Some happy pigMuch as I wish I were the kind of person/blogger who would (and could!) participate in Gwen Bell's Best of 2009 Blog Challenge, I know myself too well. The challenge offers 31 writing prompts (one for each day of December) for looking back on 2009. I couldn't pull off 31 posts in a slow month; in December it would never happen. But it turns out I can participate, and I didn't even have to read the small print. Right there, on step number 1: Write on one or all thirty-one of the prompts for the month of December. I can write on one prompt. And who knows, maybe I'll even pull off somewhere between one and thirty-one.
It was an easy choice for me, I've been wanting to write about my favorite restaurant moment of 2009. How can a restaurant meal that starts with slopping the pig not be your favorite? That moment was the beginning of a tremendous evening.
Last summer I was in the Netherlands. It was a two-and-a-half week family obligation, vacation, and work kind of trip. The family obligation part was fun: my daughter was graduating from college in the small town of Middelburg (Roosevelt Academy, I see right now their website has a link to a selection of food policy research papers called 'From Brussels to Mussels'). The vacation part was spending a few days walking along the southern part of the Pieterpad with my parents (a trip I encourage everyone to try). The work part was a pancake tour through the Netherlands, with Pavel and Grace, for an article that was to have been published in Gourmet magazine. Ah well.
And somewhere in that mix, Pavel, Grace, my parents and I found ourselves in Amsterdam one evening, riding south on tram #5 to Restaurant As, right next to Beatrixpark. We got off the tram and walked a couple of blocks along Prinses Irenestraat to the restaurant. As's dining room is downstairs from the design firm Platform 21 (a fun website to explore, perhaps the Cooking and Constructing link is especially of interest here). The building was originally a chapel; the dining room is round with seating radiating out from the central work area (espresso machine, prosciutto on slicer). The kitchen, though, is what you see first when you arrive at As. That's because it's outdoors under a tent, with a wood oven.
If you're lucky when you get to As, as we were, the chef, Sander Overeinder, just might hand you a gray bus tub full of fava bean pods, potato peelings, and artichoke trimmings, and ask you to slop the pigs. We took the tub, and walked into the restaurant, through the dining room, out the back door, and past the chickens to the waiting pigs. I'm sure the other diners were a little jealous. I know the pigs were happy to see us.
The dining room at AsOur chores done, we were seated at a wide wooden table in one of the little nooks that radiate off the main room. Private, but also with a view of the diners and the show in the middle of the room. Outside the window a tiny car sat under a high wire fence festooned with vines and large light bulbs. As night fell (late that far north in May) the lights came on, shifting from green to blue to orange to red. Or did I just have too much to drink?
Our fried zucchini blossomsThen we got down to dinner. And how we ate. We started with a charcuterie plate, and fried zucchini flowers stuffed with ricotta and lemon, their tiny zucchini still attached, so tender.
The next course was one I still think of--the picture I'm afraid doesn't do it justice. It was a rabbit braise, with the rabbit's liver, kidneys, some "blood sausage from last Sunday", spinach, celery, artichokes, favas, and lentils. It was at once a complex stew with succulent bits of rabbit and rich liver juices marrying all the flavors. But at the same time it was oddly simple and comforting. The celery flavor recalled a homey chicken and dumplings, or a meal my French grandmother might have served me. If I'd had a French grandmother.
Rabbit braiseBut this was only a second course. The waitress and chef consulted with us between courses; with each course I felt done. With each consultation I was ready for the next course. Both a brined and roasted veal brisket and a beautiful rare entrecote, with bubbles of fat, came next. These were served with peas and carrots. Not the kind my American grandmother made. And I had one of those.
The second to last consultation was especially gratifying. "How about some cheese? We have a wonderful Gorgonzola Dolce...". My mother let out a small gasp. And a couple of minutes later it arrived. I watched it come across the dining room, and thought it was a birthday cake, complete with candles, approaching. It was the whole Gorgonzola Dolce, covering a large dinner plate, with 5 spoons stuck into the cheese. ("But please don't eat off the spoon and put them back in the cheese!").
Gorgonzola DolceSander sat with us after our dinner, my parents knew him from when he worked at Chez Panisse many years back. He's a big man--in expression, in gesture, and in interest level. He was eager to share his food, eager for us to like it. He told us a story about the Gorgonzola, which he orders from an Italian import shop in Amsterdam. Each time he calls, they say, yes, we'll have it for you in two days. After three days pass, Sander calls back (and he pantomimed the call for us). They always say the same thing. We don't know what happened, it will be three weeks, we're so sorry. Sander lets out an exaggerated sigh, rolls his eyes a bit. But he already knew that, as it's always that way, so he called three weeks before he needed it. With that, Sander let out a big laugh.
Restaurant As chef, Sander OvereinderAnd that's the kind of dinner it was. Big in expression, and in gesture, and in interest. Laughter, humility, and gratitude. Gratitude, especially on our part. I still dream of that rabbit.