A little over a fortnight ago I enjoyed what was one of the most wonderful meals out I’ve had for some time.
My Grandmother had ventured to Den Haag earlier in the year to visit my older brother and recommended Oker. Shirley was so impressed with her experience, which I gathered was largely due to an attentive and entertaining waiter, that she decided to sponsor our night there (never underestimate the effect of good service on the pleasure of a meal). With some of the financial burden removed you inevitably relax a little more and are more able to take it in and spoil yourself.
The night started with a couple of drinks at the long, hardwood bar – the first being a reasonably stiff gin and tonic. The gin, Bombay Sapphire, in my mind is a little too fruity. It lacks the smooth rolling flavour that you get from a Tanqueray, Millers or Hendriks. It probably would have better with more ice and a cucumber, but that’s probably being a little too picky given the bar is focused on beers and wine, with impressive results.
We moved to the table after ordering a beer from the relaxed and knowledgeable barman – ‘Just a second gents, it tastes better from a glass.’ It is reassuring to be served by a waiter who takes his job seriously enough to give you that little piece of advice. To me, it signified the beginning of what should be a special night out.
Oker specialises in that popular concept of ‘tapas’ or at least, small plates aimed at giving you a tasting of more of what the kitchen can produce. Tapas has struck me as being more about the idea of sharing a bite to eat over an afternoon drink, however, it has clearly grown to mean a fair bit more. The food was served to the three of us quickly and with appropriate basic explanations of what the dishes entailed in embarrassing excellent English (the Dutch are so multilingual!).
We had a tuna sashimi served with a ginger caramel crisp, garlic mussels and an ‘inside out omelette’ sushi. The sushi was fluffy and textured with a generous portioning. The mussels: nuanced and delicious. Garlic can so quickly become an overbearing flavour, and when mixed with parsley and butter, the delicate flavours of the mussels can often be found wanting, however, this was not the case. The tuna sashimi was the clear standout. It was simply delicious. The crispiness of the ginger caramel snap played off so nicely against the smoothness of the fish. I was excited, thrilled in fact. One side note though, the kitchen looked crazily quiet. The two chefs seemed desperately bored. I was always under the impression that no matter what there are things that can be done, and it adds so much to the atmosphere of the room if the kitchen looks lively, with a buzz of activity. I know it was a Tuesday, and I know it was not very busy, but still.
The second round consisted of quite a range – from veal to fried eggs to lime coconut soup with shitake mushrooms and tiger prawns. My veal was good – the meat certainly felt and tasted young. There was a delicate richness to the flavours. I was glad not to be disappointed by my decision given that veal, having worked on a dairy farm, is an active decision to eat a baby animal. With this dish it had been put to good use. The soup was apparently ‘amazing’. I was less impressed with it, but it still wasn’t bad, I just didn’t think it was anything to rave about. That being said, my companion is a fan of Asian inspired seafood dishes and tends to go weak at the knees around any sort of prawn, so I wasn’t surprised. The fried egg I thought was an interesting attempt at something a little more risky – taking something simple and trying to make it the ‘hero’ of the dish. But the splendidly velvety potatoes that had been parboiled, smashed a little and then baked to perfection overshadowed the egg. A definite standout with the potato, but I think it made the dish a little incoherent. It was just kind of like ‘ Let’s do something whack’ and that’s how it turned out. Simon didn’t find it incoherent, but then he ordered it, so something must’ve grabbed him. Apparently he thought it was innovative and interesting – a ‘delight’ if I remember correctly. It just didn’t reach the same heights for me.
The final, heaviest dishes were tasty but all missed the mark a little. My scallops were cooked extremely well but were served with too much beetroot. I couldn’t taste the scallop when I tried the dish as a whole, which was a shame. The duck liver three ways was about the richest serving of food I have come across. It was just too much. Each portion: the parfait, the fried and the terrine, was suitably smooth and flavoursome. But in total, it was an uphill battle to get through to the end. Finally, the duck confit with pancakes was simple and delicious. The ritual of rolling them up and putting them together added to the theatre of the dish but it didn’t necessarily make them better. Particularly given the mess poor old Simon made of himself. He says he managed to eat it with delicacy and grace. For any of you that know my older brother, delicacy and grace don’t readily spring to mind.
The night was finished some Pedro Ximinez and dessert. The cheese was presented well and explained without snobbery or indecipherable technicality. The choc fudge was a little too full on for the end of a long meal but the cheesecake went down a treat given the combination of the strawberry and champagne sorbet.
The quality of the service really can swing a meal, from mediocre to outstanding and back again. I feel as if Oker had done a quality
job in providing the sort of dynamic you want in a restaurant asking you to spend a little more than normal. We were undeniably lucky given the small numbers in the restaurant, which allowed the banter to flow easily between the three of us and the two male waiters. We let the waiter choose our wine for us forgetting to check the price upon his suggestion. Thankfully after a momentary panic and check of the list, he had provided us with a bottle of Pinot down the bottom end of what was on offer.
I enjoyed my night out at Oker, it was fun and the food was great. I would definitely recommend it to anyone intent on having a special night out with great staff who are professional enough to not go for the up-sell shamelessly when you ask for some advice. The bonus of a chef pushing the envelope is that they might put together an exciting new way of presenting an old classic – such as the tuna sashimi. The memory of those delicious little morsels continues to linger.