on October 3, 2012
Dinner at the Restaurant de Hoop Op de Swarte Walvis came at the end of an afternoon looking around the Zaanse Schans historic park with 60 colleagues from all over Europe. As strange corporate ‘events’ go, looking at windmills and cheese making beats building rafts but not by too much. Rather than bus us back to our hotel in Zaandam, the organizers had booked us the main dining room at the historic restaurant in the heart of Zaanse Schans.The restaurant’s name is fascinating and translates as something like ‘the restaurant of the hope of the black whale’. There’s no explanation offered but you can’t help but start to imagine what that might mean. Is it the hopes of the whale ("Yum, I hope we have plankton for dinner") or the hope of the fishermen of catching a whale? I don’t know.Our tour had ended at about half past five and dinner was booked for 6 o’clock which is surely unfashionably early even for Holland but meant we didn’t have to hang around too long looking at sheep and grass and little green houses. Some of us found our way to the restaurant early to drink beer and wine in a cosy little sofa filled room on the back of the restaurant whilst others gravitated to sit on the riverside terrace outside.Zaanse Schans is a funny place created with the mission of keeping the local ‘Zaanse’ architecture alive. After the Second World War a building boom kicked in and lots of traditional old buildings were at risk of being flattened by the bull dozers. Instead, many fine examples were brokend down, transported by land or by river, and then rebuilt at Zaanse Schans, ensuring that the old ways could be protected for the future. De Hoop Op de Swarte Walvis occupies three of these old buildings. The kitchen is in an old merchant house, the main restaurant and bar occupy and old orphanage and the bar at the back by the water is in the old ‘skate house’, a building which was used to store the belongings of the fishermen and whalers. Much of the furniture and the fittings – such as stoves and fireplaces – were also rescued from old buildings. Lest you think that we were slumming it with the whaling folk, I also learned that this place is a bit of a favourite with the Dutch royals and has been visited by Queens Julian and Beatrix as well as Prince Prince Willem Alexander and Princess Maxima. Apparently President Gorbachev has also been there. I can only hope they got better food than we did.The room was beautifully laid out with thick table cloths and sparkling cutlery and glasses. We had been given the entire dining area and there were five or six tables set up for us. It looked very pretty and I was optimistic that this might be something quite special. The secretary who had booked the dinner, ran round the room giving each person a label saying ‘vega’ ‘vis’ or ‘vlees’ – vegetarian, fish or meat. I’d have preferred to have fish but got allocated the vegetarian label which I came to quickly regret. The waiting staff circulated with bottles of wine and then brought bread for each table. It wasn’t particularly good bread (and it’s always risky serving bread to 60 people who work for a bakery company) but we had quite a long wait to be served and were glad of the distraction. My starter was the oddest plate of ‘I don’t know what’ that I’ve ever been served. The waitress mentioned something about ‘beets’ as she placed it in front of me then left quickly before I could quiz her deeply. I ate everything on the plate but I would struggle to identify what any of it was actually supposed to be. I spotted what I thought was a cherry tomato – a perfect sphere of bright red so I popped it into my mouth and discovered that it wasn’t. It was a blob of oddly tasting gooey, gelatinous something or other. I can only guess that some clever culinary technique had been used to create this texturally unpleasant ‘thing’. The second of these was bright green and sadly just as odd. There were also two small pieces of what looked like quiche or Spanish omelette which tasted sweet, as did the two pieces of vegetable ‘waffle’. The most bearable and most recognisable bits of the dish were circular pieces of beetroot. There were also some thin crisp wafers made of what I assume was beetroot juice. Whilst the dish may well have illustrated the diversity of what you can do with a root vegetable, it also demonstrated that sometimes ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you should’. The fish and meat eaters had received a delicious (but small) portion of home smoked salmon with prawns and salad. I was seriously jealous.After being subjected to a clever chef’s failed attempt to impress, I was hoping to get a nice main course and I must admit that I did quite like the dish I got but would have preferred it to be less Lilliputian in size. My main course was seriously tiny. The dish consisted of a mushroom filled filo roll, about 1/3 the size of a Gregg’s sausage roll (which obviously I wouldn’t eat but it’s a pretty good size reference) perched on top of a small heap of tagliatelle which in turn was perched on top of some pea puree. Think posh mushy peas. I felt sure there must be a dish of vegetables still to come because the plates of the meat and fish eaters seemed to be similarly sparse. Unfortunately I was wrong and I was a very disappointed diner. I don’t like mushy peas but I was so hungry that I ate everything. The taste was fine but unexciting and the biggest problem was the tiny portion. The meat eaters got a slab of entrecote which one declared diplomatically as ‘not entirely awful’ whilst the zeewolf fish fillet was declared to be bland. The menu translated zeewolf - literally sea wolf - as ‘cat fish’ but I’m not entirely convinced that was right.Normally I skip restaurant puddings but on this occasion I had plenty of tummy space to spare and was happy to see the first big portion of the meal. Again this was an attempt to put lots of different things together without too much consideration for whether they were in harmony. A good sized slab of lemon pie was accompanied by chocolate mouse and a ball of pear sorbet with a poppyseed crisp and a smear of what I assumed to be chocolate on the plate. The menu mentioned blueberry sauce but none was evident. We sympathised with the poor kitchen staff who would have to scrape the ‘skid mark’ smear of chocolate off the plate. The lemon pie was appreciated for its size rather than for any type of delicacy and the chocolate mousse was lovely. I wasn’t hungry enough to eat pear sorbet as it’s a flavour it particularly dislike.Teas and coffees were served and then we headed back to the hotel. I have subsequently learned that the restaurant has a great reputation and is well rated on sites like Tripadvisor so perhaps we were just very unlucky with our group meal. However, when the menu has been greatly simplified to help the kitchen of a well established restaurant, they should be able to offer their best and not just some mysterious and unpleasant dishes that left everyone wondering what was going on. Several of my colleagues who normally eat meat had opted for vegetarian hoping to get what one described as "more veg" and they were all as baffled as me about what they’d been served.Normally if those around me told me their food was excellent, I would make exceptions for the inconvenience caused by me wanting veggie food but on this occasion I didn’t hear anybody rhapsodising about their marvellous food. Fortunately the company had hired a magician to entertain us and ‘Magic Steve’ (yes, I agree that he needs to work on his branding) had performed the magical trick of distracting us from how poor the food was.The restaurant is open daily for lunch and dinner and what you can have at each time on each day seems to be quite complicated. I couldn’t get my head round the information on the website but it did appear that at certain times you can only have the 3-course menu at €35 a head whilst at others, there are other snack options. Dinner is served from 6 pm but drinks are available during the afternoon.
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