I love Amsterdam: those good-looking, strong-bodied, vibrant, outspoken people, whirling through the streets on sturdy Dutch bikes. Add the sheer lack of cars, and you feel like you’re on a movie set. Our double windows opened out over the canal, which was so remarkable. There is something about gazing over Amsterdam, and the way the sky goes on and on, that really makes you feel connected to the universe. We went expecting to love the herring, and we did, but we also made a couple unexpected culinary discoveries, including one bite that transported me back in time.
The Dylan Hotel on the canal is a wonderful hidden gem off a courtyard in the middle of the 9 Small Streets area, which is in the heart of the Amsterdam canal district. De 9 Straatjes is a lively area peppered with cafes, shops and restaurants snaking around little canals. The Dutch people are refreshingly honest, out there, and will always tell you exactly what’s on their mind. They are what a friend refers to as a strong cup of coffee, but I like a strong cup of coffee. Take for instance the moment we (cool urban Americans) were told at the jeans store that we were wearing our jeans wrong—apparently they wear theirs a bit more baggy. At first taken aback, I then realized they weren’t being mean when they said, “You need a bigger size”—they were just being Dutch.
I’m not typically a pancake or crepe person although my daughter Lucy was born a pancake connoisseur. By the way, when the Dutch say pancake, what they mean is crepe. There is a constant line for the cafe called “Pancakes!” and to me it looked maybe a bit touristy, but I wasn’t going to get in the way of the Dutch pancake dream of my fellow foodie. Or, as we say in my family, I wasn’t going to be a Santa crusher (so named after the kind of person who wants to crush others’ dreams of Santa when they still believe, “Santa crusher” has come to mean anyone who dashes another’s hopes and expectations).
Tolerant of her hopes, I agreed to wait in line with her, and my suspicion could not have been more off-base. What I learned is that you can’t tell a pancake spot by the line out the front door. The typical wait here is 45 minutes…and that’s because all those other patrons knew something I didn’t, which is that the pancakes are amazing…once you get in. The staff transforms the experience and makes it worth the wait (wait? What wait? In truth, the people-watching on this street is beyond extraordinary). What is it about that staff? They are perhaps the most authentically kind and friendly people on the planet—is it because they eat these marvelous crepes? Their genuine goodness affects the entire eating experience. You are immediately brought a warm cafe and a tiny stroopwafel, which is like the calling card of Amsterdam cafes and consists of two waffles with a caramel syrup in the middle: perfect for a snack while you decide what to order.
I chose the gluten free lemon and sugar, and Lucy ordered the Nutella banana. We justified adding a bacon crepe because legitimate pancake research demands trying a savory one too. And my Instagram followers expect no less. It was so delicious that we were stunned into silence. We ate pretty much without speaking. Is it just me, or do you also know that feeling when your food finally arrives in perfect condition, and you have a slight irrational moment of aggressive fear that the people you are with might just ask you to share? “Pancakes!” is the happiest place ever, staffed with people who are authentically bright lights that enhance the delicate sweetness of the fare.
I’ve mentioned that I travel with a list: I have a preconceived notion of what the culinary high points might be, but what I love the most are the unexpected ones. We came back to the Dylan’s beautiful lounge, a seductively quiet oasis, merely in search of a soothing cup of tea and a break from the busy 9th Street District. Our tea was served in delicate China cups and teapots, and alongside were some nondescript cookies that one might have overlooked, especially in light of other treats that have wowed us.
First bite revelation: this unassuming Dutch cookie is the original windmill cookie (I could envision the Nabisco package), the very one that my favorite childhood cookie is based on! It wasn’t just a delicious cookie; it was a delicious moment, unexpectedly transporting me back to childhood but with a wisdom and savory realization that could only come with perspective. It was a crisp, light cookie perfect for dunking and certainly not the kind of cookie you want only one of. I learned they are called Speculaas cookies and are a Dutch spiced cookie originally made for their winter festival, but so popular that they are enjoyed all year. It transcended the packaged windmill cookie from days gone by. Even with the realization that this is where that cookie came from I cannot really pay enough homage to this cookie experience, except to say that when dipped in tea it was a cookie masterpiece. Of course we found a way to access a few more and greedily indulged.
I came to learn the cookies are baked in wooden molds and are the mirror image of what they are baked in. They are decorated with bits of nuts and goodies and look a little like a stained glass window. It was priceless to be at the Dylan Hotel, in that hidden oasis, having a nostalgic experience with that cookie. For that reason, it was both my favorite bite and my favorite night in Amsterdam. It was my childhood and my mother and all things lovely baked into a cookie. It was that rare occasion when a memory is enhanced by a real-time experience. They say you can never go back, but you can…and it can be even better with time.