San Sebastian Day/Night 2 – Modern Basque

According to my various weather apps, today would be pretty much the last nice day of my time in San Sebastian. Therefore, a drive through the Basque countryside to a spot that I was told featured the best bargain for a great set meal in the area sounded like a good plan. I hopped in the Black Stallion and navigated my way through the winding roads to the small town of Irun, very close to the French border.  I got a bit lost trying to find the restaurant as I wasn’t expecting it to be in a huge industrial center, tucked away in the corner.

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Inigio Lavado, named after the chef, who cut his teeth in kitchens such as El Bulli, Arzak and Alaine Ducasse, featured a modern take on classic Basque fare. There were 2 options for the set menus but I decided to go with the cheaper one at 25 Euros – 4 courses.

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The first course was an emulsion of potatoes and eggs with wild mushrooms. Basically creamy mashed potatoes with a yolk and some excellent earthy mushrooms. A great way to start. Since I was driving, I opted for just a single glass of Albarino, which was at the perfect chilled temperature.

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The next one for me was the star of the show.  It was listed as a cream of pumpkin soup but turned out to also feature some slow roasted beef cheeks that was in large chunks throughout. This led to a fascinating mix of texture and taste with the velvet smooth pumpkin soup combined with the smoky, salty beef goodness. A top 5 soup all time for me.

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After that, I was glad I had selected the fish option – grilled salmon with a lime cream sauce. The salmon was perfectly good and the slightly acidic sauce paired nicely with it. I particularly enjoyed the salmon skin, which had been made into essentially a chip placed on the side.

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For the final course, a classic that never goes out of style – creme brulee. This was an exceptional version that I eagerly ate every last bite. The total bill was 27 Euros, a complete steal and very much worth the drive.

I drove back through a different route through the valley, which was full of fall colors. No pics alas since there was nowhere to pull over and driving a stick makes a quick snap almost impossible. I had to run a couple of quick errands back in town and afterwards, decided to take a quick walk down the beach area called La Concha.

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I headed back to the hotel to do some work (hey these good meals don’t pay for themselves – or sadly via this blog) and after a couple of hours got back into the Black Stallion for my destination of the evening – The Basque Culinary Center.

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I had stumbled across this place during my research and lucked out in that their monthly “Showcooking” class happened to be tonight. For 2 hours, I would watch their teachers assistants prepare 3 courses which I’d then be able to eat along with matching wines.

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We were led to the bottom level of the center into their food lab where the event would take place. I had been warned in advance that it would all be in Spanish, which I was fine with but it turned out one of the TA, Reinholdt, also spoke English. The theme was root vegetables and soon they started on the first course – pickled beet salad with a yellow pepper mayo.

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I was pleasantly surprised how I was able to keep up with the presentations although I did have to look up – remolacha – which turned out to be a key ingredient – beet. The mayo had already been made but the 2 TAs assembled the other components, explaining how they were prepared along the way.

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I’m not a huge spicy pickle fan so this dish wasn’t my favorite but the mayo – which didn’t have any eggs – was quite good and yelped combat sone of the heat.

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The main course was roasted beets (red and golden) with a kimchi salsa. This time they actually cooked everything in front of us.

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I love roasted beets (especially golden ones) so this was a real winner. The kimchi salsa added some nice heat to the dish and overall a very satisfying main course.

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For dessert, they featured a carrot ice cream with a honey tulle and yoghurt cream. This obviously was mostly premade although they demonstrated how they did the tulle as well as showed off the canister they used to aerate the yoghurt. The ice cream was more like a sorbet which turned out to be wise given the tangy creamy yoghurt. Overall a very fun night.

I chatted a bit with Reinhardt after the class, getting a couple of insider recommendations to check out and eventually drove back to the hotel. It was only 10 PM so I wasn’t ready to go to my room yet so I decided to have a class of cava and just enjoy the splendid Villa Soro, which is even more beautiful at night. Tomorrow would be my epic Mugaritz lunch so getting some rest was important.

