Sunday, August 22, 2010

Amsterdam's Upscale Restaurants



You can tell by the number of articles I've written about Amsterdam, how much I enjoyed my trip. Here is another in a four-part series I wrote for Peter Greenberg.

Amsterdam's Upscale Restaurants
Supperclub appetizer - Amsterdam cuisineLast week, globe-trotting investigative gastronome David Latt investigated the local finds in Amsterdam’s surprisingly robust cafe scene.

But can serious food-lovers find high-end and innovative restaurants to satisfy their cravings? Read on to find out what he discovered in the Dutch capital.


Balthazar's Kitchen, a local favorite, is a small restaurant with a big reputation. On the few nights I was in Amsterdam I could never secure a reservation.

The same was true of the French restaurant, Braque, where a friend and I were turned away two nights in a row.

I had better luck at the Supperclub. The well-polished brass doorway downstairs hints at the grand setting upstairs.

Beds at Supperclub AmsterdamBegun two decades ago, the Supperclub has branches in London, Singapore, San Francisco, and Istanbul, with plans to open in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Art is served along with a prix fix meal as patrons share a comfortable cushion provocatively referred to as a bed. A different performance is offered every night of the week. Themes are varied, but usually touch on issues of personal liberation, emotional and literal enslavement, and sexual expression.

On the day I attended, Andre d. Singleton, a New Yorker, presented an evening that consisted of short videos and musical performances, with the aim of "complicating gender."

While the creative intentions were to stimulate and provoke, the prix fix menu was designed to put the diner at ease with comfort food: a mozzarella and scallops appetizer, a tenderloin with mushroom sauce, and a dessert of homemade ice creams.

Restaurant at the Sofitel Amsterdam GrantFor an elegant meal in a quiet setting, try the upscale Bridges Bar in the remodeled Sofitel Amsterdam The Grand where you will rub elbows with Amsterdam's elite. The contemporary French-Asian menu focuses on seafood in an exclusive setting.

For our main course during a late afternoon lunch, we had a delicate miso-marinated, grilled cod paired with a very nice Chardonnay from Chile (Veramonte 1997 Reserve, Casablanca Valley).

The locavore movement, so widespread in the U.S., has had a slow acceptance in the Netherlands. In Amsterdam, the leader in the field of organic, locally sourced ingredients is Restaurant De Kas, where I experienced the best of the best in my food tour of the city.

Opened in 2000 in a renovated municipal greenhouse on the southern end of Park Frankendael, south-east from the city center, the restaurant has the homey feel of a neighborhood hangout, albeit one in an all-glass house.
Learn more with: Dutch Food & the Amsterdam Restaurant Scene

Restaurant de KasServing a set menu of three starters, one entree, and a dessert, the only changes a diner can make is to add an aperitif, paired wines, and a cheese course. When seated, the diner is asked one question, "Tell me what you don't like or can't eat." Otherwise, the chef is in charge. Except that he isn't.

The produce and herbs served at the restaurant come from the greenhouse next to the restaurant and from their farm in Ilpendam, 10 miles north of Amsterdam. As Xavier Giesen, the assistant maitre d', explains, "We are a restaurant but also growers. The chef tells the gardener what he wants, but the gardener tells the chef what's available."

The menu changes weekly and seasonally.

When I visited the restaurant, the menu was transitioning from spring to summer. The amuse-bouche that night was a crostini of a lively relish of baby artichoke heart, cauliflower, fennel, onions, carrots, gherkins, flat-cut parley, and an edible Begonia, seasoned with turmeric and mustard seed.
Headed to Amsterdam? Don't miss Amsterdam for Americans: An In-Depth Amsterdam Travel Guide

The three starters were presented at the same time and were all cleverly served at room temperature so the diner isn't compelled to eat one before the other.

Crostini at Restaurant de KasWhite and green asparagus topped with a Beurre noisette (brown butter) foam, lobster claw with leeks and beets served with a grapefruit juice reduction, and a deep-fried zucchini blossom and stem on top of cold potato soup with potato cubes, fried onions, parsley, and scallions.

