Monday, 5 March 2018

Driftwood Vegans Go Dutch

Birthday treats saw us country bumpkins taking the unusual step of booking a city break. This is not our natural environment, but we figured that the vegan hunting and gathering may present a very different experience to what we are used to.  Our chosen destination was Amsterdam.  Scooby had come here 30 years ago on an art college trip (nuff said) and with memories fond but hazy had been curious to return to explore as a discerning adult. Phil was happy to tag along as a willing victim, curious about the seemingly prevalent vegan food options and free-wheeling open minded Dutch attitude.  With a short hop across the Devon border to Exeter, we were on a flight to The Dam.

Our holidays normally revolve around Miles Davis, our camper van, parked up in an isolated spot.  We are creatures of quiet reflection and the biggest party animal we'd encountered on our trips so far had been a wild boar in Portugal.  Therefore finding accommodation in Amsterdam, party capital of Europe, could have been a challenge.  However, we hit on city centre gold.  Situated in the Western Dock (Westerdok) area, a short stroll past resident canal boats to the city centre, we found the Studio Apartment to be astonishingly quiet, warm and comfortable.  The host, Judith de Klerk seemed to have everything covered. Helpful travel suggestions were sent beforehand, keys handed over without fuss and with a strict no smoking policy, environmentally friendly cleaning products in evidence throughout, thoughtful shopping bags provided and suggestions of nearby health food stores, it seems that had delivered more than normally expected. In a secure residential block, the open plan and high ceilinged apartment included a really useful kitchenette and fridge that meant that any bought vegan products could also be explored and cooked up too if necessary; an option not available in a standard hotel room.  Thoughtful supplies of oils, herbs, spices, sugar and teas, along with other staples had also been provided.  Best of all there were no party animals in the room next door or the street outside; an inevitable consequence of most other accommodation options we looked at.  We would thoroughly recommend this accommodation and it really did make our trip to Amsterdam.

After a 4.30am wake up call to catch our early flight we were quite relieved to find our travel from the airport to the accommodation was amazingly easy.  In fact, it has to be said that Amsterdam is a joy to travel to and within.  The public transport system is easy to work out, reliable and cheap.  Judith had also very kindly agreed to let us check in early in order to drop our bags off so the rest of the afternoon was ours to explore. 

The Dutch Weed BurgerWith general amblings around to get the ambiance in the near locale, including a recommended open air market, we then resolved to walk the longer distance and search out our first of one of the recommended vegan food offerings; The Dutch Weed Burger Joint. This had come up consistently as a place to visit on the Vegan Amsterdam Facebook group that we joined prior to our visit.  Before anyone starts putting the words Dutch, Weed, and Joint together and coming up with High, I would like to point out that this establishment deals purely in the weed of the sea variety.  As lovers of seaweed (any coastal dwelling vegan would be amiss not to be), this was our first choice to explore of the many and varied vegan eating options available in Amsterdam.  I went for the Wish 'N Chips which were protein rich soya bean bites fried in chlorella batter served alongside chips, caramelised lime slices and Weed sauce with capers.  Phil went for the Seawharma; grilled seitan flavoured with Dutch seaweed and Arabic spices wrapped in a flat bread with various vegetables, garlic Weed sauce and tahini sauce.  Both were very tasty with my option winning our taste test comparison on this occasion.  

This was certainly food we had not tasted before and for this reason we would recommend a visit.  Our only criticisms were the portions were small and we'd have preferred our drinks before we ate (we had to even remind them that we had ordered drinks when the food order arrived).  The smaller than expected portions however did have a slight advantage in that we had room for dessert.  Phil chose a Strawberry Cheesecake whilst I settled on the interesting looking Tompouce (picture left).  I was told it was a veganised version of a traditional Dutch dessert.  I was sold.  So was Phil who wished he had gone for my option once again.  It was a decadent glory of a vegan cream slice that I would willingly indulge in again and I was far too generous with sharing it with Phil (but it was his birthday trip after all).  The food had gone down very well and the (if not belated) drinks were starting to take effect.  In the fading light outside I was sure I had seen green parrots in the trees.  I'd only had one glass of wine and Phil a very veritable BioZisch Matcha so I did wonder. However, after some window gazing observation, it was confirmed there were indeed green parrots flying around in the trees outside.  Who knew?  We walked home through the icy streets taking a small diversion to visit Ekoplaza, a chain of organic supermarkets in Amsterdam just to see what vegan offerings were around.  Many of the brands were ones already available in the UK but we did find a few different things.

