Bar Bitterbal, in the heart of the historic canal ring of Amsterdam, bills itself as “The place with the world’s largest selection of the perfect bar snack.” And that snack, bitterballen, is as Dutch as it gets. For your average Dutch person, a “borrel”—a meet-up for drinks—unaccompanied by a plate of bitterballen, is hardly a borrel at all. Bitterballen are not often found outside the Netherlands and parts of Belgium. But here, they are the be-all of bar snacks. And Bar Bitterbal is the Valhalla, the Elysian Fields, the Mecca of Dutch bitterballen.
Location: Utrechtsestraat 18, Amsterdam, a few steps from the Herengracht. On the ground floor of the Toon Hotel. More info available on their website here.
Menu: This is simple. Bar Bitterbal is exactly what its name implies: a full bar, with a range of local craft beers, wines, and spirits and some inventive cocktails and mocktails. Plus bitterballen. At present, 30 different varieties of them. And there’s also that other beloved Dutch snack, French fries, and a variety of dipping sauces. That’s it.
Thoughts: Okay, now that I’ve got you intrigued, what the heck are bitterballen? In short, they are balls of smooth ragout, rolled in crumbs, and deep fried to a lump of golden glory. Some people describe them as fried gravy balls, but that is not paying them their due. Served fresh and hot from the fryer, they are crisp and crunchy on the outside, creamy on the inside, similar to the more familiar croquette.
NOTE: Be careful biting into your first bitterbal. They really are fresh from the fryer, and that creamy filling is really hot. It’s super easy to burn your tongue. Give it a minute, if you can stand to wait.
Don’t let the name put you off. These bitterballen are not at all bitter. The name doesn’t refer to the taste but to the historical practice of nibbling them with a popular herb liquor called bitter.
Dutch bitterballen are commonly made of beef and/or veal, served with spicy brown mustard for dipping, and are served at every bar in every town in the Netherlands. But at Bar Bitterbal, the creators took that concept and ran with it. And kept running. They tried more than 50 combinations of flavors and dozens of recipes before deciding on the winners to put on the menu. And they continue to add new ones regularly. The array is quite amazing: Try a plate of Peking duck balls, Black Angus beef balls, pulled pork, chorizo, or beef and apple stew. There are balls filled with ragout of wild boar, freshwater lobster, or North Sea shrimp.
For vegetarians, there’s a selection of cheese bitterballen, including goat, four cheese with tomato, and aged cheese. This being Amsterdam, and a hipster favorite bar, there are also vegan choices, very inventive ones, like Thai coconut curry, wakame Japanese seaweed, and Mediterranean vegetables. I have to say, the vegan black truffle bitterbal I tried was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever put in my mouth. The vegan pieces are fried in a separate fryer from those containing meat.
Another of my top favorites was the aged Reypenaur cheese balls. Reypenaur is one of the finest cheesemakers in the country. Some time back, I went to a cheese tasting class in their Amsterdam store and fell in love with their oldest, sharpest cheeses. These cheese bitterbals put me right back in that room, an explosion of sharp, melty, aged cheesiness in my mouth.
Each flavor comes with its own dipping sauce, matched to the filling. Plus you get a small dish of gherkins and pickled beets or other veggies, which the owner said are “palatte cleansers.” If you order the smoked pulled pork, ask specifically for the barbecue sauce to go with it. It blended so well with the smokiness of the beef.
If you are having trouble deciding which bitterbal flavors to choose, you can opt for a 15-piece platter featuring three different fillings and their accompanying sauces. It’s a fun way to taste a variety. For my group of five, we found it best to order five separate varieties and share them all. We added an order of out-of-this-world parmesan fries with truffle mayo and another of sweet potato fries with Dutch Zaanse mayo and had more food than we could comfortably finish.
On weekends, the kitchen stays open far later than most other places in the city, handy to know if you’re having a snack attack after midnight.
But remember, this is also a bar. It’s right there in the name. And it’s a great bar, too. The drinks menu is long and varied, with any spirits you could want and a whole special section of gin and tonic combinations. We sampled a couple of cocktails, and I give five stars to the Pornstar Martini, a mouth-bursting concoction of Ciroc French Vanilla Vodka, passionfruit, and prosecco. Try this one. Seriously. Try this one!
There are several craft beers on tap, including my favorite, IJwit from Amsterdam’s own Brouwerij ‘t IJ, and many more good choices in bottles. And there’s a decent wine list, mostly by the bottle but a few nice ones available by the glass, including prosecco.
The space at Bar Bitterbal is not large, thought the huge front windows make it seem roomier than it is. The long, narrow space has exposed brick on the wall opposite the long bar, clean simple furnishings, and a modern take on a coffered ceiling. There is table seating at the back. There are also long tables with benches and golden yellow umbrellas outside for sunny days—filled with typical Amsterdam sun worshippers even when the thermometer says “cold” to more normal folks. Thankfully, there are heaters dotted around the terrace to keep it bearable. And on a lovely Amsterdam Indian Summer day, it’s pretty much the perfect place to be.
As the Dutch say, in their own version of “Bon Apetit”… Eet Smakkelijk!
Price Range: A plate of five bitterballen starts at €5.95 and tops out at €9.95. The three-flavor platters of 15 pieces average about €21 each. Add an order of fries for around €4.50. Drinks prices are average for Amsterdam, with cocktails at €9-13.