All were perfectly cooked and plated, the ingredients of the highest quality. If I had a favorite it was the potato soup with the zucchini blossom, although I ate every bit of the asparagus dish, even though I am not usually a fan of white asparagus, a Dutch favorite.

The main course was a small piece of meltingly tender lamb shoulder topped with pickled onions and a delicious herb butter, accompanied by a scattering of gnocchi, dill, cauliflower, and freshly made pickled cucumbers. A green salad with a mild dressing was added as a palate cleanser.

With all these dishes, the chef carefully balances flavors and textures, paying homage to the Dutch preference for pickled vegetables by including either pickling spices and/or lightly pickled vegetables.

Panna cotta for dessert didn't sound very exciting, but each spoonful made me pause. The elements—vanilla panna cotta with rhubarb, strawberries, a scoop of lemon sorbet and a sheet of white chocolate—were so exquisite. The flavors of cold, smooth, creamy, sour, and sweet touched all the best dessert flavor notes.

A set menu relieves the tension of debating what to order and the kitchen can focus on fewer dishes, thereby allowing for better execution and less waste. Without a question a win-win advantage, at least as practiced at De Kas.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Figs Tart Up

A chance encounter with a discounted flat of perfectly ripe figs led to a day of baking in pursuit of a great tasting fig tart for a recipe I wanted to contribute to Zesterdaily.  
Although it might look complicated, because there are a number of elements (tart dough, custard, roasted almonds, fig confit), each can be made several days ahead.  On the day you want to serve the tart, you'll only spend a few minutes putting everything together.  The tart goes in the oven while you're having drinks with your friends.  Easy.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Eating in Amsterdam

A recent trip to Amsterdam has yielded several articles for Peter Greenberg.  The latest just posted, a piece about the local food scene.  

Dutch Food & the Amsterdam Restaurant Scene
Dutch food in AmsterdamMost travelers agree, you don't go to Amsterdam for the food. The museums, no question. The canals and parks, absolutely. The Red Light District and the "coffee shops," sure, if that's your thing. But the food? Not so much, right?

After all, is there really such a thing as Dutch cuisine, or even GOOD Dutch food? The answer might be ... yes. If you're a roving foodie like David Latt, part of the journey to any destination includes unexpected surprises, and Amsterdam didn't disappoint. Read on to find what he uncovered.

In Amsterdam, restaurant food tends to be hit-or-miss. Most dishes are under-seasoned, but that doesn't mean you won't eat well.

The fact is, you're likely to have good cafe food; meaning great sandwiches, delicious cheeses, excellent coffee, and plenty of good breads and pastries. Meanwhile, Amsterdam's various ethnic offerings continually surprise new visitors. The trick is knowing where to find these spots and getting the local experience while you're at it.

EATING AND DRINKING WHAT'S LOCAL

Interestingly, some Dutch export products consumed at home taste much better when you're in Holland. Heineken and Grolsch, for instance, seem to have more subtleties and depth of flavor.

Kaasland Singel CheeseGouda isn't generally regarded as a particularly interesting cheese, but stop by Kaasland Singel, west of Centraal Station, and have a sampling of the locally produced cheeses. You'll be surprised that the Gouda can have a creamy richness similar to French comte.

What's more, you know you're not in Kansas anymore when you taste Gouda made from cow's or goat's milk and flavored with any one of a dozen herbs and seasonings, including stinging nettle, cumin, pepper, mustard seed, garlic and onions, coriander, Italian herbs (garlic, sun dried tomatoes, and olives), walnuts, hot pepper, garlic, or basil.

Living on the edge of the North Sea, the Dutch have a love of seafood. Walk across the street from Kaasland Singel to the herring shack overlooking the canal for a uniquely Dutch experience: a plate of lightly pickled, raw herring.

