Friday, August 26, 2011

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Welcome to one of Europe's most progressive, and cosmopolitan  cities. And really "progressive" is the most apt descrition to sum up Amsterdam. As I walked through the city I was always marveling at how efficient everything was, and how modern everything seemed, which seems a curious thought to have considering that the city was settled in the 12th century. But, truly, that is the juxtaposition of Amsterdam, the modern world blended seamlessly into an old world capitol.
One question that I often get asked regarding travels overseas is about the "language barrier". I would answer that by saying not to let it intimidate you. While every place is a little different, most Europeans are familiar with, if not fluent in English. This is especially true in Amsterdam, where the locals, who normally speak Dutch, were always happy to practice up on their English. Most restaurants will also provide an English language menu. So don't let the language barrier dissuade you from visiting this vibrant city, or any country for that matter.
As far as getting around the city goes, Amsterdam is configured in such a way that you can get anywhere you want by public transit, bicycle or by foot. Driving is a pure luxury and frankly not necessary (and it's a bit of a hassle to boot). Also, the city is nicely divided into specific districts, such as an industrial district and commercial district (where tourists have little interest), and the cultural district in the city center, or Centrum, where all of the interesting "city stuff" is located. The parks, museums, fashion district, and nightlife can all be found here. So wherever you stay, it's easy to catch a metro to Centrum, and walk from there.


Amsterdam is famous for it's canals, and while they have always served a utilitarian purpose, they are also the single best way to get a tour of the city. Spend the day hopping on and off of the boats at key spots around the city such as Vondelpark (the city's largest park), or a tour of the Heineken Experience which is much much more than just a beer museum (although in my opinion a museum of beer would be more than enough to guarantee my attendance). The houses that line the canals in this area are absolutely stunning. Two of the oldest are wooden houses which date back to 1528, but the oldest structure in Amsterdam is the Oude Kerk (Old Church) which was consecrated in 1306.
Musiekgebouw aan't IJ
The boats will also take you out onto the River Ij (pronounced eye) where you can stop off at NEMO, the largest science center in the Netherlands, or see a performance at Amsterdam's amazing concert hall, Muziekgebouw aan't IJ which opened it's doors in 2005. Aside from it's concert hall, Muziekgebouw aan't IJ also houses the Bimhuis which is a stage for jazz and improvised music, you can see the Bimhuis in the photo to the left, it is the black box jutting out from the side of the Muziekgebouw aan't IJ.


Rembrandt Square
There are several wonderful museums to explore in Amsterdam, but none compare to the Rijksmuseum, home to a vast collection of art from the Dutch Golden Age, including Masters such as Rembrandt, Vermeer, Frans Hals, and Jan van Goyen. Rembrandt is particularly well represented at the Rijksmuseum (and deservedly so) in particular his masterpiece Night Watch (also titled The Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch). The painting is a massive 11 ft 10 inches x 14 ft 4 in. The Rijksmuseum also houses a spectacular collection of Delftware, the blue and white, tin glazed pottery made in and around the city of Delft in the Netherlands, during the 16th Century. Another must-see museum in Amsterdam is The Van Gogh Museum, dedicated to the post-Impressionist painter. The museum contains the largest collection of Vincent van Gogh works anywhere in the world, and also has drawings, sketches, letters and many works by van Gogh's contemporaries. The museum is set up so that you can follow van Gogh's growth as an artist while explaining the context of the art scene and the city and world that the artist painted.

