tilburg staple bitters of Schrobbelér, bay leaf caramel, and Kefir cheese. The bay syrup was indeed a triumph and the dish was generally very well-balanced, though in truth there was far too much dry crumble for the quantities of other wet components. Having said that, Nadya swiftly decided this dish was the one for her and continued to lean over me to eat most of it. Well marriage is about sharing (and taking your opportunities), so I happily reciprocated and in turn ate most of the hers. This was a very pretty dish of chilled peach soup, a raspberry sorbet, salted almond, vanilla peach compote and blanc mange. Lots of peach punch, and so much raspberry flavour in the sorbet it almost tasted synthetic; The dish was nicely balanced for acidity and not too sweet, with additional salt and crunch from the biscuit.
And there, perfectly on time, we finished up, paid, and headed off into the night.
I’m glad we finally stumped up the courage to alter our quite well trodden path of avoiding blogger hot-spots like the plague, and doubly glad we decided to do it here at a restaurant which is clearly sincere in their mission. That it seems is to put out a high standard of dishes, each very clearly well thought about, and generally well pitched in terms of flavour. The lengthy and complex descriptions I found slightly peculiar given the actual complexity of the food (which wasn’t desperately avant-garde), and this was more so given, at least on the night we visited, the reaction from guests was more of slight amusement than real interest. That being said, it was delicious and well judged in terms of pairings (other than maybe the chicken jus on pork which I didn’t quite get). Again, we shouldn’t forget this was a meal roughly half the price of that we normally fork out on fine dining in the capital, and the restaurant is still relatively young. We’ll watch this place with interest. For me Jacobsz it’s not yet as good as the Daalders or Breda’s of the world (also both in this kind of price bracket), but to be fair its not that far off.
Amsterdam 1097 AA