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Amsterdam by Design

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Photo: Paul Bellaart

Assembled in a 17th-century volume titled The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet, Rumphius's collections have been replicated lavishly by the Tropenmuseum in a huge diorama of display cases jammed with chambered nautiluses, sea fans, mottled tortoise shells, stuffed parrots, and blue macaws. What reads today as an accumulation of exotica served didactic uses in earlier times—as the end product of a laborious and protracted 17th-century form of Google search. Yet if the objects in Rumphius's cabinet look forward to the rationalism of the Enlightenment, the collector's rapture in the presence of so much natural abundance signifies a certain awe at the splendors of creation, and a wonder that we seem to have lost.

Yet wonderment may be a common denominator in so much current Dutch design, I thought one night at Club 11, where from a high window I had a heady view across the pewter harbor to the city's irregular yellow-brick gables as the late twilight burnished them to gold. Set on a high floor of the Brutalist Post CS building, where the Stedelijk Museum is temporarily housed, Club 11 is a museum commissary at lunch, a dining outpost until late evening, and after that a nightclub that attracts some of the best DJ's around.

As the hostess, Anna Zee, seated me, I asked about the dining scene in Amsterdam, never a city exactly renowned for its cuisine. "It has become much more about quality than quantity in terms of food and wine," said Zee, a former model. "It's like Amsterdam is finally being recognized."

If it happens that Amsterdam has some distance to go before it can be deemed a culinary destination, I nevertheless ate surprisingly well there: a succulent pork roast at the tiny Blauw aan de Wal, a restaurant in the Red Light District that may be the definition of a hole-in-the-wall; a tartly sauced homemade roast chicken at Sukasari, a dingy but welcoming Indonesian place barely two feet from the tourist hordes of Dam Square; a multicourse Broadway production at the hilariously pretentious and Michelin-starred Café Roux, where the sommelier informed me after I had ordered white wine to accompany my fish entrée that he had consulted the tuna and the tuna preferred red.

But it was at dinner with an old friend in a converted greenhouse set well away from the center of town that I encountered the best example of what one ends up admiring about Amsterdam and things Dutch. The set menu at De Kas offered, among other delicacies, a single seared scallop served atop a folded pillow of braised leeks, an oblong of halibut resting on a purée of fresh spring peas, and a roast baby chicken made fragrant with fresh herbs gathered from the restaurant's garden.

The meal had been assembled from fine basic ingredients, prepared simply and with easy assurance. The wine list was well chosen and unpretentious. The service was not so casual that it shaded into neglect, as at some places I tried, nor so hyperattentive that I felt infantilized. I did not have the sense, as one often does, that the same meal, assembled along the same lines, was being served in a hundred other restaurants around the planet, or even one. (Well, maybe one: Chez Panisse.) As with the best Dutch design and art and architecture, the principle behind De Kas felt surprisingly simple and straightforward: extract the fullest portion of pleasure from the stuff of the season, the place, the day. For a moment I found myself sharing in the conviction, or conceit, understandably held by the locals of my acquaintance, that what is fine in many other places is inevitably somewhat better here.

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