“ Address: Nieuwe Rijn 37 / 2312 JG Leiden / Netherlands „
My Dutch friends Ineke, Marit and Theke took me to Leiden for the afternoon and we chose to eat a very early dinner at De Dames Proeverij on a Sunday afternoon. The restaurant stands on the canal-side in the heart of the old town of Leiden. It's situated in an old historic building and it's ever so pretty. The interior is characterised by lots of stripped wood painted in pale dainty colours. The wooden tables are laid with sparkly napkin rings and pretty pale lavender coloured glass candle holders. The napkins are thick, heavy fabric and everything looks fresh and bright. If the waitress had said "Go away, you're too early, come back later" I would not have been surprised but she made no comment at all about the crazy timing and just brought us the menus and asked for a drinks order. We started with some hot drinks to warm us up whilst we looked at the dinner menu.
There are individual dishes on offer but it's pretty clear that the speciality of De Dames is their 'Proeverij' which nobody translated, but I would describe as 'testers' or I've seen restaurant in this country call them 'tasting boards'. De Dames offer three main course proeverij choices - one with meat, one with fish and one with vegetarian dishes. Or for the truly indecisive they'll even make you a mixed meat-fish-veggie option if you prefer. Each option costs Euro18.50.
Of the four of us two are fishitarians and two are strict vegetarians. If the others had all said they wanted vegetarian, then I'd have happily gone along with their choice but when Theke said she fancied the fish, we ordered two fish and two vegetarian meals. Whilst the kitchen was preparing our food, the waitress brought out bread and herb butter and we sipped our drinks. The bread was home made and we had a choice of white rolls or extra-dark rye bread.
If I'd known how much food was to follow I'd not have eaten so much bread. Most of the items on the proeverij were cold so I guess that the kitchen's main job is to assemble the dishes with a limited amount of actual cooking. When the waitress bought our meals to the table my first instinct was that there was no way they would all fit on the table top. If you are familiar with the Chinese restaurant food servers that are often referred to as 'lazy Susans', then these are miniature versions of those rotating tables. Each of us received a round wooden platter set on a smoothly rotating base. After moving glasses and cutlery around, we managed to get all four of the boards squeezed onto the table.
The vegetarians got two strangely disc-like falafels balanced on top of a dish of hummus, a blue cheese salad with pears and pecan nuts, vegetable sushi and a dish of roasted pumpkin and pumpkin seeds topped with goat cheese. Chunks of bread, herb butter and a small dish of olives were also included in their array of dishes. For the fish eaters the display was equally impressive. I had an oblong dish with three smoked salmon rolls with cream cheese filling and a sauce that might have been Hollandaise on top. Actually I guess I can literally call it Hollandaise since that just means 'Dutch'. If you prefer more precision, the on-line menu calls it 'mierikswortelsaus' which leaves me none the wiser. The next dish was two quenelles of smoked mackerel pate with some salad garnish. A small bowl of clams in a spicy sauce and a plate of prawn croquettes made up the other two dishes. Like the vegetarians I got a hunk of dark bread and a white bread roll as well as an oversized dollop of herb butter.
I was a little jealous when I realized that Theke had a bowl of large prawns instead of my salmon rolls, and even more jealous once I tasted the rolls and realised that they weren't very good. My guess would be that I got the last of the batch and that they weren't as fresh as they might have been. I didn't like the cream cheese filling and the dish did nothing to change my conviction that fish and cheese should never be put together. I ate all my olives first, relishing their juicy perfection and then took a little nibble of several of the dishes in order to decide what order to eat them in. For once in my life I resisted the temptation to follow the philosophy of "it all gets mixed up in your tummy" and eat them all together. I started with the clams because they were hot and I thought they might not taste good if they got cold. They were surprisingly tasty and spicy with a mix of coconut, red curry and coriander sauce. I couldn't have identified those elements if I'd not read them on the menu and I'm fairly sure there was quite a lot of chilli in the mix. Next I ate part of the salmon rolls or rather I peeled the salmon off the outside and left the filling. Next I attacked the first blob of mackerel pate which was outstanding. I ate it with my white bread roll and then decided to hang on to the second blob to finish off my meal later. Logically I should have eaten the croquettes earlier but I knew they would still taste good when they were quite cool and I also suspected they would taste great. I was right - the crisp brown outside gave way to a squishy mushy light inside with tasty chunks of prawn. Finally I took what was left of my bread and polished off the last of the mackerel pate. I felt utterly stuffed.
Marit and Ineke swapped bits of their dishes with each other. Ineke got both the pumpkin dishes and I sneaked some of the blue cheese. On reflection I think I would have preferred the vegetarian selection to my fishy one and if I were ever to go again, I think the best request would be a mix of the fish and vegetarian selections. Although the portions of each dish were not overly large, I did feel like we'd eaten a lot by the time we eventually finished.
I'm often pretty rude about Dutch restaurant service, especially in Amsterdam where they'll happily leave you sitting at the table with nothing to eat for an hour or more. At De Dames we were served very slowly but only because we ATE very slowly. We drank the restaurant out of diet coke which I found amazing and I wondered what they were going to do the rest of the evening with the guests who came later. Mind you, we only saw two more diners during our long visit so perhaps it wasn't going to be a problem.
I was astonished that anyone had space for pudding but two of the group were tempted by another proeverij - this time a mix of desserts, whilst I couldn't resist the sound of the tarte tatin and Ineke went for the bavarois. I think the proeverij came with about 4 different desserts and since it cost only 2 euros more than my basic tart, it represented great value for anyone with the physical space to squeeze it all in. I was disappointed by the tarte tatin, which is not unusual for me. I've eaten this dessert in a couple of great French restaurants and have not yet succeeded in finding a version outside France that's been worthy of the name. The biggest disappointment was the base which was made with a very thin layer of shortcut pastry instead of a thick layer of flaky pastry, and the top which was really not caramelised. Actually that's pretty much the whole dish so neither top nor bottom was as it should have been.
We finished off with coffees by which time we'd spent nearly three hours in the restaurant. For once it wasn't due to slow service but to slow eating - much more civilised. I really enjoyed our meal. The waitress was lovely, the food was mostly very good and the surroundings were lovely. My one question mark would be over the strange smell in the corridor by the toilets which didn't come from the toilets but seemed to be a drainy smell. Apparently it's a common Dutch problem in old towns with lots of canals. If you should find yourself in Leiden, this is definitely a restaurant to consider.