Locals will tell you that the best herring is caught in the spring. Purists avoid the traditional condiments, onions and pickles, preferring to savor the fish au naturel. To eat them Amsterdam-style, order your herring whole, pick it up by the tail, tilt back your head, and let the fish descend into your mouth.
Don't miss David Latt's Amsterdam for Americans: In-Depth Amsterdam Travel Guide

Hutspot Dutch food at Five FliesIf you want to continue sampling traditional Dutch food, head to Spuistraat and visit D'Vijff Vlieghen(aka, The Five Flies) and its neighbor across the street, Restaurant Haesje Claes and order the Dutch stick-to-your-ribs classic, hutspot: mashed potatoes, carrots, and onions served with smoked pork sausage, thick bacon, and a super-sized beef meatball.

If you can't get a reservation at either restaurant, the locals know that you can order from the Haesje Claes menu at De Koningshut, the homey workingman's bar next door.

Whatever you try from the extensive menus should be accompanied by large quantities of Dutch beer or, an Amsterdam favorite, Jupiler from Belgium.

LIVE LIKE A LOCAL, EAT LIKE A KING

A good friend who has visited Amsterdam many times says that the best way to experience the city is to rent an apartment, cook your own food and live like a local.

If you do that, then you'll want to shop at the open air markets - the famous Northern Market (Noordermarkt), New Market (Nieuwmarkt), and Albert Cuypmarkt - here you can buy high-quality cheese (domestic and imported) meats, poultry, seafood, baked goods, and farm-fresh produce. The Markt near Vondelpark, located at Overtoom 21 25, reminds one of a smaller, more intimate Whole Foods, with an excellent section of seafood, organic meats, fresh produce, wine, and baked goods.
For more foodie adventures, visit our Culinary Travel section.

Open Air Dutch Market, AmsterdamFor your morning coffee and pastry, you'll want to find a bakery like Vlaamsch Broodhuys on Haarlemmerstraat, between Singel and Prinsengracht, where you can sit quietly, read the paper and start the day as slowly as possible.

In the afternoon or early evening, when you need a coffee, sandwich, or beer, stop by a brown cafe-so called because their interiors are almost entirely brown. Originally, the cafes earned their distinctive color not from paint, but years of accumulated cigarette smoke. Today, however, smoking is restricted to outdoor patios and the coffee shops that sell marijuana and hash.

On the other hand, if the weather is sunny, you will probably want to sit outside and people-watch.

Rembrandt Square (Rembrandtplein) is favored by tourists, with its large, Parisian-style cafes, while Leidsen Square (Leidseplein) at the juncture of Weteringschans, Marnixstraat, and Leidsestraat near the Singel canal is preferred by locals. In the summer when it doesn't get dark until 11 p.m., hundreds of people fill the cafes.

There are also smaller but still crowded cafes at the New Market, and a collection of bars and restaurants with outdoor seating where Spui, Spuistraat and Singel meet in front of the American Book Center and the Athenaeum Boekhandel.
For more, don't miss the Off the Brochure Travel Guide: Amsterdam, Netherlands

Crea Cafe AmsterdamIf you tire of all the hustle and bustle, there is Crea Cafe, part of the University of Amsterdam's cultural programming organization. The cafe, frequented by students, has a narrow outdoor patio where you can enjoy a coffee and sandwich and watch locals row by in their small boats.

Brasserie Harkema is another oasis of quiet, just a few minutes walk from crowded, noisy Dam Square. The simple bistro menu features comfort food like asparagus soup with ham and open faced BLTs with lots of smoked bacon. The small outdoor brick patio is the perfect place to chill out and sample their extensive wine list, the quiet disturbed only by the sound of passing bicycles and the occasional horse-drawn carriage.

Desserts are widely available, as are chocolates. A particular favorite is Puccini Bomboni with two locations: Staalstraaat 17 and Haarlemmerstraat 12.

Dutch chocolate at Puccini BomboniHere, the chocolates are laid out in great mounds, tempting innocents to lose their self-control. Anyone with a passion for high-quality chocolates should only enter the store with a companion whose assignment is to prevent excessive purchasing and consumption.

ETHNIC FOOD, AMSTERDAM-STYLE


If you're craving ethnic food, there are many Asian restaurants through out the city. Because of the Netherlands' colonial history, Indonesian restaurants serving rijsttafel (rice table) have long been popular. The always crowded, Restaurant Kantjil & de Tijger bills itself as an Indonesian restaurant, but the menu suggests a fusion of many Asian cuisines.