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San Sebastian Day/Night 1 – Deja Vu All Over Again

It had been just over 10 years since I first visited the magical foodie wonderland that is San Sebastian, and I had been eager to return ever since. For my first day, since the weather was pretty good, I decided it would be a good time to revisit some of my favorite spots, beginning with one of the highlights from my last trip – Hidalgo 56.

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Hildago 56 is located in the Gros district of the city, the same as my hotel. Although I could have walked there, I opted to drive my Black Stallion (aka my black Fiat 500) as I also wanted to go back to some of the farther regions of the city afterwards. Although the restaurant has the usual spread of pinxtos, they also serve full meals, which is what I was after in this case.

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First up was a complimentary starter of delicious house made/cured chorizo. Always a welcome beginning when dining in Spain.

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For my main course, I couldn’t resist going for the grilled wild mushrooms with foie gras oil drizzled on top and an egg. The earthy, perfectly cooked mushrooms with just the right amount of salt were delicious and the foie gras oil gave an even deeper depth of flavor along with the thick yolk of the egg – outstanding.

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Although I was already getting pretty full, I couldn’t resist the description of this dessert – Smoked “in the moment” Idiazabal cheese cake with fruit compote, walnuts and an Idiazabal ice cream. It was, not surprisingly given the picture above, excellent. The cheese cake surprisingly light with the slightly acidic compote helping with the richness. The ice cream was smooth and not overly sweet. Everything worked together in pretty much flawless balance. A perfect start to my San Sebastian adventures.

I took a walk to work off my lunch and explore the city a bit.

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I made my way back to my car and navigated over to the far end of the city, which ends in a point at the coastline. The wind was considerably gustier here and waves were crashing against the rocks. My main goal though was to check out these magnificent iron sculptures.

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I battled the wind to get back to my car and drove up the steep, winding cliff to get some truly spectacular vistas.

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After reaching the top, I cruised back down into town, drove along a different part of the coastline and eventually returned to my hotel. The Hotel Villa Soro is where I stayed with my dad and one of my favorite hotels. A former mansion built over 100 years ago, the hotel had been expanded to include a back building, which is where I was located.

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After some rest, it was finally time to get my pinxtos on. While it was possible to walk, my feet and back were begging for a break so I decided to drive. That turned out to be not such a good idea as parking in the old part of town is almost impossible. I was about to give up when I finally found a spot about .5 miles away from where I was going – close enuff.

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Even though it was a cold, rainy Wednesday, that didn’t stop patrons from packing the various bars that line the Old Town. I had another place in mind but along the way passed one I enjoyed last time, Bar Atari so made that my first stop. Atari is a mix of a traditional pintxos bar, especially the classic food, but with a slightly more modern look and feel, including deep house music playing softly in the background. All of the tables were full so I sidled up to the bar and found a tiny little parcel of land at the end of it.

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I ordered 3 pintxos staples – grilled shrimp bruschetta, smoked salmon and croquettes of local salt cod also known as bacalao. The shrimps were perfectly cooked, the smoked salmon was delicious with the creme fraiche adding a nice slightly sour note and the croquettes were simple but delicious. Along with a very nice glass of Rioja, this was a great start. I chatted up the 3 amigos who were next to me about their favorite wines and got a couple of recommendations to try in the future. I said adios to my new friends and walked back a couple of blocks to my main destination.

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I had purposefully selected a traditional (at least in terms of the food) pintxos bar in anticipation of my next stop, A Fuego Negro, which was decidedly not traditional. This was readily apparent when I walked inside. A record player was in the corner with an international mix of music. There was a wall of what at first looked like decals from bands or classic ads but upon further inspection were actually the menu – cool concept.

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I decided to go with a trio of pintxos that I thought would give me a broad perspective of their style. First up was a cold green bean salad with a salmon roe sauce and a yellow pepper mayo. The blanched green beans were very crunchy and played surprisingly well with the two nontraditional sauces. I was told to basically combine them like a pasta, which I agreed was the way to eat it.

