Cigar Aficionado

La Rive, Amsterdam

From its auspicious location on the east bank of Amsterdam's Amstel River, the Amstel Intercontinental Hotel, in a glorious building that dates from 1867, has played host to royalty, rock stars, the cinema's elite and the world's legends. Guests have included Gustave Eiffel, Audrey Hepburn, Orson Welles, Madonna and the Rolling Stones.

The hotel's cigar-friendly French-Mediterranean restaurant, La Rive, has its own prestigious stars -- two of them, in fact, from the all-powerful Michelin Guide. Truth be told, if the restaurant were situated just a bit to the southwest, on the shores of the Rive Gauche in Paris, perhaps, or somewhere else in France, it might already have a third star, the Michelin pinnacle. It is certainly deserved.

La Rive's renowned Dutch chef, Edwin Kats, offers dishes that take the finest ingredients and combine them in unusual and often unique ways that highlight the essence of their flavors -- subtle and deep, never overwhelming but always distinct.

It's not just the cuisine, though, that makes fir a memorable visit. A 15-table room of deep honey-colored wood and Old Master-style paintings creates an ambiance that's both amiably clubby and lavishly romantic. A wall of windows perhaps 10 feet from the Amstel offers breathtaking ground-level views of the water, the passing boats and the city's lights shimmering Monet-like on the gentle current. And a two-volume wine list ranging from Grand Cru to Napa and Sonoma, Spain, Italy, Chile, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa is designed, says the restaurant's sommelier, Ted Bunnik, to be well-balanced, not too overwhelming and to complementary to the dishes.

Plus, you can cap off your dinner with a selection of the finest Cuban cigars -- at amazingly low prices -- in an extensive and well-kept humidor in the restaurant's bar and lounge just across the hall.

The result is an evening long to be remembered, which is what my wife, Ruth, and I experienced on a visit to Amsterdam in early October.

We were greeted with smiles and good cheer, a warm welcome that remained constant all evening, through the four hours of our dinner. The service from the formally attired staff was exactly as it should be -- professional and letter-perfect but relaxed and friendly, with not the tiniest bit of snobbery. We had asked for and were given a table by the window -- though all the tables offer views of the waterway -- and we marveled at the golden light of sunset, followed by the glimmering contrasts of darkness and artificial light.

There's an à la carte menu, with two courses totaling from about $125 to $200 and up per couple, including tax and service but not including wine, dessert or coffee. However, the best bets are the tasting menus, to sample a wider array of Chef Kats's talents. The six-course "Gourmet Menu" is about $106, the seven-course "La Rive Menu" about $122. We opted for the six courses.

The main wine list ranges from about $40 for a bottle of the house red, Domaine de Marotte Cotes de Ventoux 2002, a full and fruity Rhone, or Château Haut Pasquet 2000, a supple Bordeaux, all the way to the standard Grand Cru stratosphere, a 1982 Château Margaux for upward of $1,700. The special menus, though, have wine-tasting options, a generous serving of a different wine with every course, each chosen to match its dish. The cost is about $71 with the Gourmet Menu, $88 with the La Rive, and the variety is more than worth it. Each selection worked perfectly with its companion.

The amuses bouches, the little extra goodies to start the evening, set the tone -- a bit of mushroom mousse with guinea fowl, a tiny dim sum with fresh tuna and tomato, a razor-thin slice of deep-fried blood pudding with a quail egg, a tiny fillet of perch with a foamed sauce of oysters and truffle.

The first official course was a masterpiece of culinary artistry -- a terrine of Jabugo ham, foie gras and simmered beef with oxtail jelly and Sichuan pepper, a thin slice in 25 ultra-narrow layers that alternated between the three main ingredients, a design of architectural beauty and simplicity. The wine, a 2001 Ravenswood Vintners Blend Zinfandel from California, was chosen for its smoothness, the sommelier said, to fit the foie gras. Even though it retails in the States for around $10 a bottle, and is a surprisingly down-to-earth selection for such a luxury restaurant, it did exactly what the sommelier said it would. (He arrived with each course to lovingly describe the wine in careful detail.)

