According to tripadvisor, Amsterdam is host to 1,793 restaurants. Since my partner and I moved here at the beginning of November, we have visited some but not all of these; NeL, being the only one thus far that we have visited twice, will therefore be the subject of this first Amsterdam restaurant review.
NeL possesses and promulgates – it is the first thing that appears, as a splash page, when you open the restaurant’s website – a brief descriptive motto, saying, ‘Ik wil geen kapsones hebben, maar volgens mij hebben we het mooiste terras van Amsterdam’. This means that, without wanting to be boastful or full of airs in any way, thinks that they have the most beautiful terrace in all of Amsterdam. This may in fact be so. NeL is situated on the Amstelveld, a picturesque square within the canal belt, between Reguliersgracht and Utrechtsestraat, Kerkstraat and Prinsengracht, near to much yet just outside some of Amsterdam’s main tourist areas. The square boasts a boules terrain (that is, a sand pit in which boules may be played); a five-a-side football pitch; a children’s play area; and the restaurant itself is housed adjoining a beautiful 17th Century wooden church, the Amstelkerk. There are trees by the restaurant and along the canals; some of the city’s more curvaceous bridges; and NeL’s terrace sits amidst all of this, within a white wooden fence, with wooden tables and benches, heated, and open all year round.
My partner and I ate at the restaurant first in early October of last year, a month or so before moving to Amsterdam, when visiting the city prior to our move. We hadn’t been to Amsterdam before and were wandering about in the evening, not especially sure where we were or how our location related to the location of our hotel, a little hungry, but nevertheless wandering and quite aimlessly. We came across the square and it looked thoroughly pleasant, and liked NeL’s menu, and it was dry, and so we ate outside on the terrace.
The menu at NeL is international and fairly concise. It seems to change regularly, monthly or bi-monthly, given that I know since early October it has passed through at least three formulations. The dinner menu tends to boast six starters, including a soup and a couple of salads; main courses comprising two fish and two meat options, a vegetarian option, a daily speciality, and always the NeL Burger and NeL Vegaburger (better that than a VegaNeL Burger, which appears cluttered in writing among other flaws); and a standard range of desserts, with crème brûlées and chocolate fondants. The menu is relatively simple, but with some nice combinations and subtle touches, and in my experience very capably cooked. Sandwiches, or ‘broodjes’, along with several salads and pastas, are served until 4pm; there is a bar menu with a charcuterie, and nachos and Indonesian spring rolls alongside typical Dutch snacks like bitterballen and vlammetjes; a kid’s menu; an extensive drink menu; and a smoking menu on top. The prices are reasonable, quite typical for Amsterdam at around €15-20 per main.
The first time we ate there I had orzo pasta with chicken, chorizo and tomatoes, and my partner had a half lobster. My dish was light but entirely satisfying; with the right amount of chorizo so that it was visible in the bowl, present on regular occasions within my mouth, but not domineering; and the orzo pasta, lying as it does between a risotto rice and a larger pasta, was novel, keeping the dish fresh without absorbing all of the other flavours. For dessert, we had a chocolate torte.
Last Saturday evening, we ate at NeL a second time. We had been to the Foam photography museum – whose new exhibitions, following an extensive Diane Arbus retrospective, are mixed; with some interesting and evocative Russian photographs from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries, and an engaging room built around the models of Dutch photographer Jan Hoek; but on the other hand a couple of exhibitions very loosely conceptualised and visually mundane – and were heading later to see The Master at the Tuschinski theatre. NeL lies usefully near both.
This time we ate inside. The atmosphere is relaxed, the décor simple and muted even in its plush reds and greys, there are often families about, but the tables aren’t packed together and it is, all in all, a very comfortable place to sit and to be. Accordingly, the service is casual, perhaps not quick, but well paced and genuinely friendly. Music is performed frequently in one section of the restaurant; on Saturday, they were apparently preparing for an Argentinian band, and were playing old Argentinian music, which was occasionally a little loud but otherwise wonderful. The black bread we were served soon after ordering, along with olive oil and a garlic yoghurt, was excellent. I ate steak with a pea purée, mushrooms, courgettes and amandine potatoes in a blueberry sauce; and my partner ate a deer stew with mashed potatoes and pear. Having tasted both, I can recommend both. The mushrooms in particular were delicious, some of the best mushrooms I have eaten, complemented especially well by the blueberry.