As a frequent traveller, the monotony of visiting city after city can become dreary after some time. Identical skyscrapers, ever-present Starbucks and the same high street brands have robbed many cities of a unique identity. Which is why a visit to Amsterdam, capital of the Netherlands, is always a breath of fresh air. Its bisecting canals, lined with stately, compact houses, are a splendid way to while away some hours. Beyond the next corner, you may find a shop selling curious antiques, local cheeses, or even a cellar stocking ancient wines.
A recent trip yielded another unique Dutch concept – getting high. High Wine that is, a variation on the high tea concept. The brainchild of chef Dennis Kuipers, High Wine is a tasting of four amuse-style dishes paired with four different wines served from 3 – 6 p.m. Michelin-starred Kuipers is the executive chef of The Dylan Amsterdam, a boutique hotel that is part of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World. The hotel’s history stretches back to 1618, when it was a wooden theatre called the “Duytsche Academie”. In an era when church authorities considered the practice of theatrical arts to be immoral, most of the academy’s profits were donated to orphanages in an attempt to mollify their affronted sensibilities. I wonder what those authorities would make of Amsterdam’s famed Red Light District now.
The High Wine menu changes around six times a year based on the seasonal availability of ingredients, so it’s likely that you will find something new each time you visit. There are also menus for special occasions such as Valentine’s Day last month which featured six wines (instead of the usual four) and a heart-shaped cheese paired with a Vereinigte Hospitien Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Auslese Riesling from the 2012 vintage. Wines are selected by in-house sommelier Gosse Hollander, and after that chef Kuipers creates the menu around the flavours of the wines. I have spoken to several food and wine experts and there seems to be a common agreement that wine pairings work best when the chef tailors the menu to match the wines rather than the other way around. An oft-quoted reason is that there are many ways to vary the flavours of a dish, while wine is fairly immutable once bottled.
Chef Kuipers specialises in modern French cuisine with an emphasis on light vinaigrettes and fish instead of heavy sauces. This was apparent in the first dish, a lightly smoked halibut with grapefruit, cucumber and Vadouvan mayonnaise. Paired with a similarly ethereal Domaine Octavie Sauvignon Blanc 2012 from Touraine, it was a combination that whetted one’s appetite for subsequent dishes. There seemed to be a carefully planned flow to the sequence of dishes; the next course also featured fish – sautéed gurnard with zucchini, fennel and piperade sauce – but here the firmness of the fish and its sweet taste produced bolder flavours that stood up well to an oak-influenced Milton Park Eden Valley Chardonnay 2012.
The bite sized portions meant that I still had plenty of room for the meat course, a veal sirloin with mushroom risotto, green asparagus and tomato, and sauce of Savora mustard. This was a real symphony of flavours; tender, milky veal, a hint of earthiness from the mushroom risotto, and nutty, vegetal accents from the asparagus. The wine selection was an exuberant Vignerons du Sommiérois “Les Romanes” Coteaux du Languedoc 2012 made from a blend of Syrah and Grenache. Rustic and uncomplicated, this pairing was comfort food for Amsterdam’s cold winter months. A dessert of banana-nut cake with black pepper ice cream, served alongside a glass of René Favre & Fils Sauvignon Blanc Moelleux 2010 from Switzerland, ended the meal with a flourish. The wine added notes of stewed pineapple and sugar cane to the already delicious dessert.
What put a nice touch on dining at The Dylan was its great team of service professionals, who could describe each course and wine down to its smallest detail and were friendly without being intrusive. The selection of wines was food-friendly and complemented rather than competed with each dish (no high-alcohol fruit bombs here!). High Wine is a simple concept, yet the ambience, level of service and quality of cooking elevate it to a unique treat for the senses. My fingers are crossed that restaurants in Singapore will take note of this idea and bring it to our shores. Could there be a better way of spending a relaxing afternoon?