Marius: The Best Restaurant in Amsterdam (LONG)
First let me say that obviously this review is based entirely upon my own opinion. However, as someone who grew up in the Bay Area and has been surrounded by great food all her life, I think it’s a pretty valid opinion.
Marius was my last dinner in Amsterdam – I’d previously had a great dinner at De Kas, a pretty good one at Tempo Doeloe, and a decent one at Envy (the scene was better than the food). Marius was actually a bit of a gamble; The Dylan concierge, taxi drivers, and tour guides had all never even heard of it. I’d found Marius on a random NYC food blog and after learning that the chef was an ex-Chez Panisse guy and reading a good review on specialbite.com, I decided that I had to go.
The restaurant was tiny, cutely decorated in a Provincial French countryside way, and not too busy for a Saturday night. There were only 3 staff members (the chef, waitress, and sous-chef) and they all buzzed about helping in the kitchen and talking with the diners. We were seated “outside” under a green-house ceiling of sorts, surrounded by greenery, and lit only by candle light. The best part of the setting was the little shuttered window through which we could watch Kaas (the chef) work his magic and occasionally lean out to joke with the dinners (many of whom he seemed to know well) and check on how their meals were progressing.
After we sat down we were quickly offered the special aperitif of the night, a special wine (that almost taste like vermouth) served with lemon and ice. Upon receiving our drinks we were also given a country-loaf of amazing hearty, yet light bread that I couldn’t stop eating (so much for diets...), huge flavorful green olives, and marinated peppers. I was consumed with devouring the bread and butter that I nearly forgot about the rest of dinner – although at the time I wasn’t aware how excited I should have been getting.
The menu was a semi-set four course meal composed of whatever the freshest ingredients Kaas could find that morning. There were plenty of substitutes listed on the side if you weren’t in love with his choices and Kaas (who comes out to explain the menu and to chat from time to time) let us know that he would be more than happy to accommodate for vegetarians, allergies, and any particular preferences. Lucky for me, I thought the menu sounded amazing just as it was and we decided to have all the suggested courses with their wine pairings.
The first course was a small fillet of sea wolf (a fish I’d never had before) over eggplant purée, a grilled prawn, and a raw zucchini side salad. The fish was unbelievable, it was somewhat like bass or halibut but more delicate and prepared so that it was moist and flakey with a delicious, slightly crispy top. While I didn’t feel that the shrimp was a necessary edition to the course (I’m usually not a fan of having more than one type of fish or meat on my plate), it was quite good and, unlike the shrimp I’d had a couple of nights before at Tempo Doeloe, not overcooked at all. The eggplant puree went beautifully with the fish, but I was also glad to have the fresh zucchini salad as an additional vegetable because it gave the course some necessary crunch. Overall Kaas was off to a great start – everything was light, delicious, and expertly seasoned in a way that allowed the flavors of the high quality ingredients to shine through. I could easily see the Chez Panisse influence!
While the man at the table adjacent to us joked with Kaas that he was “cooking American tonight” - the second course of handmade pigeon ravioli reminded me of the fact that I was in Europe. For some reason I rarely see Pigeon on menus in the states, and I have no idea why when it can taste as amazing as it did in the ravioli. The slightly gamey pigeon was enveloped in fresh, thin ravioli that were then placed in a rich broth of pigeon jus, onions, and cauliflower. The portion was nicely sized (I had been worried about running out of room with a four course meal and all that bread), and the raviolis almost seemed to melt away in my mouth. After devouring the pasta, I couldn’t help but to soak up all of the broth with the remaining pieces of bread.
The final savory course was venison (my favorite meat) prepared with a small mix of roasted vegetables. We were never asked how we wanted our meat cooked, but the venison was exactly how I like it – medium rare with a pink inside and juicy through out. My theory is that anyone who complains that venison is tough or too gamey has just not ever had it done well. As with the pigeon, I would definitely send anyone who needed to be educated on how amazing this meat can be to Marius. Furthermore, the roasted carrots and potatoes on the side of the venison were so good that I almost asked if I could have another portion on the side. Seeing how we still hadn’t had dinner and how I still wanted to fit into my jeans tomorrow, I wisely restrained myself.
