~Singing for their Supper~
Our boss keeps saying she'll arrange a nice night out for us in Amsterdam when we have our monthly meetings but somehow she never gets round to it. There was going to be a Segway tour but one of the team was pregnant and seemed unlikely to be able to balance. Then a walking tour but it looked like it would rain and the boat trip got shelved for some other random reason. We'd all just decided that it wasn't going to happen and we'd stick to the good old fashioned 'go out and eat and drink' approach. But Kerstin had reckoned without the determination of her secretary, a tenacious Russian lady by the name of Marianna. She made it her mission to arrange something 'special' for our monthly get together and 'Pasta e Basta' was her idea.
I've often read in novels about Americans going to 'dinner theatre'. 'Pasta e Basta' would be the singing equivalent - a sort of 'dinner singing' event. The good news is that you don't have to sing - and in my case that's very good news. The bad news is that your waiter or waitress and all the other staff will burst into song at various points in the evening. Some cultures might think this is delightful but my very British sense of restraint leaves me cringing with embarrassment when people - especially those with 'stage school' voices - burst into song when I'm just trying to quietly eat my dinner.
Clearly a lot of people do love the idea of combining dinner and a performance because when we arrived about an hour and a half later than we were supposed to (Marianna booked for German time - 6.30 start - we turned up Dutch time 90 minutes later) the place was absolutely packed. The walls are covered in framed photographs of famous folk who've dropped by for pasta and performance - Sting and Tina Turner rub shoulders (well their photos do) in the entrance, Pavarotti and Bocelli add a bit of classical class but we found ourselves in a corner with a photo of Bon Jovi. I think it's fair to say the famous guests are drawn from a wide range of genres.
The restaurant website describes the dining area as looking like an 'over decorated Italian Cantina' and that's a pretty fair description. It's very over decorated with almost every inch of wall space covered in something. There are posters, photographs, screens for watching the performance, and the tables are arranged with upholstered banquette benches down one side and simple chairs facing them. This means in the main restaurant area, there's a central aisle for the performers to strut up and down when they're singing. I suspect our late arrival consigned us to a smaller side area with a handful of smaller tables. We were in a corner so three of us were on the banquettes and the other two on proper chairs. We were close to the bar but a bit further from the main performance area which left me optimistic that we might be more able to ignore it. I was wrong - we were right under the biggest, loudest speaker in the restaurant. Every time the singing started, conversation was pretty much impossible.
Our table consisted of two small square tables pushed together. For five people it was a bit of a squeeze with three on one table and two on the other. Our waiter arrived very quickly and declared without a touch of irony and with perfect American-style delivery "Hi, I'm Max and I'm going to be your waiter this evening". Max was a cutie so he could get away with the cheesy lines and the smiling constantly like he wanted to show off a good set of teeth. This might all seem a bit unworthy of comment but we were in Amsterdam, the world capital of indifferent service, the home of the 'Hey, just because I'm your waiter, don't think that means I'm actually going to put myself out in any way for you' attitude. None of that mattered - he 'had us' at "Hi I'm Max' and that was the end of the matter.
Two of the group had disappeared to try to work out how to buy a parking ticket. We'd been ridiculously lucky in finding a space really close to the restaurant. Since it's in the centre of the city on a tiny road just between the Herengracht and the Keizergracht, I was surprised we got somewhere so easily but not so surprised to find that the parking was 15 Euros for just 3 hours. Whilst they were gone Max started charming us. Would we like a drink whilst we waited for the others? - we nodded like happy little doggies on a car's parcel shelf and asked what he suggested. Did we like wine? He could recommend some good ones. My boss was a tad disappointed as she'd been hoping to be schmoozed into something exotic and cocktail-y but wine would do. He brought over a wine list and told us that he suggested the house white and the second listed under the reds. I was quite impressed that he didn't attempt to push us towards more expensive wines as I think Kerstin (the boss) would have accepted anything he suggested.
~Choice - sometimes it's over-rated~
The rest of the group arrived and fortunately we had time to look at the menus and be told how the system worked before the singing started - but only just. The menus are delivered in old music books - so you're handed a heavy book full of scores but with just a page tucked into the front with the list of dishes. Don't go to 'Pasta e Basta' looking for culinary genius as you'll not find it. The choices are very simple and designed to free up enough time for the staff to sing rather than fussing about over complicated dishes.
There's a buffet starter which apparently is served out of a grand piano - I kid you not. But Max explained that for groups of five or more, the kitchen makes up a selection and you don't have to go and choose and that might be a good thing as they were about to start hollering. We'd seen these mixed starter plates on all the other tables so we were more than happy to say yes. The only task that remained was to choose our main course pasta (or risotto) from a list of eleven. The system is that you get as much anti pasti from the buffet (or the mixed plates) as you can eat followed by a pasta dish for a total of Euro37 which is currently a shade under £30. It's not cheap and you're paying a lot for the experience but at the same time most restaurants in central Amsterdam offer few bargains.
