Speedboat donuts in Holland's beautiful south


“This could be Rotterdam or anywhere. Liverpool or Rome. ‘Cos Rotterdam is anywhere, anywhere alone…”

I feel very old when I discover none of my traveling companions has heard the song Rotterdam, by The Beautiful South, and I instantly regret taking over the car’s Bluetooth specifically to play it for them.

“This song feels very unfair,” says Paul, with characteristic Dutch earnestness. “Rotterdam is a fun city – I will show you.”

In all fairness to Paul, the following 24 hours do make me wonder what on Earth the song is actually about and, for that matter, what Liverpool or Rome ever did to hurt anyone. Rotterdam is ace.

Having been carpet bombed during the Second World War, over just a few devastating days, the city’s landscape is a mixture of classic, traditional Dutch architecture and striking modern design. This lends to the prevailing feeling that Rotterdam has a spicier urban edge than the quaint and touristic Amsterdam and, today, it is a hot spot for cultural innovation and craft produce of all kinds.

Our base for the night is the stylishly minimalist Unplugged Hotel, named not only for the snazzy self-service check-in process, but also for the famous statue in the plaza outside: a 20ft gnome, proudly brandishing what is surely the world’s largest butt plug. Welcome to Rotterdam indeed.

Unplugged is handily situated around the corner from one of the city’s best streets for nightlife, crowded with heated outdoor seating, bars and snack joints. For now though, we’re on a mission to the other side of Rotterdam’s expansive harbour, where the famous Fenix Food Factory awaits us. Rather than take the long route around like squares, we call on one of the many river taxis available for hire; ludicrously overpowered muscle boats that, if you ask nicely in perfect Dutch, will do stomach-churning donuts for you in the otherwise tranquil waters of this historic city.

Fenix Food Factory is a hip little spot on the waterside, with the feel of a tiny covered market and food court. A jumble of stalls offer local meats, cheeses, pastries and other delicacies, as well as a couple of bars stocked with a spectrum of Dutch brews (and intriguingly, a single tap from Ireland’s Kinnegar). I go for a delicious pilsner from Kompaan, a sneak preview from the final brewery of our journey.

From Fenix, it’s only a short, leisurely sprint (we hadn’t counted on rain) to the extraordinary floating restaurant, Putaine. Bobbing serenely in the waters of Rijnhaven, Putaine is a truly memorable slice of Dutch fine dining, created and led by Michael Schook and Eva Eekman. With a focus on seasonality, the restaurant offers a cutting edge menu of small plates, with a recommendation that diners select five each. The chef then chooses the order in which they arrive.

Each course is an adventure in texture and flavour, introduced to us in flawless English by the servers; delicate, surprising and presented so beautifully that, three dishes in, we’re nourished gastronomically and aesthetically. The restaurant’s sommelier is eager to talk to us about our choice of wine – a Hungarian white, made with autochthonous grape varieties – and returns to our table regularly, offering samples from the cellar that have caught her attention. Her passion makes up for our lack of expertise.

Reluctantly leaving Putaine, it’s a taxi ride back toward the hotel (a land taxi, tragically) and an extended nightcap among the thronged bars of Witte de Withstraat. Lurching gracefully from one extreme to the other, we’re soon downing schooners of Dutch macro lager and contemplating a kapsalon – a true local delicacy, consisting of chips, topped with shawarma meat, cheese and warm lettuce. Fortunately, the better angels of our nature win out and we turn in, perchance to dream of amorous gnomes.

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