Looking beyond the ‘kebab wars’… Is Van Woustraat erupting as a new culi-boulevard?

Van Woustraat. Unless you live in De Pijp, you probably never visit this traffic-clogged artery road. And even if you are its denizen, no doubt you never go to the eastern reaches to eat; that’s what Frans Halsstraat’s for, right?

If anyone connects Van Wou with eating out at all, then it’s probably with late-night drunkards shovelling down kroket from holes in the wall at Febo and Barbarella, dried-out lahmacun, or what is poetically known in the UK as “shaving the elephant’s leg” – doners from one of the street’s 11 (count ’em!) kebab shops. The pavements here run red with the chilli sauce spilled in recent ‘kebab wars’, a price-slashing skirmish that sees the current rate for a stuffed pita pocket at Genco (number 159) and bitter rival Leeman (No. 160) down to €1.95. The priciest shoarma on the strip is at Eethuis Ora (No. 123) – a vertiginously steep €2. Stick around here long enough and they’ll be paying you to eat.

But wiping away the grease smudges reveals that van Wou’s oleaginous reputation is slowly oozing away. Bog-standard Thai is being shouldered out by authentic Japanese riyouri like Kagetsu (No. 29), which does a killer tempura moriawase, and specialist – destinational, even – culinary spots are springing up like chanterelles.

One of the first to open, at the end of 2003, was Cipi Ripi (No. 200), Amsterdam’s first – and only – deli selling groceries from the former Yugoslavia. It’s the place t head when you want to knock up a Balkan fest at home. There are jars of Macedonian avjar, Serbian čvarci and prsute, with oblate for afters, all washed down with a bottle of Croatian Zlatan Plavac. (Cipi Ripi, by the way, also caters for appetites of a different kind: sporadically, a trestle table is set up outside, where you can flick through pre-owned porn videos. Go figure.)

Another place you’ll not find the likes of elsewhere is Buna Bet (No. 74), a slick-looking Ethiopian coffee shop (of the non-smoking kind), from the country where coffee was discovered. The stichting-run cafe opened in November, and is strictly fair trade; so fair, in fact, that they train women back home to work in the coffee industry as a way of helping them out of prostitution. Amd Meston, who works there, said they opened on Van Wou for the simple reason that it was a ‘good location’.

Eating options here are limited to sticky buns or a tosti, but if the things which transform ‘food’ into ‘dining’ are ritual, tradition, the gathering of people to talk, sharing and being served, then Buna Bet’s traditional coffee ceremony has these in abundance. For €4.50 a head, groups of six to 10 people can while away a couple of hours experiencing a fundamental of Ethipian culture.

Sitting on the floor, drinkers’ beans are roasted on a charcoal stove to release aroma, then crushed with a mortar and pestle. The ground coffee is transferred to a traditional clay pot, then sieved and brewed. When ready, the coffee is poured from a height and drunk black and sweet – very sweet. It’s considered rude to drink less that three cups and the last one – ‘Berekha’ – is blessed. Mesten says the ceremony is quite popular, with 15-20 people a month taking up the ultimate slow food experience. They also sell four varieties of coffee by the cup: Jimma, low-caffeine Yirga, Buna Melange – the house blend – and Harrar, which has a wine-like sharpness.

Talk of wine takes us to Van Woustraat’s most recent epicurean venture, Grape District (No. 54), which opened on 10 April. This wine merchant’s interior is styled along the lines of swankier eateries (think 15 and Herengracht), all exposed brick and bare concrete, with a striking rainbow-coloured sign, enticing enough to make even the strictest adherent of the temperance movement’s wagon wobble.

Grape District’s Joost Bockwinkel says they came to Van Woustraat because ‘the neighbourhood is changing. There are a lot of young people living in the surroundings. We have a very nice spot, a corner shop, so there are lots of people walking by, there’s good visibility. It’s a neighbourhood that connects with our philosophy and our concept.”

Even though the shop has only been open just over a week, it’s doing roaring trade. “It’s been above expectations actually,” says Bockwinkel. “There are lots of people coming in and looking around. Everybody has said it’s something new, a very nice, open shop, a new approach and they like the young appearance.”

There’s just one thing that Van Woustraat lacks – surprisingly, given the number of people who live there with backgrounds from the region – and that’s a really good Turkish restaurant. If you’re after an Ottoman-sized feast, then you’ll have t assemble one yourself from the Turkish grovers that line the street. Or there’s always those kebabs. If you do indulge, then Bockwinkel has this advice for maximising your shoarma’s potential: “The summer’s coming, so if you have a kebab you need wine that has the summer in it, but also has a bit of spice. You should drink one of our roses. I recommend a full-bodied rose called Castell d’Algars.”

Published in Amsterdam Weekly, 20-26 April 2006


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