Downtown St. Paul has a lot going for it: beautiful architecture and urban parks, some truly great restaurants, Wild hockey games and big-name concerts at the Xcel, and yes, even some nightlife, especially in Lowertown. But until recently the area was decidedly lacking in local music, especially indie rock and its attending hipster crowds. Now young Minneapolitans in skinny jeans have a reason to venture into this part of town, and for that we can thank father-and-son team Jon and Jarret Oulman, who also own the 331 Club in northeast Minneapolis and for a time ran the 501 Club in downtown Minneapolis. The pair recently unveiled the Amsterdam Bar and Hall, a live-music venue with two stages that's also a restaurant, opening for lunch every day at 11 a.m. and serving food until closing time.
The city of St. Paul owns the building, which most recently housed Pop!! and before that Fhima's, neither of which was very long-lived. According to Jon Oulman, the landlord has been especially accommodating. "The mayor [Chris Coleman] is a music fan," he notes. "They've been courting us for a few years at 331 to come over here." One reason he took the opportunity was that the plan also included room for some like-minded new neighbors: Eclipse Records and the Big Table Studio, a screenprinting shop that hosts art events and creates band posters and T-shirts. "That really tied the whole thing together," he says. The city's inspectors were also more helpful than expected in working with the Oulmans to make sure everything was up to code. "That's never been my experience," he says. "Never. It was really a treat working with human beings who want to throw a party. They don't bend any rules; they help you follow the rules rather than messing with you."
The planning went on for about 10 months, and the space on Sixth and Wabasha is now much darker than before. Black is the dominant color in the main dining and bar area as well as in the back concert room, which has a big stage and a small bar. Giant booths face out toward the dining room and its smattering of smaller tables. Asked about the theme, Oulman says they considered several ideas, because "we didn't want to do another place with a number. We settled on the Amdsterdam thing partly because the flag of the city is a very rock 'n' roll graphic." Those three red X's are echoed in the Amsterdam Bar's logo. "It's also a really international place. ...[The Dutch] would go around the globe and bring back culture," he says.
The Amsterdam's food is fairly simple but reflects that international flair. Chef Thom Lowe, who has cooked at Three Fish and the New French in Minneapolis, designed the menu. He's also worked on a fishing boat, which must make one problem he's run into all the more frustrating: Herring shows up twice on his menu but has so far been unavailable to guests because Lowe is having a hard time with the sourcing. He'd been planning to buy Lake Superior fish and pickle it in-house, but the major picklers buy it all up. Perhaps by next season we'll be able to try his version.
The bulk of the brief menu is made up of broodjes, small Dutch sandwiches on pillowy white buns slightly bigger than a typical "slider." They go for between $3 and $5 apiece, and options include pulled pork, curried seafood salad, fresh tomato (in season), Dutch cheese (the selection changes frequently), and many more. Of the six I tried, the plain-sounding hamburger, surprisingly, was the tastiest, well seasoned and juicy. Dryness was a problem with a couple of the others, namely those with deep-fried fillings: Sardines were pungent but not overly fishy, and eggplant was at its peak flavor, but a swipe of herb-garlic mayo didn't provide enough moisture to compensate for the breading-plus-bread structure of either sandwich. All the pork versions were more successful (probably because of that succulent fat): The house-made sausage broodje has just a bit of heat in the hefty patty, and both prosciutto and smoked bacon made perfectly salty, meaty foils to the bread (many of the sandwiches include the herb-garlic mayo, and it usually works well). Lowe says he's planning to add a grilled octopus broodje to the menu.
Amsterdam frites are Belgian-style French fries, topped with chopped raw onion. They're skin-on and vary in size so that some smaller pieces are completely crunchy and other, larger ones are soft in the middle but crisp outside. They're highly seasoned but taste more of herbs than sodium, and they are definitely a new contender for the Twin Cities' best fries. You can get them with regular ketchup or mayo, but any of the Amsterdam's more interesting house sauces are recommended: the herb-garlic mayo, curry mayo or ketchup, spicy mustard, or peanut satay.
Another appetizer, loempias, are a Dutch version of an Indonesian snack: crispy spring rolls filled with chicken, cabbage, and onions flavored with ginger, fish sauce, and a sweet Indonesian soy sauce. They come with a perfectly balanced sweet-spicy dipping sauce made with honey and garlic-chile paste. They hit all the right notes and are lighter than usual for a deep-fried food, not at all greasy. A Dutch cheese plate recently included a nicely salty Edam and a rich smoked Gouda, served with thinly sliced bread and a delicious blend of sauteed onions and red peppers.
The bitterballen croquet were less flavorful. The fried balls of beef chuck and vegetables ("basically a chopped-up pot roast," Lowe says) were too bland, like a typical plain, Midwestern version of the dish coated with breading. The accompanying spicy mustard sauce couldn't quite save them.
A few other appetizers and two salads round out the menu. There are no entrée-sized dishes at the Amsterdam—and no actual dishes, for that matter. Food is served in paper trays, which keeps things nicely casual and works fine in most cases but can be a little awkward with, say, the mixed greens salad topped with house-cured salmon, onion, roasted tomatoes, and croutons. There is real silverware, but it's not easy to slice through vegetables without damaging the flimsy vessel holding them. The salad was still enjoyable, especially the house vinaigrette, which was bright and citrusy and just a bit sweet.
For dessert, who could resist the "pot brownie"? No, it's not made with that other famous Amsterdam specialty; the name is justified by the little cast-iron pot the decadent, caramel-laced chocolate concoction is served in. The large portion comes in two pieces and is topped with plenty of fresh whipped cream, so it's perfect for sharing.
Service could stand a little tweaking: Servers note orders via smart-phone devices—yay for embracing technology, but so far the method seems to actually slow things down a bit rather than the opposite—the credit-card swiping function doesn't seem to work, for one thing. And though servers are friendly and helpful, their timing could use some adjustment. I had no problems at dinner, but at lunch, when people often need to get back to work quickly, it should be easy to get the check at the end of a meal. Instead, our group had a server who hovered as we tried to decide what we wanted but had disappeared when we were ready to leave.
But those are small quibbles. The Amsterdam is filling a huge gap in the downtown St. Paul scene. Now there's somewhere cool to get a drink and a bite to eat after a show at the nearby Fitzgerald Theater, for example, as well as a new destination music venue in its own right. And while it's not quite a dinner destination, it doesn't need to be—the food surpasses that at most rock clubs, makes for an interesting midday meal, and goes well with a brew (the bar has a great beer list, including many Dutch and Belgian options). That's plenty.