Rossebuurt, also known as the Red Light District

Virtually every conversation I have in regards to Amsterdam inevitably turns into a Q & A session regarding their legendary nightlife, infamous Red Light District, or progressive policies regarding the Narco-Tourism industry; so lets dispel some rumors, shall we? The Dutch have taken the approach that if you can't stop people from doing it, you might as well give them the means to do it in a safe, and controllable manner as opposed to wasting resources trying to enforce laws that have mixed results at best. Take for example prostitution, the "world's oldest profession". Rather than continue to throw women in prison for selling their own bodies, it made far more sense to give them a place to ply their trade that was safe for the women, and the general public, while minimizing any negative affect on the community. Hence the establishment of  the "Rossebuurt" or red light district, where the girls will entice clients through their crimson lit windows, and pull the curtain shut when they are occupied.
The Rookies Coffeeshop
The same principle applies to the establishment of Amsterdam's famous coffeeshops (the Dutch write it as one word). Dutch policy makers did not see the value in wasting resources punishing it's citizens for recreational drug use and viewed the use of marijuana as more of a public health issue than a criminal one. So in 1976 it amended it's drug laws to include a policy of non-enforcement, meaning that laws against the sale of small amounts of marijuana would not be enforced (contrary to popular belief, it is still illegal to buy and sell small quantities of marijuana, it's just not enforced. All other "hard" drugs likewise remain illegal, and their sale is strictly enforced)
So now that we've covered the logistics of Amsterdam's alternative public policies, I suppose I might as well deal with the questions that my friends always seem to want to know. 1) No, I did not personally sample the fare at the Red Light District (C'mon people, I had my girlfriend with me and, as liberal as she is, there's just some stuff that ain't gonna fly) 2) Did I sample the fare at the Coffeeshops? With regards to the fact that my mother reads this blog, as does my boss. . . you bet your ass I did! (Mom always knew when I was lying and my boss isn't dense enough to believe that I didn't) How could I not, it's freakin' Amsterdam! Our favorite coffeeshop was The Rookies which was very relaxed inside, I felt more like I was ordering a latte than a spliff. 3) How was the quality? The white widow is good, but it's not the kind of quality that you can't find in the States. I recommend spending the cash and getting the Blackberry Kush, or Amnesia Haze, but be careful, they pack a real punch.


Kop Van Jut went from empty upon our arrival to completely full in 10 minutes

Small Talk
Eating in Europe is always a fantastic culinary adventure, with it's bistros, cafes and it's artisan shops, and it's general lack of lifeless chain restaurants, it is always something unexpected. Every morning in Amsterdam, Ursa and I would make the walk from our hotel to Centrum, and more mornings than not we'd stop at the same bistro called Small Talk (left) which had the most fantastic raisin and rum sauce pancakes. But most of the time I ordered the kroket sandwich (see the Home Cooking section below).  We also ate at Kop Van Jut (pictured above) which was a quaint cafe full of more delicious morsels than I could hope to ever indulge myself with. But really, the best way to enjoy eating in Europe is not to seek out specific places and travel to them but to let your travels take you to a place you never knew about. Explore the city, and when you're hungry look around, there's bound to be something wonderful in that little cafe just around the corner.
As both a traveler and a foodie, I try not to view differences as "weird". I try to say that they're interesting, or unique, or eclectic, but in the case of Dutch snacks some of them are, lets face it, weird. Take for example the breakfast staple Broodje Hagelslag which is bread covered with butter and chocolate sprinkles (not dissimilar from the chocolate sprinkles you'd find on a cupcake). Another favorite snack are the Dutch cookies known as stroopwafels, which are caramel or maple syrup pressed between two small cookielike waffels.
One snack that I've developed a serious addiction to is Zoute Drop, or salted licorice. The Dutch, like myself, are licorice fiends (or as they call it drop), and they have the highest per-capita consumption rate of any country in the world (eating about 4 1/2 pounds per person, per year). Licorice is even thought to have medicinal qualities, prompting some Dutch mothers to give their children drop in lieu of other candies, and to offer it as lozenges for sore throats. They have hundreds of kinds of drop, flavoring it with everything from bay leaves to wine and fruit. But by far my favorite is the zoute drop; the saltiness with the strong, barkey flavor is fantastic. For those of you who have a taste for licorice, and I realize that it's something that you'll either love or hate, try Klene Zakkenrollers Zoute Drop, they are nothing short of divine!

Home Cooking

One of the most popular lunch items in the Netherlands is a positively scrumptious deep fried meat paste called Kroketten. It has a wonderful crispy texture on the outside and a delicate, gooey middle. They are eaten either by themselves or cut down the middle and served on a piece of white bread as a kind of open faced sandwich. Either way they are usually accompanied with one of the many varieties of delicious Dutch mustard.


1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
1 cup hot milk
3/4 lbs leftover roast beef
1/2 onion (diced)
1 Tablespoon Thyme
1 Tablespoon Ketjap manis
1 Tablespoon chopped parsley
1 teaspoon pepper

Crumb Coating
2 eggs (beaten)
1/3 cup milk
1 cup flour
2 cups bread crumbs
vegetable oil for frying

Melt butter in saucepan, and add flour to make a light roux. Cook for about 3 minutes until the roux is starting to brown, slowly add in milk. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Pour into a large mixing bowl and allow to cool.

