For nearly 200 years the Dutch East India Company monopolized the trade routes between Europe and Asia. That many years later, we can thank its exploitative reign for de Quay, a new Lincoln Park restaurant that embellishes the fortifying food of the Low Countries with the tropical heat and sunshine of Indonesia. That's been going on more or less since the 17th century, when Europeans began to learn what to do with the boatloads of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves that sailed the trade winds to their shores. But now in 2015, chef-owner David de Quay, who previously labored in relative obscurity at the Hinsdale Golf Club (and Rhapsody and Gordon), has emerged with a place of his own, a restaurant that evokes the childhood summers he spent in the Netherlands with a food-forward grandmother while seamlessly incorporating a considerable southeast-Asian influence.
The space itself, bedecked with brocade and full of dark wood, channels Amsterdam's ubiquitous bruin cafés, or "brown cafes," simple, well-worn pubs that foster a feeling of gezelligheid, a Dutch word for the sense of contentedness and belonging that comes from shared experience. It's a ballsy move. Not since the 2010 debut of Joncarl Lachman's Vincent (now pretty much ethnically cleansed) have Chicagoans had the opportunity to confront Dutch food. Nor have we had much recent experience with Indonesian—apart from Rickshaw Republic, located just a block away, which specializes in the regional street food of the archipelago without much colonial influence in evidence.
De Quay makes both cuisines easy to get a handle on. His menu tilts slightly toward northern Europe, with things like panfried black-pepper dumplings filled with hot, gooey Gouda, ribbons of genever-marinated gravlax, and a crock of cauliflower cream soup so thick you could plug a dike with it.
His purest expression of Dutch food is a pork chop entree accompanied by a length of smoky, bolognalike rookworst, Gouda mashed potatoes, fried kale, braised savoy cabbage, and mustard. It's a relatively light version of stamppot, a traditional dish of vegetables mixed into mashed potatoes, though the chop exemplifies the dry, tasteless, other-white-meat quality of pork that, fortunately, we see so little of in better restaurants these days. By the same token, the most overtly Indonesian thing on the menu is nasi goreng, the archipelago's national dish. Here it's a spicy vegetable fried rice, with accompaniments to customize texture and flavor: lightly pickled cucumber, the starchy puffed crackers known as krupuks, the granular toasted coconut garnish seroendeng, and two varieties of sambal, a bright and acidic tomato-basil version and a deeper nutty option with macadamia-like candlenuts.
But apart from those two examples, almost everything else on de Quay's menu is either an overt or subdued combination of the two cuisines. The oorlog Amsterdam frites are the most traditional instance of cultural intermingling. Translated as "war fries" for the mess they can make, they're thick, long spuds, crispy but creamy inside, that are typically loaded with mayo, thick peanut satay sauce, and chopped raw onion; here those toppings are mercifully served on the side, which protects the delicate integrity of the fries (which are just as good dipped in the sambals).
Likable, unforced fusion abounds across the menu. Coconut-braised mussels are drizzled in a light Thai-like curry. Alternating morsels of thigh and breast meat maximize the juiciness of the sweetly laquered chicken satay, which is served alongside a cooling rough-cut cabbage slaw. Duck leg and breast are glazed in tamarind and soy and served with a salad of Asian pear, fennel, and sweet gingerbread croutons. Buttermilk-marinated chicken is mounted on fragrant jasmine rice surrounded by a moat of gently spiced red curry. One of de Quay's most surprisingly delicious dishes is a hunk of butter-tender red-wine-braised short rib and shiitake mushrooms. There's nothing new about that preparation, but here it's accompanied by a pair of crispy fried croquettes containing emulsified beef seasoned with spices found in beef rendang, including nutmeg, clove, ginger, and chile pepper.
The cross-cultural pollination continues at dessert: candlenuts reappear in the form of a silky white cremeaux with kaffir lime syrup, a macaroonlike coconut rocher has a dollop of chocolate set atop it, and vivid green jasmine-scented pandan ice cream is paired with spekkoek, or "bacon cake," an almond spice cake with thin layers that resemble pork belly. But a house-made stroopwaffel, the iconic Dutch street cookie, warm and pliable with a gooey cinnamon interior, is a mandatory finish.
De Quay has a focused, affordable, remarkable wine list loaded with dry Rieslings, curated by congenial general manager and sommelier Terry McNeese, a veteran of the Gage, Henri, and Le Lan. McNeese seems to be everywhere at once, and his presence contributes to the undeniable sense of gezelligheid that pervades this exciting new bruin cafe. v