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Next up was a very playful take on Chinese noodles except the noodles in this case were made with leeks and potatoes, presented in a Chinese to go box. The noodles were in an intense broth, which made them very rich but delicious. The texture was more like a glass noodle, which made it a bit challenging to slurp up but I eventually got the hang of it. Delicious.
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For my final pintxos, I had to go with the one that helped bring their claim to fame – the Kobe beef slider with chips. As seen in the picture above, the mini burger had a bright orange bun, which was slightly sweet, and a perfectly medium rare Kobe beef patty. Unlike most of the so-called Kobe beef burgers one can get in the States, this one had another layer of richness. I ate it in a couple of bites and while tempted to get another one, reminded myself this is a marathon not a sprint.

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I had walked by the world famous Ganbara, which had been way too packed but noticed it was considerably quieter now so I went in for a look. I was looking for perhaps a final sweet bite but that’s not what you go to there for so I was out of luck. Oh well, I’ll be back there soon though for their vast selection of game meat offerings. Thanks to the Parked Car notice on my Apple Maps, I was able to find my car through the various alleyways of the Old Town and drove back to the hotel. Tomorrow would be the last decent day of weather so another road trip was on the docket along with trying a new spot that I had been told was the best bargain meal in the Basque Country.

Amsterdam/San Sebastian – Getaway Day

My time in the wonderful city of Amsterdam was drawing to a close. Still, there were a couple of more things I wanted to do before taking a big silver bird to my next destination. That, of course, started with food. While I already tried the sweet version of the Dutch pancake, there was also the savory kind so I sought out a classic pancake house that several locals had recommended. The funky decor made me think this was te right place.

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While there were several pre-selected combos on the menu, I opted for the build your own with Dutch cheese and sauteed mushrooms. It was just the hardy start I needed on this cold day. The restaurant was also close to my next destination, the vast Rjiksmussen.

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Usually I prefer smaller museums with tighter focus but I was mainly here for a special exhibit they were having with two of my favorite painters – Velazquez and Rembrandt. I had at bought a special timed ticket for the exhibit, which gave me a bit to explore the rest of the museum. As usual, I didn’t take any pictures of the paintings but the arms exhibit was too good not to snap some there.

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Javanese weapons

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Replica of a Dutch battleship masthead

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“Big Rex”

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I made one exception for my rule with Rembrandt’s masterpiece “The Night Watch” because it was behind a heavy glass partition while some art historians are in the process of analyzing the painting’s canvas to determine once and for all if the rumors of the original being larger than what was ultimately framed. It was fascinating to watch the process.

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It was soon time for the main attraction and while the above photo is the only one I took, it was a fantastic exhibit – showing how each artist influenced the other by having some of their major works side by side. I noticed several of the Velazquez works from my time at the Prado – an impressive feat to get that museum to loan some of his more important pieces.

I had some more time to kill before my flight so I wandered around the rest of the museum, from the Flanders Royal Court to a very cool 1940s plane.

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I walked back to the hotel, gathered my bags and headed off to the airport. Since it was dinner time, I decided to have one more round of delicious salmon, this time as a smoked salmon club sandwich, which was one of the better airport meals I had eaten,

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I had purchased a “more room” seat on sale for $7 even though I assumed since I was on KLM, the leg room would be better than a typical plane. I was very mistaken and even my “extra” room was woefully inadequate.

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Thankfully it was a short flight that was non-eventful. Customs was a breeze (thanks EU!) and I made the short walk to get my rental car. By the time I got to the car, it was now 11:30 PM but I had to shake off the tiredness to make the hour plus drive to San Sebastian.

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Fortunately, having to drive stick made staying awake pretty easy and the truly impressive Spanish toll roads that connected the Basque Country were essentially empty, making the various twists and turns pretty fun to navigate. After getting temporarily lost trying to find my hotel in the pitch black darkness, I finally arrived at Villa Soro, which my dad and I had stayed in just over 10 years ago during my first trip to San Sebastian. My room was literally about 5x the size of mine in Amsterdam so I crashed out on the large queen bed almost immediately.