The next day we had hoped to visit another highly recommended vegan restaurant called Mr and Mrs Watson for our evening meal.  However, after looking online we discovered that they were heavily booked with only slots available later than we would have liked to have eaten (after 8.30pm).  They were also closed on Mondays so a trip there tomorrow was out too.  We had a couple of alternatives up our sleeve for later and so proceeded to continue to amble around taking in the sights and sounds, whilst trying to avoid being run over by bicycles. 

We'd been lured to the De Pijp area having read that it was a slightly more alternative area and outside of the more touristy city centre stronghold.  Sunday wasn't a great day to choose though as many things, including the Albert Cuypmarkt there, were closed.  We did however happen upon Veg-out, an Indian vegetarian takeout (with seating inside too) as a candidate for a spot of lunch.  With the lure of masala dosas and vegan lassi, we ventured in.  Unfortunately, there were no dosas on offer and the options were fairly limited today.  In addition we both needed the toilet and Veg-out didn't have such facilities, so we moved on.  Down the road slightly was the large HSB Vegetarian Indian Restaurant, a chain we had not heard of before.  The menu looked really good and we ventured in here too.  However, it was so crowded that, despite the wonderful aroma of Southern Indian cuisine, we turned tail and left.  Along the same road our eye was caught by the words 'healthy, vegan, and pastry'.  The window of Luza's Caffeine Club was adorned with tasty looking cakes.  It looked like a chilled out vibe within too.  We settled into seats, and the attentive and cheerful guys working there soon offered us the vegan choices for today.  We started with a couple of chai lattes made with coconut milk, and for food Phil chose the homely, tasty and warming Broccoli and Celeriac soup whilst I was honoured with being the first to try the new menu option of a  Roasted Vegetable sandwich.  I must admit I had expected just standard roasted vegetables between a couple of slices of bread but what I got far surpassed that. This was an unexpected but beautifully dressed and seasoned combination of aubergine, carrot and cucumber atop a toasted bun.  It was beautiful, simple and tasty.  There were two vegan cake options on offer; a cinnamon cake and a lemon cake (which was more like a cheesecake).  We had to have one of each of course and both were delicious.  We have to say that Luza's Caffeine Club is not an exclusive vegan or even vegetarian establishment but the vegan options they do offer were excellent.  In addition, out of all the places we ate in Amsterdam, Luza's wins hands down on the friendliness of the staff and the welcome we received.  Warmed with full bellies and full smiles, we continued our exploration of Amsterdam's chilly streets.

Amsterdam is well known for its open minded attitude towards cannabis.  It has numerous 'coffee shops' that offer two menus; one for food and drink and one for a selection of herbal smoking materials.  As non smokers these coffee shops offered no attraction within their dark, smoky, and crowded depths.  That said we are still both very much open minded about the benefits of sensible cannabis use and a visit to the Hash, Marijuana and Hemp Museum was a fascinating insight into this amazingly versatile and unfairly demonised plant.  For any non smoking vegans wishing to explore further, head to the light, airy and friendly Greendayz.  Here a healthy lifestyle is encouraged, and sensible, considered advice given.  Alongside tasty smoothies, juices and hot drinks, we noticed vegan hemp ice cream and for the more adventurous, vegan brownies and cookies which offered an edible option for exploring cannabis in its more mentally stimulating form.  Greendayz was the only place that we saw these kind of vegan products on offer, which was surprising for a place such as Amsterdam.  We had heard of a place called Mumu to the Moon that offered 100% vegan chocolate, as well as vegan 'edibles' but sadly we were unable to experience their chocolaty delights as we were not able to catch them when they were open during our visit.

Image may contain: 1 person, textAs early evening approached we settled on a trip to Men Impossible for our evening meal. A fully vegan establishment, Men Impossible offers a set menu including freshly made ramen noodles and soup.  