Next came a small fillet of red mullet fried with its skin and served with small vegetables and brown butter flavored with aged sherry vinegar, and a 2001 E. Knoll Gruner Veltliner, Federspiel, from Wachau, south of Vienna, a Riesling-like wine with a little sweetness and a gentle reminder of its Austrian soil.

Course No. 3 was a small sample of Chef Kats's signature creation, soft and flaky turbot topped with truffles, wrapped in a crisp potato spaghetti and served with stewed chard and veal sauce. It came with an unusual wine, a 1996 Pessac-Leognan L de la Louviere, a white from just south of Bordeaux, mostly Semillon and rich with lemon, pepper and earthy tones.

The final main course was roast Limousin veal, the most tender, succulent veal I've ever had. It was served with gratinated endives, sautéed ceps and its own sage-flavored gravy. The wine was a 1996 Château Marquis de Calon, the second wine of Château Colon-Segur, a Bordeaux with soft, smooth tannins that, the sommelier said, had reached its "perfect time."

Next was the cheese course, a selection of the best French and Dutch varieties. The most notable was golden two-and-a-half-year-old Reypenaer VSOP, as in Cognac, and worthy of the designation. This deep, hard, compact cheese had a pleasantly tangy and slightly nutty taste that lingered magically. Port was offered, but I wanted a little more of the Bordeaux instead.

Before the dessert came perhaps the most adventurous and intriguing combination of the evening, a palate refresher of a watermelon and clove juice with a Sauternes sorbet, a balance of flavors you'd never think would go together. But they did.

For dessert, strawberries came three ways -- a strawberry broth with a compote of raw and sautéed strawberries with black pepper-flavored caramel sauce and lemon ice cream. The dessert wine was a 2002 Robertson Rooi Muscadel from South Africa, a powerful (16 percent alcohol), fresh and fruity essence of strawberry.

That was it -- or just about. The bill -- Gourmet Menu for two, wine tasting for one (they said it was perfectly all right to share), bottled water and espresso -- came to about $330, including tax and service.

Then came the cigars. La Rive's cigar-lounge menu includes Cohiba Robustos, Siglo IVs, Esplendidos and Lanceros; Romeo y Julieta Churchills; Montecristo No. 2s and 4s; and Partagas Serie D No. 4s. Evert Groot, La Rive's manager, said that the demand was huge and constant and that he sometimes had trouble keeping his customers' favorites in stock in his large humidor.

His best seller, he said, is the Cohiba Robusto, which happens to be my cigar of choice. And that evening, it remained my cigar of choice. The robusto's draw was perfect, the taste smooth but strong, the smile on my face memorable (as it is whenever I smoke one my wife says).

And it was a bargain. Tobacco prices in the Netherlands are controlled by the government, Groot said, and he is not allowed to charge more than the cigar-store price. (His profit, he said, comes from a quantity discount.) So the Robusto at La Rive costs only about $18.

If you look at things the right way, the Cohiba wasn't the only bargain that night. Our fours hours at La Rive also fit the definition. Life is short, and memorable experiences are all too rare. And more than worth it, pretty much whatever the price. As we walked out to the shore of the Amstel into the mild Amsterdam air, the staff wished us a good night. Which it was.


La Rive Restaurant
InterContinental Amstel Amsterdam
1018 GX Amsterdam
Phone: 31-20-622-60-60

Monday to Friday -- 7:00 am to 10:30 am.
Saturday and Sunday -- 7:00 am to 12:00 noon.

Monday to Friday -- 12:00 noon to 2:00 pm.
Closed on Saturday and Sunday.

Monday to Saturday -- 6:30 pm to 10:30 pm.
Closed on Sunday.