Amsterdam Day/Night 5 – Downshifting

One of things I learned a long time ago while traveling solo for an extended trip (but also have to constantly remind myself) is that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Fortunately, as I’ve gotten older, my body also knows this edict and tends to let me know. After averaging about 5-6 miles of walking a day, I was starting to get a tad bit stiff. So, in order, to give myself a bit of a break along with truly lousy weather, I decided to take it relatively easy. But first, as always, I needed food.

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Since the weather had turned pretty nasty, I chose a place basically right around the corner from my hotel where I had walked by an enticing sign of an aged beef burger and Heineken multiple times. Plus, the name was pretty cool – The Uptown Meat Company. The burger was very tasty, with the aged beef matching well with the crunchy bib lettuce and a nice chipotle mayo. I was curious if like Guinness in Ireland, Heineken would taste better in Holland but nope, pretty much bland as always Heineken. Oh well.

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My main destination was the Van Gogh Museum, which was very close by much to the delight of my aching body. Although Van Gogh is obviously the main attraction, I was mostly excited about the Millet temporary exhibit. Millet was a huge influence on Van Gogh and Impressionist movement in general by focusing on every day farmers and workers toiling away in stunning paintings. I have a policy of never taking pictures of the works of art so you’ll just have to take my word for it that it was a very impressive exhibition.

The rest of the museum was divided into floors focusing on various chapters of Van Gogh’s life. Unfortunately, the collection itself was mostly minor works since his masterpieces are scattered in the world’s most famous museums. One exception was the famous self-portrait he did shortly after cutting off his ear. That was a treat to see in person along with his most well-known stiff life – Sunflowers. With that they also had a very cool 3D printout of the work that you could touch to feel the raised paint on the canvass.

After a couple of hours of getting my culture on, my back was once again begging for some rest so I headed back to the hotel in the cold rainy weather.

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After a brief respite, I took off for the Jordaan area to meet up with my old friend, Uwe. We had originally planned to meet at a place known for its apple pie but had to reschedule for drinks later instead. I decided though I needed to go have a slice of that anyway so took the tram and then made the trek in the sudden downpour to Winkel 43, snagging the last table in the bustling cafe.

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The pie lived up to the hype. Huge chunks of apples with an almost cake-like crust that was a struggle to break through with the ludicrously small fork that came with it. The cream was a perfect complement. Absolutely delicious.

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I met with Uwe at the nearby Cafe Tjyssen, which was a classic European bar, including the truly terrible mixed drinks. As Uwe pointed out and I later realized, Euros in bars like that really have no idea what they are doing when it comes to cocktails. Stick to beer, so I picked a local Extra Stout, which was a lot better. After catching up with Uwe for a couple of hours, we said our goodbyes, and I set off to my next item on the Dutch food checkist, a doner kebab.

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Some locals had suggested checking out a place in De Pijp called Kebab House and since that was relatively close to my hotel, that seemed like a good option. The doner kebab is the Turkish version of the classic Middle Eastern dish, which is very popular in Amsterdam. Usually served with fries, the doner kebab is a great late night option, or in my case, simple comfort food on a cold, rainy night.

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While I’ve had better versions, this was a very solid doner kebab and the fries were nice and crunchy. I had made tentative plan to meet up for a drink with this very nice Aussie CEO I had met the other night so I finished up and took a final tram back to the hotel, where I witnessed this showdown at the OK Corral.

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As it turned out, my new Aussie mate was similarly exhausted so I just went back to my room to get some rest. Tomorrow would be Phase II of this adventure with my long awaited return to San Sebastian so it was for the best my night came to a relatively early ending.

Amsterdam Day/Night 4 – Road Trip… for More Beer!

I woke up to seeing this strange bright orb in the sky which I was later told was in fact the sun. Since the weather was a bit nicer, I decided to take up the suggestion of my buddy Erik to go check out Haarlem, which was less than an hour away via bus.

The tram to bus transfer was pretty painless and soon arrived at the pretty town of Haarlem. My first destination was a craft brewery that had helped establish the Haarlem beer scene, Jopen which had taken over a former church.