Zeedijk street, from Prins Hendrikkade in front of Centraal Station to New Market, along the western edge of the Red Light District, has dozens of restaurants serving the cuisines of many nations.

If you hunger for large platters of meat, there are Argentinean and Brazilian restaurants. For Asian cuisine, there is Indonesian, Thai, and Vietnamese.

Nam Kee AmsterdamMany travelers I know insist on "going native," but sooner or later tire of the local cuisine and have an insatiable craving for Chinese food. Nam Kee is the most-recommended with its 17-page, encyclopedic menu offering rice, noodle, curry, meat, seafood, and vegetarian dishes. The waiters don't speak English, a rarity in Amsterdam, and they don't take American credit cards, which is true at most restaurants, so bring euros.

Besides the usual Mandarin and Cantonese menus, there is Suriname Chinese, another remnant of the Dutch colonial experience.

Ethnic restaurants are also found in De Pijp (the Pipe), especially on Albert Cuypstraat where you'll find the delightful Bazar. The Middle Eastern dishes are under-seasoned, but you'll spend hours happily talking and drinking, thoroughly enjoying the eccentric interior.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Easiest Pasta You’ll Ever Make Using Grilled Corn and Roasted Garlic


On a recent trip to Sonoma County, my wife and I wandered from the coast to the inland farmland to eat our way across one of America's most productive valleys. We were lucky enough to have some wonderful meals. We especially enjoyed chef Josh Silvers' 
We loved his roasted garlic-butter sauce on his grilled corn, I was inspired to write a recipe that adapted that flavor combination with pasta.  I posted the recipe on Zesterdaily.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Egg Salad with Grilled Vegetables and Crisp Bacon


I keep connecting with an early childhood memory about summer days at the beach.

To get to the beach we'd drive a long time in our hot car and coming home, I was always sunburned, with gritty sand in my swimsuit.  The travel part wasn't what I liked, but the picnic lunch my mom packed sure was.

Fried chicken, potato salad, biscuits with butter and honey, watermelon slices, and egg salad.

My dad rarely came with us so usually my mom had a friend along for company while my sister and I splashed in the water, determined to annoy one another as much as possible.  After awhile we'd get tired. Then it was time to eat.

We'd load up paper plates and settle down on the sand watching the older kids body surf.  We didn't talk much but we'd share the moment enjoying our mom's food.

I don't know why but it's the egg salad I most remember.  Hers was a pretty straightforward affair.  Hardboiled eggs, some red onion, mayonnaise, a little salt and pepper.  Sometimes she'd add capers if she wanted to get all fancy.

I don't get down to the beach much these days, but when I travel and know I have to endure the long lines at security, a cramped airplane cabin, and no food service, I bring along a couple of egg salad sandwiches. Nothing is more comforting at 30,000 feet.

Egg Salad with Grilled Vegetables and Crisp Bacon

Starting with my mom's basic recipe, I've added grilled vegetables and freshly chopped parsley for color and flavor. Crisp bacon bits makes the egg salad really good. The bacon strips can be cooked first but better is to mince the raw bacon and saute the bits. That way, each bacon bit is nicely browned and holds a uniform shape.


Yield: 4 servings

Time: 45 minutes

Ingredients

4 farmers' market fresh large or extra large eggs
1 large carrot, washed, ends trimmed, peeled
1 ear of corn, tassels and husk removed, washed
1/2 cup Italian parsley leaves, washed, finely chopped
1 tablespoon capers, rinsed, finely chopped
2 strips of bacon, finely chopped, sauteed until crisp, drained
1 tablespoon finely chopped shallots or scallion
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 tablespoons olive oil
Sea salt and black pepper

Method

I like to put the eggs into a pot of cold water, turn the flame to medium-high, and cook them for 30 minutes. Many people say that's way too long but it works for me. The yolks come out flaky, the whites dense. Rinse with cold water, take off the shells, and roughly chop.

