“ Address: Binnen Bantammerstraat 5 1011 CH Amsterdam / Telephone: 020 - 32 00 949 / Type: Fine dining „
Since my boss moved back to Germany and her team expanded, we now seem destined to have most of our meetings at the head office on the outskirts of Amsterdam. And if so many of us are flying in and staying over, it's a good excuse for a team dinner. Well, we've got to eat, so why not do it together. The secretary who recommends restaurants didn't book the one I was hoping for because she got confused after I refused to go Indonesian and then thought it applied to all 'foreign' food from further east than Belgium. Hence we ended up with a booking at Restaurant Looks.
We headed into the city centre in my colleague's car, navigating with the sat nav in his car. We knew it was not far from the Central Station and on the edge of the Red Light District. For those queasy about such things, have no fear because you can get there and out again without being exposed to any unwanted 'exposure'. We headed down Prins Hendrikkade which turns into Kromme Wall and then made a sharp turn up the street on which the restaurant stands, Binnen Bantammerstraat. My colleague with the car dropped us on the corner and went off to find somewhere to park and we headed up the narrow street of traditional tall, narrow gabled houses. The street name is written in both Dutch and Chinese and the first sensory impact as you head up the street is the tantalizing smell of spicy food.
We'd booked for six but one colleague had ducked out with a head ache, Joep was off parking the car and just four of us walked in, three from the car and our fourth member arriving on her bicycle and exclaiming that she'd just seen "a man in his pants painting his ceiling". Did we want to go and have a look? No, we didn't. Despite the building being old and rather traditional from the outside, it's very modern once you step through the door. Laid out on multiple levels, everything is very minimalist and stark in look with muted lighting, sharp black tables, some textured tiled walls and some rather odd and not entirely attractive paintings.
We were on the level with the main bar, one half-level up from the open kitchen. We had a table for six next to a door which opened onto a small, pretty internal decked area with trees in pots covered in twinkling fairy lights. It was a warm October evening (how often can we write that?) so we were happy to have the door open until much later in the evening when a distinct smell of 'drains' started to waft in.
The only other table on our level held around twenty smartly dressed young people, mostly men, in suits and ties. We instantly clocked them as trainee lawyers, accountants, bankers or most likely management consultants but most of our money was on consultants and sure enough we turned out to be correct. The Dutch in general just don't do 'suited and booted' and ties are rarer than thermals on a stripper in Amsterdam. They had all been seated before we arrived and were looking at menus. We were offered drinks but not even allowed to see the menus until my colleague Joep reappeared from parking the car, almost half an hour after the rest of us had arrived. Whilst we waited they gave us a basket of very obviously home-made bread and some butter to nibble on - the bread didn't bode well for what was to follow as both the wholemeal and the white were really soggy in the middle.
The menu is small and changes every two weeks. The waiter explained that some items are fixed; they always have oyster, they always have steak and they always have lobster - only on this night they didn't have lobster because the management consultants had ordered the entire stock. This left me with a bit of a challenge and very limited choice. There were very few starters - a dish described as a 'draught board of fish', mackerel with veal, a vegetable terrine, the non existent lobster or 6 oysters. The oysters and lobster are charged at Euro14.50 which I consider rather high for a starter and the others were all Euro9.50 which again is far from cheap. I ordered the 'draught board' though I still have absolutely no idea what it was supposed to be which was described as a combination of salmon and swordfish with fine vegetables and herbs and a red wine vinaigrette. For anyone who doesn't eat fish, the starter list gave only one dish that wasn't fishy - the vegetarian terrine.
Main course choices were a sea perch with risotto, lamb, a 'vegetarian surprise' (generally I find such surprises are seldom good ones), 'surf and turf', lobster or steak. With lobster off the menu, two of those dishes were off with them since the surf and turk had half a lobster and the lobster dish was also not possible. So for me it was to be fish again and I ordered the sea perch.
I generally appreciate the idea of a small menu but I think that Looks has gone a bit too far and a bit too small. I'm happy for my choice to be limited because it makes life easier, but at the prices charged at the restaurant, I'd like to have a bit more say in what I'm going to eat. The fish, lamb and vegetarian dishes were each Euro19.50 with the steak and lobster dishes all carrying a supplement so if you don't want to spend a fortune and you don't like fish, this isn't a great place to choose.
My starter was pleasant but wasn't really what I expected based on the description. I had no idea what 'draught board' meant but I didn't expect fish carpaccio. I like carpaccio (very thinly sliced fish) and it's a Dutch favourite but I had expected something a little more substantial than a plate of fish sliced so thinly you could read a newspaper through it. In the dimmed lighting of the restaurant I couldn't even pick out that there were supposed to be two different types of fish on my plate. The fish was served with finely chopped vegetables and olives and lots of herbs, especially dill which I'm not very fond of. It was nice enough but not very substantial and I felt a little cheated.
My main course was described as 'Skin fried fillet of sea perch with risotto, pickled lemon, sautéed Italian spinach and almond gel'. You could be forgiven for thinking there's a bit too much going on on the plate and I'd agree. Sea perch is not a fish I'd normally choose but it was very pleasant and I got two fillets, one larger, one smaller, and they tasted lightly 'fishy', were firm in texture and obviously very fresh but sadly not particularly memorable. The risotto tasted - how can I put this - 'green'. I couldn't identify which herbs had been used but the impact of them was more on the colour than the actual flavour. The tiny blob of spinach was rather wasted and I have no idea if there even was an 'almond gel' because I certainly didn't taste anything nutty. The plate was nicely presented but the overall impact was rather 'so what'.
With our meals finished we all passed on puddings but ordered hot drinks. Several of us had peppermint tea and it was very nicely presented with half a garden's worth of mint leaves shoved in a glass and topped up with boiling water. One colleague worked out the only way to drink it was to wrap a napkin round the class to protect your fingers. A couple of coffees were also ordered. By this stage of the evening we'd begun to notice the smell of drains wafting into the restaurant which was quite unpleasant and off putting.
The bill for five of us with drinks (wine, water and a few pre dinner drinks) came to a shade over Euro200. None of us had gone for the extra expensive options and a couple had skipped the starter so this seemed to be a fair price for what we'd had, given that we were in the middle of Amsterdam. We were in the restaurant for nearly 3 hours to eat a relatively small amount of food and the presence of the large group of consultants definitely meant the service was really slow. Admittedly we waited half an hour for my colleague to return from parking his car but I still think two courses in two and a half hours is a bit extreme. The décor is pleasant, the staff were lovely, but the absence of too many dishes from the already very small menu meant I probably wouldn't rush back again. Compared to the sublime restaurant Pianeta Terra where the group ate on our previous visit, Restaurant Looks didn't come close to delivering as good an experience despite the prices being quite similar.