Pass the Dutchie

Joep Habets, currently the most well-known writer from the Netherlands who writes about Dutch food, claims that there is no such thing. "There are no characteristics to Dutch food," Habets explains, because cuisine in the little country with the big seacoast, which has historically specialized in both sending out and receiving international trade, "has always been influenced by the outside world."

Having spent some time in the Netherlands on food/travel assignments, I'd agree that international influences were responsible for both the best meals I had there (rijsttafels and other Indonesian fare, from Holland's old colonial days) and the most annoying (expensive, stuffy faux-French stuff, for which there is no historic reason or excuse). But no characteristic native Dutch food? Nonsense. Why, I once planned a whole northern European trip to coincide with Holland's herring season, in May, so I could sample the onion-garnished raw fish from the street stands specializing in the renowned delicacy. Which turned out to be like eating sushi coated in K-Y Jelly. Slimy? Yowsah.

Holland does have a few signature snacks, however, that, if not haute cuisine, are tasty treats, like erwtensoep, a pea soup thick and hearty enough that one bowl feeds, roughly, Suriname; pannekoeken, pancakes large enough to substitute as spare tires on a Mini Cooper; and broodjes, at their best sandwiches composed of fairly sophisticated fillings like filet Américain (spiced steak tartare) or curried egg on good buttered rolls.

None of these specialties can be found at the Dutch snack bar Pommes & Pane. The "pane" part of the name does indeed mean that one of the classic, laid-back Grove hangout's specialties is sandwiches, but the bread is nothing special and the fillings, though decent quality Boar's Head products, nothing especially Dutch. Closest to authentic, and most highly recommended, is the $4.75 spiced Gouda hoagie. Since the spice is cumin, hot-food phobes can feast without fear -- though since the cheese itself is mild American, those salivating for aged imported Gouda's potency will be disappointed. Get it on whole wheat with everything (mustard, mayo, lettuce, tomato, and -- insist -- onion).

The other half of the place's name refers to pommes de terre, in the form of frites -- which, aficionados agree, the Benelux countries make better than anywhere in the universe due to both a precise two-temperature double-frying that renders the fresh potato sticks perfectly crunchy outside and soft inside, and to the delectable variety of different sauces (like remoulade and garlic aioli) that even the simplest street stand serves for dipping the fries. According to an old menu, Pommes & Pane used to offer many different sauces, too. Now the big $2.50 cone of fries -- which the owner verified were homemade from real potatoes, but tasted no different from standard fast-food frozen fries -- comes with ketchup only. Ask, and you can get a saucer of much more interesting peanut saté sauce as well. The actual saté skewers Pommes used to make have also been discontinued because of lack of demand from the CocoWalk crowd, but Indonesian food fans can saté themselves on nasi goreng (a garnished rice plate) on Wednesday nights for $6.95.

There's no pea soup, but homemade tomato soup ($2.90), full of small bits of tomato plus other vegetables for added interest, is a substantial substitute. And crisp-crusted "Dutchee" croquettes, although expensive at $2 per piece, are both tasty and authentic -- not quite a soup dumpling, but a stew dumpling. To wash it all down, you can get a domestic draft for $1.50, but spend $3 instead to sample something superbly Dutch: a cold Mariner beer.


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