Slice the carrot into flat slabs about 1/4" thick and 3" long.  Toss in olive oil seasoned with sea salt and black pepper.  Do the same with the ear of corn.  Grill until lightly browned all over or oven roast in a 400 degree oven for 15 minutes. Turn frequently to avoid burning. Let cool.  Finely chop the carrots. Remove the kernels from the cobs.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the chopped eggs, carrots, corn kernels, parsley, shallots, and crisp bacon bits. Toss. Season with sea salt and black pepper.  Add the mayonnaise and mix well.

Serve on bread, crackers, or lettuce leaves.

Variations

Add 1/4 cup roasted red pepper, finely chopped

Omit the bacon

Add 1/4 cup finely chopped, pitted olives

Roast 2 garlic cloves, tossed in olive oil, seasoned with sea salt and pepper until lightly browned, peel off the skins, finely chop the soft garlic and add to the egg salad

Add a dash of tabasco or a dusting of cayenne pepper for heat

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Dollar's Up, the Euro's Down. A Perfect Time to Visit Amsterdam

With the Euro down and the dollar up, now is the perfect time to plan a trip to Europe.

Some travelers hesitate about visiting Europe if English is their only language.  Good news.   In Amsterdam, English is the second language. So don't worry if you need help. You don't have to ask, "Do you speak English?" because everyone does.
  
Barely seven hours from New York city, with easy access through Schiphol airport, Amsterdam is a compact city, hosting dozens of world class museums, miles of picturesque canals, well-maintained parks, narrow streets with old-world charm, hundreds of outdoor cafes and bars.

The scale of the city is people-friendly.  Most buildings in the old city around the canals are only three to five stories tall.  Cars and trucks avoid the narrow cobblestone streets, leaving pedestrians and bicyclists in charge. Every few blocks there is a central square ("plein") with shops and markets. If you’re out walking and you want to take a break, you’re only a few steps from a cozy cafĂ© or a bar where you can refresh yourself with a beverage and a snack.

If you want a cup of coffee, though, don't ask for directions to a "coffee shop" because you'll find yourself in one of the many shops where people go to have a joint or smoke hash. "Koffie houses" serve coffee.  Don't expect to find a Starbucks. There are only three in all of the Netherlands.  

Contrary to popular opinion, marijuana is not legal in Amsterdam.  You can buy it and smoke it in coffee shops but don’t try going for a walk along a canal and lighting up a doobie.  You might get arrested.

The Red Light district is one of Amsterdam’s top tourist destinations.  Window-shopping here takes on a whole new meaning. 

One very big no-no is taking photographs of the women in their windows.  If you do, you’ll be unpleasantly surprised by a large Eastern European gentleman who will throw your camera and maybe you into the nearby canal.

During the summer holiday season a lot of tourists are in town.  You'll see mobs of young men and women from the U.S., U.K., Italy, and Spain partying together--usually drinking and often singing--in bars, around the squares and walking through the Red Light District.  Keeping to the quieter parts of town, families with kids visit the museums, go on canal cruises, and hang out in entertainment centers. Couples get around town on bicycles or take long walks, hand in hand, along the canals, taking in the sights and enjoying being together.  

What's great about Amsterdam is that the city works for all of them.

Amsterdam is home to dozens of great museums, not the least of which are the Amsterdam Historical Museum (Kalverstraat 92) , the Dutch Resistance Museum (Plantage Kerklaan 61), the Filmmuseum (Vondelpark 3), the Foam-Fotografiemuseum (Keizersgracht 609), the Royal Palace (Dam), and the remarkable Hermitage Amsterdam (Amstel 51). 

Ongoing renovation has temporarily closed the Stedelijk Museum (Museumplein 10) which houses an impressive collection of modern art. The national museum, the Rijksmuseum (Jan Luijkenstraat 1) is also undergoing renovations. 

Even though you can't see all the collection, the oil paintings by the Old Masters are on display and well-worth the visit. Don't overlook the decorative arts collection, especially room 3 with the amazingly detailed dolls' houses created for Petronella Oortman.

The Van Gogh Museum (Paulus Potterstraat 7) houses the world’s most comprehensive collection of the famed artist’s work.  Light, airy, and spacious, a walk through the exhibit space is invigorating. The museum is one of Amsterdam's most popular.

