Vuurtoreneiland, September 21—
HOW TO DESCRIBE this most enterprising, courageous, and utterly rewarding restaurant? If you read Dutch you can consult the website http://vuurtoreneiland.nl; otherwise you'll have to take my word for it...
It is set on its own island off the Amsterdam coast, an elegant glass pavilion at the top of a low hill, rather bare of vegetation and built up otherwise only with a single cottage and an extensive but very discreet network of bunkers, for this isle and its twin were Amsterdam's defenses from attack via the Zuider Zee in the old days, before the advent of air warfare rendered them useless.
The ownership and use of the island involve arrangements to complex for me to understand, let alone relate. It is protected wilderness, with city, national, and European Union designations: but in good Dutch reasonableness allowances are made, sought even, for its preservation and maintenance in conjunction with the careful, respectful installation of the restaurant — another project of our friend Sander, whose Restaurant As I have written about here on other occasions. (http://eatingday.blogspot.nl/2013/01/restaurant-as.html ; http://eatingday.blogspot.nl/2016/01/restaurant-as.html)
WE EMBARKED, perhaps forty-five diners, from a quay at the Hotel Lloyd, on an aging, comfortable, nostalgic passenger-ferry that quickly brought the classic film Beat The Devil to mind. The boatswain wore a blue-and-white striped maillot; his white hair was wild above an open, smiling, weathered face. The skipper was in red-and-white stripes. We entered the main cabin and picked up glasses of Corenwijn and our box of amuse-bouches: a plank containing, for the four of us, smoked herring, beef tartare, gherkiins, rye bread and butter.
This we took up to top deck, where we sat and nibbled, talked and laughed, and watched the slow progress of the built-up skyline slide past. The low red wafer of the sun (thanks, Stephen) peeked inscrutably from behind untroubled clouds: we were steaming north, through the main lock dividing IJ and Amstel from the IJsselmeer, ultimately to dock at a small pier on the low island.
Sander took us on a little tour of the bunkers on our way to the pavilion. The work is really quite amazing: begun three years ago, it has now entered a second or perhaps third phase. Where were once barracks and officers' quarters, storerooms and ammunition magazines, kitchens and bars are slowly being installed. You could imagine this being a marvelous retreat, comfortable and even luxurious, yet leaving tthe surface of the island quite natural and pristine.
But we were here for dinner, and proceeded to the pavillion. By now it was nearly dark out, and the double-gabled long rectangle of the completely glassed steel-frame building glowed from within, where tables for two and four were quite busily and happily full.
Our own was a table for five: the chef joined us. And we had a typically enterprisiing, imaginative Sander dinner:
Bread and half-churned butter
Celery root, mussel, lovage, beet, ricotta, grapes
Salt cod, buckthorn, corn
Wild boar, Jerusalem artichoke, palm cabbage, gravy
Pear and chocolate
Let's begin with that "half-churned" butter. Normally butter is churned from fresh cream until the buttermilk is completely separated out: here the process had been interrupted, leaving just enough whey to give the butter a curiously sweet tang and a soft, silky, almost whipped-cream texture.
The celery root-mussel dish was a triumph of counterposed textures, colors, and flavors. I said to Sander that I often find such dishes compromised by the use of too many ingredients: normally six is one too many. Not here; never at his table.
Who knew buckthorn could be eaten? It gentler this version of baccala, soft and silky like the butter, a maritime version of the Venetian baccala mantecata, conversing with its elegant and subtle corn broth.
The boar, from the Hoge Veluwe forest in the Dutch interior, was dense and meaty, comfortable with the equally dense, cabbage-core-like palm and the serious Jerusalem artichoke, given dignity by the subtle, authoritative gravy. (You see: I can and do reach for familiar adjectives now and then.)
Saint-Romain, "Combe Bazin," Domaine de Chassarnay (Cotes d'Or), 2014, light and supple;
Cotes du Roussillon-Villages, Domaine de Rouvre, "Aux Champeilles", 2003, mature, superior, generous and satisfying
And then the boat back, under the half moon, on a fragrant, soft, end-of-summer night, with another glass of Corenwijn. A superb evening.