The pasta choices (cue Max saying "well, there's a risotto but that's kinda like sort of a bit like pasta" - groan) included a couple of filled pastas, two types of lasagne - one meat, one a low carb vegetable version - and several spaghetti - penne - pappardelle type options. I noticed that there didn't seem to be the option of asking to switch the pastas and have different sauces. I guess they are trying to keep it simple. I ordered a spaghetti with snow crab, tomato and a bit of chilli (but not so much that you'd actually notice) and Kerstin went for the same. Two colleagues each chose a different lasagne and the final chose a vegetarian risotto with asparagus.
~You only sing when you're winning~
A voice came over the speaker - we were about to get our first performance. Introduced first in English and then in Dutch, the first singer got started with a song originally by Freddie Mercury (though none of us recognised it). It was pretty cheesy and very loud. There was no way for conversation to continue without shouting. When she finished singing we got back to business and the starter plates arrived.
Each of our two tables had one of those metal frames that looks like a naked lampshade; the sort of thing that French seafood restaurants use to serve fruits de mer. At 'Pasta e Basta', the aim seemed to be to attempt to disguise that the tables were much too small. One plate was vitello tonnata (forgive the spelling - it's a veal dish so I'd never bother to learn what it's called as the very thought of baby cow meat turns my tummy). The three meat eaters did well as Dominique and I turned our attention to the other plate. This was a large serving dish, about the size of one on which you might serve the Christmas turkey and it was stuffed with goodies. Roasted vegetables - potatoes, courgette, aubergine etc - at one end, some fabulous pasta salad in the middle with lots of rocket, marinated mushrooms, and at the far end, some mussels in their shells. It was easily enough for more than 5 people and we left quite a lot of it. The roast veg and the mushrooms were delicious, the mussels a bit too small.
The next singer was ready to start belting out something cheesy the started describing what was coming next and we all tried to guess. It wasn't too hard - "Next up, a song by the Carpenters" - well that's OBVIOUSLY going to be "Why to birds suddenly appear". I don't remember everything but I do recall that most of the choices were pretty predictable although towards the end of the evening a belting version of "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" did make me smile. We did ask fairly early on if it would be possible for the speaker to be turned down a bit but apparently the waitress couldn't get to the volume control whilst someone was singing. A couple of times she popped back having turned it down by a hair's breadth asking if it was better and we looked as cheery as we could as we shook our heads. The most annoying bit was when someone - thankfully this time without a microphone - had a go at Bizet's Carmen and we got asked (admittedly politely) to stop talking whilst she was singing. I resisted the urge to ask them to stop singing whilst we were talking because the staff were just SO nice.
Our main courses were disappointing. The lasagnes both looked pretty good and were polished off thoroughly, but Dominique's risotto was tasteless and had the texture of lumpy wallpaper paste. My spaghetti was uninspiring. Yes, there was a lot of crab which I appreciated, but the seasoning was very poor. If there was chilli, then it was hiding and a fair bit of salt and pepper was needed to give it a fighting chance. We were not offered spoons, which wasn't a problem as the two of us with spaghetti dishes were quite capable of a good twiddle.
The portions of pasta were large enough to leave nobody in the mood for puddings although my choice of peppermint tea lead to three others deciding they'd give that a go too. The stems of mint that were used were - in my opinion - a bit too coarse and probably should have been picked before the stems got quite so tough, but that's just me being extra picky. The small squares of chocolate helped compensate and we each got a small tub of honey to sweeten the tea.
Unless I'm much mistaken, the phrase 'Basta Basta' means something like 'Enough Enough' or simply STOP! and that was pretty much how I was feeling by the end of the meal.
The bill for the five of us came to around 270 Euros which was probably about right. With the menu at 37 each and two bottles of wine plus several bottles of water, I'd have guessed it would be about that amount. Whilst the starters were great, the mains were disappointing and uninspired. I guess when most of your staff are focused on their performances rather than the food, it's quite inevitable. On the plus side, this restaurant had far and away the best service and friendliest waiting staff I've come across in Amsterdam (and I've eaten in LOTS of Dutch restaurants) and there was a real buzz about the place. Would I go back? Not by choice but only because I like a nice quiet eating environment. I won't even go to Pizza Express any more because it's too annoyingly noisy and that's without any music or anyone singing at you. But if you like that kind of thing, it's well worth consideration.
Pasta e Basta
Nieuwe Spiegelstraat 8
1017 DE Amsterdam, The Netherlands
(Oppositie the Rijksmuseum)
tel: 0031(0)20 422 2222 of 020 422 2226 fax: 0031 (0)20 422 2231