Despite looking back at the information available about this place and now clearly seeing, we had failed to notice at the time that it was reservation only.  After a short search we found the rather unassuming frontage of Men Impossible and then saw the 'Reservation Only' sign on the door.  Undeterred and with a little bit of staring through the window we went in just to check if this really was the case. Luckily for us (not so much for Men Impossible though), a party that had booked had failed to show up so we secured seats at the one long table.  After initial confusion about how to order we soon had tasty starters in front of us from the lovely Atsushi.  Although fairly proficient chopstick users, luckily they slowed us down a little from engulfing the food at an unacceptable speed.  The same with the main event.  It was all such tasty stuff and perfectly rounded off by a spot of green tea.  Again, and as was the case with the Dutch Weed Burger Joint, we found the portions to be rather small.  Perhaps we are just greedy vegans?!  Regardless, it had been a very tasty experience and one that we had both enjoyed.  With lovely tastes still in our mouths, we strolled through the now darkened streets back to our cosy apartment.

Our last day was a Monday and we found that some of our choices were limited by Monday closing, not something we had expected to happen in a big city.  After a slightly lazy start, partly due to extracting ourselves out of our lovely warm apartment and into the icy air outside, we had a plan for hunting down today's food experiences.  TerraZen was fairly close by and had decent reviews on HappyCow and with the promise of a combination of Caribbean and Japanese tastes, we were keen to give it a go.   We entered and found the room empty until a guy came from behind the counter and said that the chef hadn't arrived yet.  However, she then walked through the door and we ordered from the chalk board by the counter.  We chose the Vegan Plate and the Jamaican Plate and at €16 each we expected a fair amount of food.  Sadly we were disappointed. Some of the food was really quite tasty but the rice was either microwave cooked or (hopefully not) reheated.  The matcha lattes we had were the worst we had ever encountered.  We felt this place had real potential, but with staff seemingly disinterested, we were left to feel neither the food or the ambiance were something we would like to repeat. This was yet another establishment where toilets were unavailable, a fairly incomprehensible thing really for a sit down restaurant!  Upon revisiting HappyCow reviews it seems that since our visit, things have been pretty much as we found it at TerraZen.  Such a shame.  

Still hungry we headed for Vegabond, which is a vegan store and cafe a short hop around the corner.  We had high hopes with the promise of vegan doughnuts, a warm comforting drink and the use of toilets.  Although we are sure that a nice drink might have been available, the lack of toilets or any doughnuts meant we had a quick look around the vegan items available in the inclusive shop before we hot footed it out of there in search of that elusive thing in Amsterdam called a toilet.  We found relief by basically bustling into larger restaurants and either just confidently heading straight for the toilets before anyone had the chance to stop us, or asking if the latter was too boisterous!  Some places charge for the privilege which always 'gets our goat'.  Sorry but finding somewhere to have a wee should be easy and free in our world! 

With our day largely disappointed with vegan food we settled on adding a little culture to the afternoon.  Phil had expressed an interest in visiting the Van Gogh Museum.  A very easy and warm tram ride away, we found ourselves in a long queue in the freezing cold just to buy tickets.  This queue was potentially at least an hour long wait and then once you have tickets, the queue to get in the door didn't look that quick either.  We hadn't expected this but perhaps our country bumpkin naivety was creeping in again.  We decided against queueing in the cold.  We headed back into town, wandered around for a final time before grabbing some supplies, including some beers from a supermarket, and returning to our cosy apartment to cook up our own vegan feast.

We admit to being slightly disappointed in the vegan food options not necessarily in regards to taste but more in terms of portion sizes and price but we are not used to city prices so that might not come as a surprise to others.  We were also surprised by the need to make reservations (at vegan establishments I guess that is a good thing as it shows the popularity) and the closure of some places on Mondays and Tuesdays; something to consider with the timing of your visit.

Another thing to be prewarned about is that many places we visited didn't accept cash.  We took cash with us to use as every time we use our cards abroad we get charged a fee so this was definitely something that had we known beforehand we would have looked into and got a prepaid card of some sort.  One place that did accept cash then refused small coins! Apparently the Dutch government had decided that smaller euro coins would not be used nationwide!  Finally, prepare for having a little search for a toilet when you are out and about and don't assume that the restaurants will have one you can use!

Our short city break in Amsterdam was certainly enjoyable and took us outside of our usual holiday experiences.  The main thing we learnt was that, with a little more research beforehand, we could have had a slightly better experience and that is the main thing we would like to pass on to other visitors to the city.

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