The centerpiece of any trip to Amsterdam is, of course, a visit to the Anne Frank House (Prinsengracht 67). There is usually a line to enter the museum, so bring something to read and an umbrella, because there is always a chance of rain, even in summer.

Visitors take a self-guided tour through the beautifully preserved house. Moving together in small groups, sharing the small spaces, ducking under the low threshold of the hidden doorway, and climbing the impossibly steep staircases, it is easy to feel the claustrophobia that the Frank and Van Pels families experienced.  
Walking through the house is an emotional experience shared with Anne herself. Her words are etched onto the walls and her diary, with its delicate, precise handwriting, is displayed for all to see.

In an attic section of the annex, portions of a 1967 filmed interview with Otto Frank are projected on the wall.  He talks about reading Anne's diary for the first time after the war and being surprised by her deep thoughts and self-criticism.  The Anne he read in the diary was "quite a different Anne than the one I knew."  From that fact he comes to a realization felt by most parents who have lived far more ordinary lives, "My conclusion is that parents don't know really their children."

Getting around Amsterdam can be confusing at first, especially if you live in a city based on a grid, like New York or Los Angeles. The streets are not laid out in a simple north-south, east-west configuration.  In fact, the streets go every which way.

That's because Amsterdam is organized around the four original, beautifully preserved 17th century canals--Singel, Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinsengracht--that encircle the old city like rings. Starting on the north-western side of Amsterdam, the canals curve south and then circle up to the north-eastern edge of the city.  

All those curving canals mean that the streets running alongside will do some acrobatics themselves. So if someone tells you to meet them on Singelgracht, they could be in the western, southern, or eastern part of the city.

To make matters more confusing for first-time visitors, streets change their names without warning.  In the center of town, even a major thoroughfare like Rokin changes its name to Damrak when it travels through Dam Square.  Imagine if Broadway changed its name when it passed through Times Square.

So if you get lost, don't blame yourself. It's not your fault. What you need is a good map, like the "Cito Plan Amsterdam" (15th edition), a large map that won't fit in your back pocket but shows most of the streets in Amsterdam as well as the stops on the tram (electric streetcar), metro (subway), and bus routes, with an easy to use street index on the back. The map is widely available in department stores, tourism offices, tobacco shops, and gas stations, as well as on line

Restaurants are not cheap in Amsterdam.

Asian food, for example, is priced higher than Americans would expect. Dishes that cost $7.00-10.00 in New York, might cost double in Amsterdam.

In any case, most travelers agree, you don’t visit Amsterdam for the food. The museums, no question. The canals and parks, absolutely. The Red Light District and the "coffee shops," sure, if that's your thing. But the food.  Not so much.

The restaurant food is hit-or-miss. Most dishes are under seasoned, but that doesn't mean you won't eat well.  You'll have good cafe food--great sandwiches, delicious cheese, excellent coffee, and lots of really good breads, rolls, and desserts.

But track down outdoor markets like the Northern Market, New Market , or Albert Cuypmarkt and you’ll find vendors selling the most delicious cheeses, meats, fish, and baked goods.

If you want to eat like a local, you’ll want to try smoked eel and raw herring at the herring shacks that dot the city.  Most visitors eat the lightly pickled herring on a plate, sliced with chopped onions and pickles.  Locals, on the other hand, eat their herring Amsterdam style in which the herring is kept whole.  You bend back your head and lower the fish into mouth as you greedily ingest its sweet flesh.

When you are paying the bill in a restaurant or a cab, don't tip.  The tip is almost always included in the charge. If you liked the service, the polite thing to do is round-up the payment.  Leave €2.00 for instance on a €1.75 bill.

Amsterdam is getting a face lift.   Important public buildings are being renovated, including Centraal Station and the Royal Palace in Dam Square.  Subway construction is very visible in the busy commercial district on Rokin and Damrak.  For the most part you'll only be mildly inconvenienced, although the city isn’t as beautiful as it can be.

