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A Dutch Treat

Amsterdam's best parties take place on the water. A chef makes the scene with a Mediterranean-style picnic on a cruise around the city's prettiest canals.

Amsterdam on a warm, luminous Sunday. Along the city's stately canals, fringed by narrow gabled houses, a procession of floating picnics drifted by. The smoky aroma of Middle Eastern grilling wafted from a pleasure craft as a belly dancer cautiously swiveled her hips between platters of dolmas and kebabs. On a tiny old fishing vessel painted yellow and blue, a boisterous group gathered around a modern Dutch still life of Gouda cheese, oysters and fruit. And all along the Prinsengracht, one of the city's loveliest canals, houseboats buzzed with people laughing and eating. This was Amsterdam greeting the arrival of its short, fickle summer. It felt like a block party, except the action was on the water.

"Last year was a boom boat-buying year in Amsterdam," said Jean-Christophe Royer, the chef and owner of the celebrated Restaurant Christophe. Suddenly everyone wanted to be on the canals, with a bottle of wine, and floating picnics were the new trend. Though not a boat owner himself ("I get too little time off"), Royer decided he wanted to rent one and gather a few of his best friends for a private canal cruise.

This would be no ordinary picnic, not with the man behind Restaurant Christophe in charge. With its Michelin star and its urbane, softly minimalist look (created by Bill Katz, who designed Chanterelle in Manhattan), the restaurant attracts a worldly polyglot clientele; Benelux sophisticates come for some of Amsterdam's most polished cuisine--without silver cloches and other tiresome Michelin accoutrements. Royer uses classic French techniques but laces his dishes with references to Toulouse and North Africa--a combination that charms anyone who tastes his galette of fresh anchovies with olive puree or his roasted veal sweetbreads with rosemary and preserved lemons.

Royer's colorful style is at least partly inspired by his peripatetic childhood. A self-professed autodidact, Royer was born to French parents in Algiers and spent his teenage years in Toulouse before trading economics studies for a job as a dishwasher in Amsterdam at age 21. "Amsterdam was a crazy, countercultural place where every young European wanted to be," he says. Over time, he moved on to more ambitious restaurant positions in Holland, France and New York City. Royer even considered setting up shop in Manhattan, but sobered by the high price of real estate, he returned to Amsterdam, where he opened Restaurant Christophe in 1987. Every once in a while, he still entertains the idea of returning to New York but then reconsiders--in Amsterdam, the pace of life is as easy as the flow of water through the canals.

When Royer and his American business partner, Christopher Bergen, decided to throw a floating picnic, they knew they didn't want to just pile everyone into any old dinghy. They considered getting a long, open barge, but thought that would be too rustic. Then one night the boat of their dreams literally sailed up to their door; it was carrying the actor Pierce Brosnan from the plush Amstel hotel to dinner at Restaurant Christophe. While Royer fed Brosnan, Bergen chatted up Tommy Van Riet, the captain, and the deal was sealed: the Paradis, Van Riet's gorgeously restored 40-foot-long salon boat--all varnished teak and beveled glass--would be theirs the next sunny weekend.

Though Royer is best known for refined, complex dishes, he created a lunch menu that was simple and easily assembled ahead of time. "I wanted a real picnic, with lots of salads," he said. That isn't to suggest that his signature touches weren't in evidence. Inspired by the classic Moroccan bastila, pigeon encased in a pastry crust, Royer created a kind of sweet-savory baklava, layering the phyllo with cumin-spiced chicken and a combination of fresh and dried fruit. And the same speckled beans that team up with lobster in an elegant fricassee at Restaurant Christophe turned up in an herb-flecked salad. For a warm-weather indulgence, Royer picked out perfect stalks of Dutch asparagus and tossed them with mint, parsley, chervil and shavings of Parmesan cheese. He also grilled a few brochettes--shrimp, and lamb with fresh dates. Dessert? A handsome tart piled with seasonal berries.

Royer's pan-Mediterranean reverie is perfectly in tune with modern Holland's multiethnic style. After all, this is a country where everyone from lawyers to street cleaners is fluent in several languages and where prosciutto and basil, curries and couscous have long since replaced Dutch staples like bitterballen (fried meatballs) and erwtensoep (pea soup).

But before the picnic began, the boat--with all the guests on board, including a choreographer, dancers, artists and Fred and Yolanda de Leeuw, who own Amsterdam's finest butcher shop--made last-minute stops for provisions. Royer picked up a few cases of wine from his friends at the Wijn Koperij Otterman wine store and truffles from the de Leeuws' eponymous shop. Then the Paradis glided along the Herengracht, a canal bordered by ornate mansions, slowly enough for everyone to take in the details that had somehow escaped them before: new houseboats, fanciful doorways, curious plaques that reveal the past owners' occupations. "We walk along these canals every day, but you don't know Amsterdam until you've seen it from the water," insisted Royer.

They docked on a whim in another canal, grilled a few shrimp, chatted up strangers and blew kisses to pals who sailed by on their own boats. As the Paradis headed out of the city, the baroque dollhouse clutter of the canal ring gave way to the wide-open views of the Oosterdok (eastern docks) area. Here, warehouses are gradually being converted into offices and loft apartments. "That will be Amsterdam's next trendy neighborhood," Royer noted.

Dancer Karin Post gazed at the view, while Fred de Leeuw, the butcher, regaled everyone with tales of his hunting adventures. As the sun set behind them, the group devoured the last bits of the tart and had more wine--then some more (even Van Riet, the captain, indulged). But to Royer's honest surprise, no one fell in the water. "Amsterdam in summer," he laughed. "It can get pretty wild."

Anya von Bremzen is the author, with John Welchman, of Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook and Terrific Pacific Cookbook, both from Workman.

Published June 2000
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