Lisse Steakhuis’s bitterballen.
It’s been a long time coming, but it’s finally happened. Amsterdam’s historic and most popular pub food has made it to Greater Cincinnati at the new Lisse Steakhuis in Mainstrasse, in Covington, in the former Chez Nora. A Dutch-inspired steakhouse, Lisse is named after co-owner, Hans Philipo’s hometown in the Dutch province of West Holland, the bulb capital of the world. It’s also the first time the Dutch huis instead of the German haus has been used in a Mainstrasse business name.
After hearing about this new restaurant, and having seen an episode of Weird Foods with Andrew Zimmern about the Dutch pub treat, I sampled my first bitterballen last night with a friend. The restaurant is in the process of its soft opening, so service is being worked through and the Dutch dishes are being perfected. The team of black dressed, high booted, ‘simply irresistible’ hostesses make you feel more like you’re in a Robert Palmer video than a Dutch restaurant.
So what is a bitterballen? It’s a deep fried ball of meat pieces of veal or beef dispersed in a viscous roux or gravy. They’re not bitter at all, but salty and crunchy. They sometimes have onions or carrots or other chopped up vegetables and are typically flavored with nutmeg. There are other versions that are spicier and include curry. The croquet like treat are a much older, but distant cousin of our beloved sauerkraut balls. They are about 300 years old, a popular pub food to go with a Dutch beer. Legend has it that they are the Dutch answer to tapas, which they were exposed to during Spanish rule about 500 years ago. But they started to show up at pubs in the 1700s in Amsterdam. An enterprising pub owner was tired of losing hungry customers in the late afternoon, and so he invented these as an appetizer to hold them over to dinner, and keep them drinking into the evening.
The name bitterballen came from the fact that originally they were served with bitter liquors instead of today’s beers. If you’re used to the crunchy and sauerkrauty texture of a sauerkraut ball, then you might find the bitterballen a bit off putting. There’s really no texture outside of the crunchy, deep fried exterior. The inside is a gooey, or more accurately slimy center of warm gravy with meat bits. I would prefer some more texture with carrots, or even some onions. The saving grace of the dish is the spicy homemade ground mustard that accompanies the balls. It’s got a good amount of horseradish and heat.
The meat gravy inside the bitterballen.
So even though the bitterballen doesn’t live up to the texture and crunch of it’s younger cousin, the sauerkraut ball, the Dutch have a leg up on us in Cincinnati. They have a commercial manufacturer, actually several, who make bitterballen for the many pubs in and around Amsterdam who serve them. Van Doebben brands cranks out over 120 million bitterballen a year.
Lisse really upsold the bitterballen at the restaurant last night – every single table surrounding ours had an order. So whether we’ll see the bitterballen at an upcoming Oktoberfest remains to be answered, but we now have a great new Dutch restaurant with some interesting dishes to explore. And Lisses make a strong Windmill cocktail, which is also worth trying.