Don’t assume that your American credit card will work in Amsterdam.  At high-end restaurants and hotels, your credit card might be honored, but maybe not, so ask before you run up any bills.  When you're walking around town, stopping in cafes, or shopping in small stores, you'll definitely need a pocketful of Euros.

Most American cell phones don't work in the Netherlands.  The ones that do, carry hefty roaming charges.  Unfortunately disposable cell phones aren't readily available, so you might have to get used to living unplugged. Mostly, that's ok, but if you're meeting a friend or family member and you're running late, you won't have a way to connect so it's good to meet at a cafe where if one of you is late, it won't matter.  You'll have a second beer and another plate of bitterballen, a deep-fried, crunchy local taste treat.

Buses, trams, and the subway criss-cross Amsterdam in a very efficient way. Since June 1st, to use the public transportation system, you have to buy a Chip Card (OV-chipkaart) which can be loaded with any amount.

Single rides are expensive (€2.60). If you're only in town for a short amount of time and want to see as much of Amsterdam as possible, an economical way to use the Chip Card is to buy a time period during which you have unlimited rides: 24 hours (€7.00), 48 hours (€11.50), 72 hours (€15.50), up to 120 hours (€23.00). The clock starts the first time you use the card. At Metro stations and on the tram, you will need to use your Chip Card to enter and exit.

Another option for tourists is the I Amsterdam Card which allows for unlimited rides during 24, 48, or 72 hour periods, plus a number of discount coupons to local businesses and access to almost all of the museums (except the Anne Frank House). The cost is considerably higher.

Chip Cards and free copies of the tram, bus, and subway routes can be picked up at the GVB store across from Centraal Station or online and also at the many information kiosks, indicated by signs with an “i”.  

Taxis are plentiful in the old part of the city but expensive. Before the taxi moves a foot, the charge is €7.50 Euros, which makes even the shortest trip cost at least $15.00-20.00, depending on the distance and current exchange rate.

Renting a car is not recommended.

Trying to navigate the narrow, pedestrian and bike clogged streets of Amsterdam is challenging at best and after you arrive at your destination you’ll be confronted by a bigger challenge, parking.

Amsterdam's canals are not only picturesque, they're functional. Canal tours, water taxis and canal buses leave from Centraal Station and offer a unique view of the city. Canal-Bus' Hop on, Hop off Canal Cruise is a good way to see the city and visit major museums like the Hermitage, Rijksmuseum, and Anne Frank House.

Amsterdam is bicycle heaven.

If you rarely bike, you have to try it in Amsterdam.  Bicycling is the best way to see the city.  And because bicyclists have the right of way, you’ll feel greatly empowered as you buzz around the city, zooming in and out of the narrow streets and alleyways.

Bike rentals are widely available.  At Centraal Station where all the trams, buses, subways, ferries, canal tours, and trains stop, there is also a MacBike store (Stationsplein 5), so when you arrive in town, you can pedal away and start your tour of the city.

In a city of 750,000, it is said there are probably that many bicycles and many of them have been stolen at least once. When you rent a bicycle, it would be wise to buy theft insurance and to listen carefully to the instructions about how to double-lock your bike.

While streets may be marked one-way, that only applies to cars and trucks. Bicycles and Vespas, which share the bike path, can go whichever way they want. So when you’re crossing a one-way street, be sure to look both ways.

The Dutch are a generous and polite people, but not when you violate their right of way.

When you’re walking, stay on the sidewalk. If you hear a bell ringing in your left ear, it’s not tinnitus.  Move to the right, a bicycle is about to pass you. If you don't move quickly enough, you're likely to hear the Dutch equivalent of "Are you deaf?" or worse.

If you are riding a bicycle yourself, remember what you learned as a kid.  Don’t stop suddenly and always use arm signals so you won’t cause an accident.

If you’re like most visitors to Amsterdam—myself included—you’ll have one thought at the end of your trip.  You want to come back.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Summertime Fun: U-Pick Blueberries on the 101

For most people, summer means vacation time and, more than likely at least one road trip. We started early this year and took a trip up the coast for a long weekend.

Driving from Los Angeles to Northern California, we usually take the 5.  A boring drive, the 5 is all about getting up the coast as quickly as possible.

This trip we decided to take the 101. A bit slower, but a lot more scenic with the opportunity to interact with the communities along the way.

When I was growing up, my mom’s favorite thing to do when we hit the road was to stop at the roadside stands and buy fruit and vegetables from the local farmers.  What she dearly loved was when we could actually stop at the farm and do the picking ourselves.

One of her favorite places to visit was Cherry Valley, east of Los Angeles, where she would find an orchard that would let us kids climb up the ladders, buckets in hand, and pick and eat as many cherries as we could handle.


Heading up north I remembered those experiences when I saw the signs for Restoration Oaks Ranch's Santa Barbara Blueberry Farm, with its U-Pick option.

Thirty minutes north of Santa Barbara and three miles south of Buellton (home of Anderson's Pea Soup), from May to early August, keep a lookout on the east side of the highway.  There are signs on both sides of the highway but the turn off comes quickly, so be alert, especially on the southbound side where the exit is from the left lane.

Protected from birds by a high wall of netting, the farm grows several varieties of blueberries: Bluecrisp, Emerald, Jewel, Star, Misty, and Sharpblue.  The plants grow in long rows, stretching from the highway back into the hills.

Blueberries grow on low bushes, the fruit gathering in tight clusters on the branch ends.

Walking up and down the rows we passed couples feeding each other berries as if they were on a romantic date.  Then there were the families with kids, who rushed from plant to plant, picking and eating berries, yelling out, "I found the best ones."

For our part, my wife and I approached the task with deliberation. Mostly that meant picking berry by berry, but when we found a perfectly formed cluster, a quick sweep of the branch yielded a handful of berries that clattered satisfyingly into the bucket.

Harvesting blueberries is sweet work. You pick a few and eat a lot as you walk down the rows. We enjoyed them all the more knowing blueberries are healthy and nutritious.

The best berries are plump, firm, and colored a dark shade of blue. Ripe berries are on the top of the plant but also down below, so it's worth the effort to crouch down and check the lower branches.

In addition to all those nice plump, ripe berries, you'll also see ones that are slightly wrinkled.  We had a difference of opinion about those.

My wife didn't care for them, but I did because they have a thick, jammy taste, reminding me of homemade blueberry pie. Because my wife didn't want any wrinkled berries in our bucket, I ate them as I picked.

My wife wandered off in one direction.  I, in another. We walked up and down the rows, enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun and the easy quiet of the rolling hills surrounding the farm.

Walking down the rows, I couldn't get over that there were so many berries!  How could I pass by ripe, perfectly formed blueberries, sweet and luscious and not pick every one in sight?

With a quick grab, I could fill my mouth with great tasting blueberries.  So delicious, so available.

With blueberry stained fingers, I placed yet another handful of berries in my mouth when my wife called out to me.  Actually she called several times before I heard her.  "David," she said, "Come on, you've had enough."

I nodded in agreement but managed to run my hand along another branch and enjoyed a last mouthful of berries before I re-joined her. With our buckets filled, we walked hand-in-hand down the dirt road, stopping at the outdoor sink to wash the blueberry stains off our hands, and then to the shack where we paid for our blueberries.

In 30 minutes my wife and I had filled our buckets.  At $15.00 a bucket (about 2 quarts), the blueberries are a bargain, considering that at farmers' markets small containers cost $3.00-4.00.

At our friends' house that night, we proudly served the berries as the crowning topping to a pineapple-strawberry fruit salad.  The combination was perfection.  Each fruit had a different tartness and sweetness.  Their flavors melded beautifully.

With a large bowl in the refrigerator, everyone in the house made frequent stops to grab a handful.  In no time at all, we had eaten all the blueberries.

With a short growing season and given that it was unlikely we would drive up 101 anytime soon, when we headed back to LA, we left early so we could stop at the blueberry ranch and pick another bucket.

Back home I remembered all those ears of corn, peaches, and cherries, I used to pick with my mom and sister and I was very happy to have a bucket of blueberries in the refrigerator.  What a great way to start the week with a breakfast of fresh blueberries, yogurt, and cereal.

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