Place roast beef, thyme, ketjap manis, parsley, and pepper into a food processor and blend until smooth. Scrape mixture into mixing bowl with roux and stir in well to make a thick paste. Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours or until chilled.

Roll the Kroket mixture into small logs (should make about 24). Whisk together eggs and milk and set up a prep line of flour, egg mixture, then breadcrumbs. One by one, roll the Kroketten in the flour, then egg/milk, and finally the bread crumbs and set on a plate. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Heat vegetable oil in deep fryer to 350 degrees and, working in batches, fry the Kroketten until golden brown. Serve with Dutch mustard.


Flying Lotus at the Melkweg

What would a trip to Amsterdam be without seeing a techno show, or visiting a jazz club? We went to the multiuse Melkweg to see up and coming electronic artist Flying Lotus (also known as Fly-Lo). As a venue the Melkweg (or Milky Way) is fantastic. The converted milk warehouse now contains a theater, a cinema, a photography exhibition, as well as the live music club. Flying Lotus' music may be recognizable to any of my friends familiar with Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, where his music is used for many of the segues between clips. FlyLo churns out experimental beats that run the gamut between hypnotic and eclectic funk, to jazz fusion, while avoiding sounding too clubby. He has a sound that is smart and thought provoking. Check out his single "...And The World Laughs With You..." which features Radiohead's Thom Yorke.
On another entertaining evening out we saw the very talented improvisational jazz saxophone player Hans Dulfer perform at Cafe Alto. Cafe Alto is a romantic little club in the heart of Amsterdam's city center, and is perfectly suited for a lovely, jazz filled, date night. All the bars and clubs are relatively small, and fill up rather quickly. If you plan on making an evening of the performance I would suggest showing up early for a comfortable table, but the small clubs means that there are a lot of clubs to choose from, so barhopping from one to another to see what suits you best is also highly recommended.
It is also notable that the Dutch government heavily subsidizes the arts, meaning that performing arts such as the opera, symphony, ballet, and theater are all very inexpensive to attend. We attended a ballet performance at Zaantheater which was very good.

Gauw tot ziens iedereen!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Vancouver, British Columbia

I never really knew what to expect when I first visited Vancouver, and I think that's why I ended up loving it so much. I was able to appreciate the city for what it was rather than what I expected it to be. And that's when the city's charm really stood out. Ursa and I made a point to stop and stay for a while as we were driving north from Denver to Anchorage. We were taking our time on the drive, making frequent, prolonged stops in Boise, Portland, and Seattle; so we briefly considered forgoing Vancouver. Thank goodness we didn't. I was immediately awed not only by the beauty of the thoroughly modern metropolis but also by the natural beauty of the area. For anyone traveling to Vancouver I would advise using the public transportation, it is cheap and convenient, and far easier than driving.


Vancouver's Chinatown is a area town that spotlights the city's cultural diversity, and is one of North America's largest historic Chinatowns. Chinese immigrants began settling two streets known as Shanghai Alley and Canton Alley between 1890 and 1920. With it's historic buildings, restaurants and small shops, Chinatown has become one of Vancouver's favorite tourist attractions.
Be sure to visit the Dr. Sun Yat Sen Chinese Garden while in Chinatown. I love Chinese Gardens anyway, but this one is one of the finest that I've seen. There is a masterful balance between the care and precision to which everything is built, groomed and maintained, while still maintaining it's natural garden appearance. It is built upon the harmony of it's four main elements: rock, water, plants and architecture. It is a much needed place of serenity in the heart of a bustling city.
One other interesting Chinatown note is that Vancouver actually has more than one. In recent times a large segment of Vancouver's Chinese-Canadian population has moved to the suburb of Richmond along with many of the Hong Kong and Taiwanese immigrants and the area is now referred to as the Golden Village, which is also well worth visiting.

