Tuesday, May 17, 2011

I Could Get Used to This

Eating out in Maastricht (and the Netherlands in general) can be vey expensive, especially with the dollar so bad right now. Which made us all the more appreciative of my parents when they came to town a couple weeks ago, because they insisted on treating us to pretty much every meal. Needless to say, we ate well.

Maastricht is known as a something of a culinary center in this part of the world, with several Michelin-starred restaurants located within minutes of our apartment. However, partly because of the expense and partly because we just couldn't be bothered to get all dressed up for a fancy dinner, we mostly stuck to more casual places, preferably with outdoor seating as long as the weather cooperated. Luckily this city has an abundance of these sorts of places.

Note: Please ignore the grumpy-looking old couple. I don't know them.

A word of caution to any Americans planning on visiting Europe for the first time: eating out here tends to be very different from eating out in the States. Mostly, this comes down to service: it's slow. But not slow in that the servers are inept or uninterested. On the contrary, in many European restaurants the job of waiter/waitress isn't seen as just something to tide you over until you grow up and get a real job; it's a career choice in itself. More times than not, these people know and care about what they are doing, and they care about you enjoying your dinner. Part of that enjoyment is being allowed to relax and take your time, to really appreciate both the food and the atmosphere. You will rarely be waited on immediately after being seated, there will be ample time between courses, and often you are expected to ask for the check only when you are ready for it, i.e. after completing the whole meal and lingering for a while over coffee.

Another thing that takes getting used to is simply sitting down at a super-crowded outdoor cafe without anyone seating you (and seemingly no waiters or hosts even present) and just trusting that someone in the cafe saw you sit and will (eventually) make their way over to your table to take your order. We did this with my parents at lunch their first day here, and I was worried nobody would ever come over (how could they have noticed us with so many full tables?), but Mom and Dad, having experienced something similar last year in Spain, had no such worries.

"Don't worry," they said, and they were right. Eventually a waiter made his way over and we got our lunch. Took a while, but it was nice out and we were right next to a beautiful old church, so who cares?

This attitude toward dining out can come as a shock to Americans (including me) who are used to almost instant service even at nicer places in the States, places where water and bread are sometimes already on the table before you even sit down, and where the bill is plunked down along with dessert. There, fast turnover is what's important, getting customers in and out, and it's what many Americans have come to expect from their restaurant experience.

At first, arriving in the Netherlands, I was antsy and impatient when eating out, wondering what the heck is taking so long for our food to arrive and where everyone disappears to when we just want to pay and leave. I admit I still get fidgety (can't help it, it's my personality), but I have gotten progressively better at just enjoying my meal and taking my time over it, not worrying about how long it's taking and what I have to do afterwards (this is helped if the restaurant offers bread before the meal, as gnawing hunger does not condone patience!) I'm glad I've been able to adapt to the predominant dining attitude, because I was much better able to enjoy our experience at Blind Genger Cafe on Thursday evening.

Since we were wiped out after hiking all over Amsterdam for the past two days, we decided to stick close to home for dinner the night of our return, and this cozy little spot is right down the street from us. It turned out to be a great choice.

The food at Blind Genger is tasty and not too pricey, but the best part was the service. The night we ate there they apparently had some staff missing, and the job of front of house was solely on the shoulders of two old men (who I think run the place) who looked like something out of a Laurel and Hardy sketch: one tall and skinny, the other short and a bit chubby (with really thick round glasses).

Though the cafe didn't seem all that crowded, it must have been for them, because they seemed kind of harried (or maybe they just weren't used to doing all the running and taking orders themselves), with the tall one at one point almost killing himself on the back of my chair while rushing past. They were also incredibly inefficient; it took them forever just to get us menus, and then to explain some of the dishes (there was no English menu available, but they were happy to translate, or try to anyway). The one with the glasses, who introduced himself as Jo, sat down at our table to take our order, and Todd explained that he and I were living right down the street. The man was delighted, but it took us several minutes (and some diagrams on his notepad) before we were able to make him understand where, exactly, our apartment was. Turns out he is good friends with Lily, our landlady, so we could have just used her name, but either way he was delighted to make our acquaintance and to learn that my parents were from New York. He regaled us with the story of his marathon trip to the States years ago (six weeks! With four flights for only $150!), flattered my mom by saying she looked much too young to be my mother, and then finally took our order.

The food, like I said, was excellent, but the way it was delivered to our table was hilarious. The entrees arrived at approximately the same time, but then everything came haphazardly: first some French fries to go with my dad's beef stew (about ten minutes after he got the main course), then bread for the table (possibly; it might have come with one of the dishes, but we all ate it), then a small side salad (not clear whose dinner that came with). Then, after I had already been eating my Nicoise salad for quite a while, I received the oil and vinegar for dressing it. When I asked for ketchup to go with the fries (which I of course pilfered from my dad, all in the name of research), I was presented with a little ramekin of what turned out to be that Indonesian soy sauce I like so much (the name ketcap, does actually sound a bit like "ketchup" in Dutch, to be fair). I used that on my salad in place of the oil and vinegar and was quite satisfied.

We ended up loving this place so much we went back on Sunday night, when it was much quieter. This time we were served by a college student on break, who was very cute and friendly and who Todd enjoyed talking to because she had studied economics in the past (he's a micro-economics professor back in Cali). Things were much calmer  that night, though the taller old man who took our order managed to be just as funny as last time, convincing us to change almost our entire order after he had already written down our original one, so that he had to cross it all out and start again. Todd and I will definitely be going back, especially after we learned about their famous apple cake: my parents ordered a slice to share, and our lovely waitress informed us that in a contest of the best apple tarts in the country, this particular one took 6th place! And it was indeed delicious, nicely spiced, served warm with a big lump of whipped cream. 

So thanks again, mom and dad, for some wonderful meals! We'll certainly miss you!

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