I read it gets busy quickly so had times to get there right when it opened and I was one of the first patrons there. A flight of course was in order but also needed some food so I decided to get the fried eggs with ham and cheese on toast – basically a large open faced Egg McMuffin – proper beer food.

The standard tasting flight consisted of a light wheat beer, their IPA and a Belgian style quad. All were very drinkable if not memorable. However, I got to try some other specialized beers that were more in my wheelhouse including a smoked white ale, barrel aged stout and an IPA infused with gin.

I had tried another Haarlem craft beer called Ultije, which happened to have a tasting room just a couple of blocks away so that was my next stop.

I sidled up to the bar and asked if I could do a flight. The bartender said I could pick any 4 beers from the 30 on tap. I saw several barrel aged stouts so made a flight of darkness.

Left to right

Utije Baltic Porter

De Moersleutel Imperial Russian Stout

De Moersleutel Wanna Taste My Candy Cane? Imperial Stout with Orange, Cinnamon, Clove, Star Anise

De Moersleutel Imperial Stout aged in Japanese whiskey barrels (!)

I chatted awhile with the bartender Nicholas about the local beer scene and particularly about the brewery that was 3 of my 4 beers. He said they were former homebrewers who like the dark and heavy stuff. Their site said once you have their beers all others will be ruined for life. They may have had a point.

After an unwise mad dash for the bus with a belly full of heavy beer that ended in failure, I had 20 or so minutes to walk around the town a bit before getting on the next bus back to Amsterdam.

Still enjoying a nice beer buzz, I thought now would be the perfect time to visit the glorious Amsterdam staple FEBO.

FEBO is both an automated food dispensary as well as some limited items that are requested at the counter. I had been told that one of the things from that option was the roasted chicken thighs. So I first used the machine to get some fries and a veal croquette along with the chicken.

All 3 were hot salty goodness but the chicken thigh was by far the highlight. My feet and back were starting to ache and since this is a marathon, not a spirit I took the usual tram and walked back to my hotel.

Amsterdam Day/Night 3 – Recovery Mode

Given my late night, I knew that today wouldn’t exactly be jam packed. Still, I was getting hungry and was craving brunch. I decided to go towards the trendy Jordaan area to a spot that had been recommended to me. The streets were lined with high-end stores, which were starting to get into the holiday spirit.

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The Velarius Cafe was nestled on a side street and since it was almost 2PM (don’t judge) I was pretty much the only patron there. Starving, I immediately seized on the very appealing sounding house cured smoked salmon on poached farm eggs with Hollandaise (natch) and rocket on a choice of bread, including corn bread. I asked the server about the corn bread and after being assured it wasn’t too sweet, went with that option. It was basically heaven on a plate.

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The smoked salmon basically melted in my mouth. The eggs had that glorious dark orange color that only comes from farms and the rocket added a nice bit of texture along with the crunch corn bread. Delicious and exactly what I needed.

On my walk to the cafe, I had spotted what appeared to be some sort of farmer’s market so after my meal, I made the short loop to go check it out.

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Although I was of course incredibly satisfied with my brunch, once I started looking around this glorious little market, I kind of wished I hadn’t eaten yet.

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I also encountered a fantastic foraged mushroom stand which made me also regret I didn’t have an Airbnb where I could go back and cook up some of the mushroom goodness.

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One thing though I couldn’t pass up was another cup of Mexican hot chocolate, which was becoming my go-to in this weather. The cumulative effect of my burning the candles at both ends was catching up with me so I walked back to the hotel to get some rest before dinner. A couple of hours later, I headed back towards the Center City to an Indonesian place that I spotted during a previous walk and had great reviews, taking of course a few pics along the way with everything now bathed in lights.

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The restaurant, Kantjil & de Tijger, was part of the strong tradition of Indonesian food in Amsterdam dating back centuries. I was very excited to try a Rijsttafel (rice table) in its birthplace. However, usually that’s not possible for a solo diner as its designed to be shared amongst a large group. Thankfully, the restaurant had a modified version which could be ordered per person that featured 10 different items of delicious Indonesian staples, from pork satay to beef rendang to the ubiquitous shrimp chips. Behold its glory!

