In preparation for my assault on NL, the unlikely new Dutch bistro in Greenwich Village, I called around to various well-traveled food friends, soliciting their thoughts on and reminiscences of Dutch cuisine.
“I once enjoyed a tasty variety of Bitterballen in Curaçao,” said one man, a connoisseur of idiosyncratic dishes like tripe and head cheese.
“They’re meatballs. Curaçao used to be a Dutch colony; they make them out of horse meat.”
Others haltingly recalled dishes like rijsttafel, a mélange of recipes pilfered from colonial Indonesia, and uitsmijter, which is essentially eggs and ham smothered in cheese. My copy of Larousse Gastronomique devotes seven mini-paragraphs to the food of Holland, many of which have to do with cheese. My uncle Frank, an international gastronome, also mentioned cheese when I called, then lapsed into uncharacteristic silence. Five minutes later, the phone rang again. “I looked it up,” he said. “Dutch food doesn’t exist.”
NL stands for Netherlands, of course, and the owner is Ms. Inez Bon, who before immigrating to the West Village was a restaurateur in Amsterdam. Ms. Bon claims hers is the first Dutch restaurant to open for business in Manhattan since Peter Stuyvesant’s time, which may or may not be true. But given the tepid reputation Dutch food has developed over the past three and a half centuries, her new venture is a minor revelation.
The restaurant occupies a matchbox-size space among the storefront shops on Sullivan Street. There are three clunky neon signs above the entrance, but the room looks like it’s been lifted from some clean, modernist precinct of Amsterdam itself. Neat rows of pendant lamps hang from the ceiling, and the walls are covered in mirrors and blue-and-white tiles. You can hang your coat on a minimalist wire hook by the fashion-cultish Dutch design firm Droog, and the unisex bathroom (also by Droog) features a quirky blue tile floor, dreamy ambient music, and a postcard rack stocked with scenes of windmills and tulip bulbs. The waiters are clad in nationalist orange shirts, and the chef, Roy Wiggers (who is from Amsterdam, where he made his reputation at a restaurant called Stoop), works at a snug galley kitchen that is folded, origami-fashion, into the middle of the room.
The menus at NL come neatly packaged, too, on brightly colored plastic clipboards, with helpful tourist translations from the Dutch. Mr. Bitterballen was sad to see no horse meat on the roster but consoled himself with an appetizer of veal croquettes (kalffkroket). The veal was lightly breaded and infused with flavorful deposits of truffle-oil gravy, which seeped out when you squeezed them with your fork. I tackled an equally imposing ball of smoked beef tenderloin (lauwwarme gerootke), wrapped around shreds of lettuce and Old Amsterdam cheese. For light eaters, there were two nondescript soups (a vegetable-noodle “Queens soup” and a pasty mustard soup), plus traditional herring rolls (rollmops), made with tuna instead of herring, and a delicious disc of herring tartare, bound with a delicate soy-citrus vinaigrette and speckled with apple chips.
If this menu sounds a little schizophrenic, that’s because it is. Dutch cuisine is a mix of German and Belgian tastes for ballast, Indonesian recipes for spice, plus a dash of healthful Baltic seafood thrown in. The Dutch, like their British cousins, are usually less comfortable synthesizing these influences than reproducing them all separately in a watered down, generic way. But Wiggers is an internationalist, and he has even tailored his recipes for the New York market by arranging them in little Alfred Portale-style towers. A weirdly subtle mold of risotto was laced with sauerkraut, of all things, and supported by descending layers of sautéed tomatoes, mushrooms, and spinach. My favorite of the entrées was the hazenpeper, a traditional hare stew set upright on a bed of arugula mashed potatoes, with a decorative bone sticking from its top. The meat was finely minced and flavored with cloves and bits of roasted pear, and when you mashed it up, it tasted like a sweet, exotic version of shepherd’s pie.
Some of Wiggers’s creations are less exotic than others. A tower of grilled tuna and vegetables might have been conceived by a Dutchman, but once tipped on its side, it looked suspiciously like something you could rustle up at a decent mall restaurant in New Jersey. My Indonesian Gado Gado salad (iceberg lettuce, with assorted Asian vegetables and peanut sauce) seemed clunky, and the Dutch frites were uninspired both times I tried them, with or without the requisite dipping cup of mayonnaise. Wiggers’s rijsttafel (literally, “rice table”) included a bland chicken satay, yellow rice, and a deliciously tangy variety of curried beef. But a serving of Suriname roti (another colonial amalgam, by way of India and South America) was an odd, too-salty mishmash of chicken, overdone lobster, and curried potatoes.
These little hiccups, however, don’t detract too much from the overall novelty of a good Dutch feed. NL is doing a brisk business these days, and on busy nights, the room resembles the dining quarters of a tightly packed ship. Claustrophobes can console themselves with a nice selection of Dutch beers, or a variety of sweet liqueurs with tongue-twisting names like Schelvispekel and Boerenjongens. The purest of these is a wicked ginlike drink called jenever, which we enjoyed between a reasonably priced bottle of Tuscan Chianti and the restaurant’s selection of chaste, mostly traditional desserts. There’s a basic assortment of Dutch cheeses (aged Gouda and traditional blue cheese) and a platter of fritters (poffertjes) served with drizzles of anise and vanilla butter. There’s also a cloying crème brûlée made with semolina, and a refreshingly chalky caramel parfait on a bed of thinly sliced stewed pears. If these delicacies don’t catch your attention, then just sit for a while at your snug café table and sip a glass of Boerenjongens as the techno music plays softly on the stereo. Who knows? You may not see anything like it for another 350 years.
169 Sullivan Street (212-387-8801). Open seven days, 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. Appetizers, $8 to $15; entrées, $18 to $25. A.E., M.C., V.