Gastown is another historic area of Vancouver; in fact, as Vancouver's first downtown core, Gastown is THE historic area. It was named after "Gassy" Jack Deighton, a steamboat captain who arrived in 1867 and opened the city's first saloon. After being incorporated into the city of Vancouver in 1886, Gastown was promptly burnt to the ground by the Great Vancouver Fire that same year, losing all but two of it's buildings. Today Gastown is the hub for visitors and locals alike who come here for the restaurants, nightlife, and boutiques, and in the 70's was referred to a "Haight-Ashbury North".
The famous Gastown Steam Clock is one of the most notable sites in the district. Originally erected over a steam grate to keep the homeless from sleeping next to the  warm grate. The steam mechanism has been recently restored and instead of bells, it's steam whistles chirp the Westminster Chime.

For many visitors to Vancouver, iconic Canada Place will be their first experience. Canada Place is much more than just a port for the cruise ships, it's also a convention center, and Pan Pacific Hotel. Take a walk around the scenic pier for a breathtaking view of the city, and just to the southeast is a little plaza with a equally breathtaking view of Canada Place.

Let's not forget that Vancouver is one of the greatest places on earth for winter sports, and played host to the 2010 Winter Olympics. The skiing at Whistler is legendary, and the neighboring resort community is a vacation unto itself, with plenty of outdoor activities in both summer and winter. Go during the summer months and experience everything from whitewater rafting, to the zipline tours, or their extensive biking trails.


Lots of good eats in Vancouver. Lots of 'em. We took full advantage of Chinatown and hit the ethnic food pretty hard, the Bao Bei is really good, or for sushi try Shabusen, which is easy to find, just a couple blocks up from Canada Place. Another excellent place we ate was The Wicklow Pub, we went there for a late lunch, but after seeing the beautiful view and the wonderful menu, I kind of wished that we'd made it back for dinner. The Wicklow is located in the Olympic Village, overlooking a little marina and with a great view of the city.

Home Cooking
One dish that everyone should associate with the Northwest, Alaska, and the western coast of Canada is Salmon. This is a salmon dish that I found some time ago and has become my favorite way to cook the fish. Try to use a good, fatty salmon filet; the butter will accentuate it's tenderness. Also, be sure not to overcook the salmon, you're looking for about medium/rare.

Salmon with Creamed Leaks and Red Wine Butter

1 Cup red wine
2 shallots (1 roughly chopped, 1 finely chopped)
8 Tbs butter (6 Tbs softened, 2 Tbs cubed)
2 tsp chopped flatleaf parsley
3 medium leeks (white and light green parts only)
1/2 Tbs marjoram
1/2 Tbs thyme
1 tsp crushed fennel seeds
1/3 cup dry vermouth 
2 Cups heavy cream
1 Tbs lemon juice
4 8oz salmon fillets
3 Tbs Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 clove garlic

Combine red wine and roughly chopped shallots in 1 quart sauce pan, bring to a boil over high heat. Boil until reduced to 1 Tablespoon, strain into small bowl and discard shallots and let wine cool. Add chopped parsley and softened butter. Stir with fork until well combined. Roll in plastic wrap and chill until firm. This can be done a day or more in advance.

Heat remaining butter in a 12 inch skillet over medium/high heat, add leeks, marjoram, thyme, fennel, and season with 1/2 tsp salt, and cook, stirring occasionally until slightly wilted (about 2 minutes). Add vermouth and cook until almost all the liquid has evaporated (about 8 minutes). Add cream and lemon juice, cook until leeks are soft and cream has thickened (about 25 minutes). Keep warm and covered over low heat.

Heat oven to 275 degrees. arrange salmon on foil lined baking sheet. In a small bowl add remaining shallots, olive oil and garlic. Rub salmon with shallot mixture, roast salmon until medium rare (about 12 minutes). Cut 4, 1/4 inch slices of red wine butter and let melt slightly in oven.

To serve: spoon some of the leeks onto 4 plates, and place salmon filet on top of each, garnish with parsley.


Sometimes it really is better to be lucky than good, and such was the case when we scored tickets to see punk-pop legends The Offspring playing at Vancouver's Vogue Theater. As expected, the Offspring blistered through a set of classic hits, but sprinkled in some new songs. The highlight was when they went into the wayback machine to pull out "Genocide" off of their Smash album.
Other great music venues to keep an eye on are The Commodore Ballroom, and the city owned Orpheum Theater. And if you see that local punk heros The Japandroids are playing, jump on it! We saw them at Bumbershoot last year and they rocked.