Amsterdam’s only Basque tapas eatery sets a tone of approachable sophistication in everything from the service to the decor and of course the food. The signature pinxtos are inventive without being pretentious. While the selections can be pricey, you get much more than just food – you get a well-thought out and immersive experience from the moment you walk in the door. If you want a little taste of Northern Spain in the heart of the Jordaan, this is the place to get it.
My friend C has been working in events in Amsterdam for 4 years. She always knows the best places to check out. Last time we had dinner together we went to uber cool Morgan & Mees during a massive windstorm and got tipsy on €14 champagne cocktails then open-mouthed awed over the 8 hour slow roasted beef short ribs. Apparently I didn’t take any pictures.
This week C suggested La Oliva, a concept restaurant in the Jordaan specializing in Northern Spanish style tapas i.e. pintxos. It was an instant yes from me.
If you’ve ever seen Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown in San Sebastian you’ll know that pintxos are small open faced sandwiches and other types of hot and cold bites that are usually displayed on a bar. As far as I can tell La Oliva is the only restaurant in Amsterdam serving Basque style tapas so it’s an easy choice if pinxtos are what you’re after.
I called La Oliva around noon on a Thursday to make a reservation for that night. They were able to accommodate our party of 3 but I get the feeling same-day reservations wouldn’t be possible on a Friday or Saturday night.
The restaurant is located in the Jordaan at Egelantiersstraat 122 and shares a quiet cross-street with a Dutch language school, a hair salon, and a French deli that I’ve since added to my list of places I want to try in Amsterdam.
We walked in around 6:15 and were warmly welcomed by the server and led to our table right away. The 3 of us were seated at the end of a long rectangular table adjacent to the bar and right beside the pintxos. No complaints here.
The atmosphere inside is upscale but cozy. The restaurant is divided into two dining spaces: one close to the bar where we were seated and another further to the back with tables for larger groups.
From the lighting and glassware to the pillar candles and fresh cut royal lilies, there’s a lot of attention to detail in the decor, which conveys a very consistent aesthetic. Even the bathroom is immersive, with black and gold fixtures enveloped in a sage paint on the walls that was so captivating I had to reach out and touch it. The overall effect is that of a space that’s warm, inviting, jovial and just cool. Both warm and cool in one place? Apparently it’s possible.
When we first walked in it was still fairly quiet. We were some of the first to arrive. The pace picked up very slowly until at some point, a few bites and drinks deep, I looked around to see that it was full.
Once seated our tatted and moustachioed server quickly brought out menus and started on drink orders. I ordered a glass of sauvignon blanc from a chalk board displaying wine options. C ordered a class of merlot from the menu and Bogdan ordered a glass of Brand beer.
The delivery of our drinks was expertly done. Both bottles were brought out. Details provided. Tastings offered. Glasses filled. The service showed an investment in the art and craft of hospitality as well as a certain personal flair that seemed totally in tune with and maybe even borne of the overall ambiance of this place.
With drinks in hand we started thinking about food. The selection on the bar is intimidating if you hate making decisions (like I do). In that case you can just go with the chef’s selection. Ultimately we chose our own because the server explained the options and made the whole process relatively painless.
After hearing the options each of us would choose two, for a total of 6 pintxos. My choices were the thick breaded eggplant topped with goat cheese and crispy bacon and the whole fig stuffed with blue cheese and served warm with a sweet fruity reduction. Both were tasty though the eggplant could have been a little warmer.
After eating and sharing our first round we ordered two more pintxos and two starters. The pintxos were fois gras and caramelized onions and peppers on toast topped with an expertly fried quail egg and a creamy crab stuffed pastry topped with a prawn. Both were delicious. Perfectly prepared and sophisticated flavor combinations.
We also ordered two starters: the grilled octopus with black garlic, spinach and citrus and the seared tuna and duck liver with sherry reduction. Again, delicious.
For dessert we ordered two portions of the Crema Catalana, the Spanish take on the French classic creme brulee. Similar idea but instead of vanilla it’s infused with cinnamon and orange zest. The Crema Catalana at La Oliva isn’t the best I’ve had simply because to me and my party it felt as if it had been thickened with some type of starch – which results in a slightly less magical custard experience that something made the old fashioned way. That was a bit of a disappointment but all things considered it was still quite good. I think most people would be really happy with the beautiful snap of a sugar crust that gives way to warm orange and cinnamon cream.
Finally, a word on the cost. A lot of the reviews I saw online mention that La Oliva is overpriced. I always had the idea that pintxos are the Spanish version of Italian apperitivo hour – basically you buy drinks and the food is on the house. I have since learned that that is not the case, neither in San Sebastian nor in Amsterdam.
Truth be told I was surprised to see the price at the end of the night (just under €60 per person) but we did have a lot of drinks. At one point I even said I wished there was a cheap filler item on the menu – like fries – just so we could eat something substantial. Both of the starters we ordered were quite small. It’s definitely a quality over quantity kind of place. About an hour after we got home that night I found myself digging into a pot of cheesy orzo I made the day before because I was just so hungry.
While La Oliva is on the pricey end, around €5 per pintxo, I’ve read that prices in Spain can also range from €1-€4 per. Besides, what they’re doing at La Oliva is no easy feat: it takes time, energy, money and organization to produce that many different dishes that incorporate such a wide range of expensive and often highly perishable ingredients.
I won’t fault a restaurant on high prices. Everyone has a different comfort zone when it comes to cost but the reality is you can’t get fois gras and caviar at a discount – and neither should you want to. These things are meant to be savoured – to help us slow down and unplug from the day to day with something totally out of the ordinary. Does La Oliva do that? Definitely.
While I don’t know when I’ll return to La Oliva I do know is that this little foray into the world of pintxos has made a weekend of eating my way through San Sebastian a distinct possibility for 2019.
Until next time,