We were starting to feel pretty full by the end of the third course so we passed on the cheese course and decided to share a dessert. There were two options for dessert – a flourless chocolate cake and an almond apricot tart with homemade vanilla ice cream. Since I can never seem to pass up fruit desserts, I successfully argued for us to order the tart. However, debating ended up being a waste of time because Kaas graciously sent us out a slice of his chocolate cake as well. Both desserts were phenomenal and I was thoroughly impressed that Kaas could turn out pastry just as amazing as his savory courses. The tart was a textural medley of crisp, flakey pastry, soft almost paste, and sweet juicy apricots that were lightly caramelized on top. I was also so thankful that he had brought us a slice of the chocolate cake. The chocolate was obviously very high quality because even with out the addition of any spices, the cake was deeply and complexly flavored. It made me wonder how in the world he could make a standard flourless chocolate cake into a unique, special dessert. And of course, the vanilla ice cream complimented everything beautifully as it generally does. Obviously, dessert did not put my admission into the clean plate club in jeopardy!
In my experience dinners in Amsterdam move at a very leisurely pace, and Marius was no exception. The difference at Marius though was that I never wanted the meal to end. The atmosphere was warm and magical; everyone seemed happy, friendly, and cheerful. And simply put: the food was incredible! I’ve eaten more than my fair share of amazing food and frequented a number of great spots across the world- from small Cafés on the coast of Turkey, to three stars in France and Italy, to taco trucks in Oakland, California. I’ve even spent a brief 5 weeks interning as an assistant pastry chef at Chez Panisse. After all those very different experiences I don’t like to try and choose favorites, but if pressured, I just might have to say that my dinner at Marius was the best meal I have ever had.
I’ll definitely be back to Amsterdam, if only to return to Marius! I hope anyone else who is fortunate enough to visit has as wonderful an experience as I had!
For pictures please see my blog (sorry about the weird flash!): http://savorymorsels.blogspot.com/200...
Not that Hungryfina's detailed write-up would need any further explanation...
Thought I would point out this nice write-up of Marius that just appeared in the NYTimes: http://travel.nytimes.com/2009/05/24/travel/24bites.html?src=twt&twt=nytimesdining
Marius is still great in 2009. And the place is so small and genuine that I am not afraid that recent coverage would ruin the magic.
Probably saw you there on Saturday, which of the big groups was you?
Marius is a great place for a number of reasons, but to characterize it as "best" brings us into a pretty complex area of defining the use of that word. The atmosphere in the place was very nice (even though there were two large groups present and the level of noice was extremely high), the level of thge service was very good (impressive, with one waitress), both the wine list and the wines chosen as housewines were very good, and the food was also very good. It is clear that a lot of thought, love and devotion has gone into everything related to the restaurant, and that the whole idea also functions well operationally. However, it is essentially a very, very good neighbourhood bistro, and should get all the credit for being so. I would personally be very careful about suggesting that people should go far out of their way to eat there (this will, of course, also make it easier for me to get a table the next time...............)
One slight correction: the chef's name is Kees, not "Kaas" (which is Dutch for "cheese"). I've eaten at Marius more than once; in fact I'm eating there this Saturday. There's no other like it in my experience: one chef in control of the whole thing, and a man with heart and brains into the bargain. There should be a restaurant like this in every neighborhood and perhaps one day there will be.
With the wine pairings (which they poured liberaly and kept refilling our glasses) for two people it was 100 euros total (or less, I didn't pay and I can't remember exactly) - so not cheap but not too much. I'm having drinks tomorrow with friends who just got back from amsterdam, so hopefully I'll be able to give you a more exact answer after talking to them!