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Each component both worked separately and even better combined, especially the powered toasted coconut with the spicy nasi goreng. However, the real standout was the tender beef rendang which was packed with flavor. Not bad for $20 too. I made as much as a dent as I could on the massive plate before throwing in the proverbial white towel.

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A couple of blocks down the street from the restaurant, I saw what must obviously be the beginning of the infamous Red Light District. However, it was wall to wall people and while I was curious, I decided it was best left to explore another time. Tune in dear readers to see if that time happens!

Amsterdam Day/Night 2 – From Dusk Til Dawn

Thanks to the combination of the sun not rising until 8:30AM and some heavy curtains, I got a much-needed 10 hours of sleep before heading out into the cold once again. Since I knew I was in for a very long night (more on that later), I decided to take it easy with a walk to the center of the city and some famous Dutch pancakes.

Proudly declaring itself the smallest restaurant in Europe, Upstairs Pancakehouse had a whopping total of 6 tables, which meant a solo traveler like myself had to share a table. In a city that mostly embraces tall people with open arms, this restaurant was a bit of a struggle, starting with one of the steepest staircases I had ever encountered. The building itself was from the 1600s but had been a restaurant since the 1950s.

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I really didn’t know that much about Dutch pancakes so the vast selection was a bit daunting. However, after seeing my fellow patrons’ dishes, I realized basically they were essentially the Dutch version of a crepe, which explained why there were both sweet and savory options. I was feeling something in the more traditional mode so I opted for a sweet version – poached pear with egg nog and cream. It was also supposed to have chocolate sauce but I asked to have that on the side in case it was a bit too sweet. That turned out to be the right call because it was plenty sweet (and delicious) without it.

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After a brief detour to track down an ATM (and get screwed with the rate) due to the restaurant’s cash only policy, I continued my walk into the Center of town.

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As I made my way essentially around the horn of the Center, it became a lot more touristy and I quickened my pace to basically get out there. However, I had to admit I was curious about one of the most touristy options possible – the Sex Museum. When in Amsterdam…

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That’s about all that would be fit to print (post?) from there. Google if you want to see more, pervs.

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After several miles of walking, I was beat and headed back to the hotel to rest up for the big night ahead. The plan was to meet my old friend Chris, who has lived in Amsterdam for 10 years now, at his place in the hip area De Pijp and then head to the club after that. Fortunately, De Pijp was very close to my hotel, just past the main museum area, including the Van Gogh and Modern Art MOCO museums I planned to visit later in the week.

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As I was searching for a potential spot for dinner in De Pijp, I came across a roasted chicken and beer pub that sounded great on a cold damp night. It turned out I wasn’t the only one thinking of such things as the place with rammed and had a 90 minute wait for a table. Fortunately, I could eat at the bar and lucked out snagging the last seat. I didn’t really want a beer so my server suggested this cider made with lime and kiwi. I recalled fondly my roasted chicken and cider meals at Casa Mingo in Madrid so that sounded great. The chicken didn’t quite meet the Casa Mingo’s standards (but then again what does?) but it was still very tasty.

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I made the short walk to Chris’ place and after an hour or so catching up with him and his wife, we hailed an Uber and headed out to the club, which was in the far north part of the city, by the docks in essentially the middle of nowhere. The event featured one of my all time favorite DJs, Sasha, so I was really looking forward to a great night. It also allowed me to play around the new night mode in my Phone 11 Pro camera.

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The show was great and just after 5AM, Sasha brought it home with the Hacienda era inspired Franky Wah – Get Me High.

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We made our way through the gurning masses and took another Uber back to De Pijp. It was now about 6AM and my feet were killing me so the short walk home took a bit longer. It was slightly surreal that not only was it still dark but the moon held high in the sky. Although it was absurdly late, I was able to keep my streak of no clubbing after sunrise intact and crashed into bed still in the cover of darkness.