How Low[lands] Can You Go? Dutch Treats in the Village

Dutch food always looks so wonderful in paintings. Plump game birds, hunks of cheese, tall glasses of ale and bowls spilling over with flawless fruits are arranged on carpet-covered tables for the delectation of apple-cheeked burghers puffing on clay pipes. But the Calvinists soon took care of all of that, and the murky brown sketches of potatoes in the Van Gogh Museum seem a more appropriate comment on Dutch cuisine today. The culinary high point of my last trip to Amsterdam two years ago was dinner at its most famous restaurant, an expensive tourist trap called the Five Flies (d’Vijff Vlieghen), which is housed in five buildings dating from around the time the Dutch bought Manhattan. The food was so bad (it was months before I could eat sweetbreads again) that at the end of dinner, my husband commented that the restaurant’s name could equally well be its rating.

Now a new Dutch restaurant has opened in the Village. According to the owner, Amsterdam native Inez Bon, it is the first in 350 years, since Peter Stuyvesant’s time. Whether or not this is true, NL (which stands for Netherlands) bears no resemblance to the Five Flies–or the paintings of Jan Steen. There are no lace curtains, low-beamed ceilings, tankards or clay-pipe racks. It’s starkly modern, the work of cutting-edge Dutch designers, done up in blue-and-white tile with concrete tables, orange corduroy banquettes and coat hangers suspended from the ceiling on wire hooks. And it’s tiny, not much bigger than a dining room in an old canal house.

Even though the restaurant is small, the architects built out the kitchen, adding a high, white-tiled counter set with bar stools that takes up virtually the whole space. Diners are packed in along the banquettes on either side, under a long row of white china lamps. The back wall is covered in blue and white tiles which form a tableau that, according to Ms. Bon, has the Queen of Holland’s face hidden in it. The bathrooms are decorated with racks of postcards of windmill scenes and tulip fields; more tulips grace the kitchen countertop, past which you can occasionally spy the tattooed Dutch chef, Roy Wiggers.

One advantage to opening a Dutch restaurant in New York is that no one knows a thing about the cuisine. When I looked up Holland in Jane Grigson’s European Cookery (there was nothing under “Netherlands”), all I could find was “Hollandaise sauce.” Not even a mention of Gouda. But Mr. Wiggers, who was a chef at Stoop in Amsterdam, has set out to reinvent the Dutch kitchen, which, according to Ms. Bon, is undergoing something of a renaissance similar to that in Britain and Ireland. He has made traditional dishes lighter and more delicate and combines Indonesian and Surinam spices and seasonings with Dutch ideas. (In Amsterdam, I was surprised at how little these cuisines have influenced traditional Dutch food, which has remained resolutely bland.) I don’t know whether Mr. Wiggers has spent much time at Gotham Bar and Grill, but the influence of Alfred Portale is unmistakable in the pyramids of food he turns out, piled high and garnished with apple or vegetable chips and infused oils.

In addition to wine, NL offers a good selection of Dutch beers, sweet liqueurs, such as Schelvispekel and Boerenjongens, and Dutch gin, or jenever. There are Dutch cheeses, such as aged Gouda and blue cheese. The menu is quite short, with just half a dozen main courses to choose from. You can begin with a pale mustard soup that is made with chicken stock and cream and has a lemony kick. It goes nicely with the bread, thick white slices with a crust sprinkled with olive oil, herbs, garlic and sea salt.

The Dutch equivalent of a hot dog is kalfskroket, or veal croquette, a popular snack food served in Automats throughout Amsterdam. It’s usually pretty gross, since the puréed meat has the look and consistency of gray paste. But Mr. Wiggers makes his light, crunchy croquettes with top-quality veal filled with truffle oil that spurts out when you spear them with your fork, like the butter in chicken Kiev. They come with a mesclun salad with a balsamic vinaigrette. (He should put them in a little drawer in the wall as a snack for passers-by.) One of my favorite snacks, which I always try to have when I go to Holland or Scandinavia, is fresh herrings. Traditionally, you are supposed to put the fish in your mouth and swallow it whole, followed with a gin chaser. But New Yorkers are probably not quite ready for this, so Mr. Wiggers chops the herring into a tartare and serves it as an elegant disc, topped with apple chips and accompanied by beet salad and a soy-citrus vinaigrette. Rollmops, or herring canapes, are made with tuna instead and stuffed with asparagus, with a remoulade sauce.

Hazenpeper, a traditional hare stew, is presented in a cylinder, the meat shredded and speared with a decorative bone, set on a bed of potato puréed with arugula (based on a Dutch dish of mashed potatoes and vegetables known as stamppot). The stew, flavored with cloves and roasted pear, is one of the best things on the menu.

Tournedos are tender but not very juicy, garnished with chanterelles and a malleable sweet-potato crisp in a pleasantly assertive green-pepper sauce. But tuna, cut into three thin, medium-rare slices, is unexciting, although I like the purple-and-white glazed potatoes that come with it.

The best food I’ve had in Amsterdam is rijsttafel, the Indonesian “rice table” that consists of all sorts of little meat and vegetable dishes, or sambals, served with yellow rice. NL’s rather low-key version consists of a sambal of fried string beans with shrimp, dull chicken satay in peanut sauce, and a spicy beef stew with coconut and sweet-and-sour pickled vegetables. Surinam roti is overly fussy–a muddle in fact: flatbread topped with chicken, curried potatoes, hard-boiled egg, lobster and long beans. I don’t get the point.

NL’s French fries, a pillar of Low[land Country?] cuisine, are uneven. On my first visit they were terrific, thick-cut and crisp–served with mayonnaise, of course. But on my second visit, the oil was rancid and we couldn’t eat them.

Desserts include a dark chocolate soufflé cake with advocaat cream and a crème brûlée made, oddly, with semolina and topped with blueberry sauce. You can also get poffertjes, the famous Dutch fritters, with powdered anise and vanilla butter. Now that we have Dutch cuisine in Manhattan, all we need is for someone to open an Amsterdam-style “coffee shops” where, instead of a skim-milk cappuccino, you can get a nice, fat reefer of Tiajuana Gold.

NL

*

169 Sullivan Street (Houston and Bleecker)

387-8801

Dress: Casual

Noise Level: Fine

Wine List: Short, international and fairly priced

Credit Cards: All major

Price Range: Main courses $18 to $25

Hours: Dinner seven days 6 to 11 p.m.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor