Sampling seven Amsterdam Soupfest locations

Nothing warms you up like a bowl of soup on a dreary day, or rather 21 different local restaurants, bars, and bistros serving samples of their best soups with their own personal touch. Last Saturday, January 25 was a walk-through soup tasting event, at only a dollar per cup, with soups ranging from spicy shrimp gumbo, to creamy clam chowder and all sorts of chicken, cheese and vegetables in between served with a smile. My blogging partner from Table for Two Jeremy Wittkopp and I took a self-guided tour across the streets of Amsterdam to sample at seven locations and see what the folks had to offer. Good thing I didn’t have a big breakfast. Lauren Montera and I came hungry for flavor, texture, technique, and creativity. Remember, no dumped-out cans of Campbell’s, Progresso, or Wolfgang Puck’s soups allowed. Even McDonald’s couldn’t get away with that one 20 years ago.

Lauren writes in blue

Jeremy writes in green

Photos by Nick Montera

At our first stop, we were greeted with music at the door of Russo’s Bar and Grill. They served minestrone soup and lobster bisque traditional to their Italian roots. We sat down with two ladies who couldn’t say enough about the smooth sea-worthy bisque with hints of black pepper while I savored the fast-flying ricotta cheese, spinach and artichoke pizza slices on a thin crust. It paired perfectly with the minestrone in a like-with-like sort of way. The vegetables didn’t sit for too long in the broth, so the onions were softened, but not too squishy. Squishy vegetables are always a turn-off for me with the exception of creamed, mashed or pureed. I see where you’re coming from. I for one liked how the greens and pancetta were balanced out so nothing was crowded. Italian meats are usually cured as a means of preservation. By adding a salty meat or fish to your broth, you can use less stock and omit the table salt all together. It’s already there! Nothing says efficient like a food that flavors itself.

The “G” in “G’s Famous Lemon Cookies” could have stood for grandma because everyone left with a cookie in one hand and a cup of grandma’s style chicken noodle soup just as good as when they were kids in the other. I could eat a bowl of these carrots, greens and chicken bits over spaghetti twice a week sans complaints. I don’t know, Lauren, this one was kind of salty to me. Not much in the ways of creativity either. But Jeremy, remember how my mother keeps simple dishes pure without trying to overcompensate for it. My aunt on the other hand, over-embellishes and exaggerates techniques she saw on TV superfluously on top of doing the original recipe ending in a ghastly mess, like wearing too much spray-tan. It’s just too much to handle where it’s not needed. G’s did a fabulous job of keeping things clean and easy to enjoy. Yeah, you do have a point. Don’t I always? Yes, Darling…they did have good knife cuts and picked a classic dish everybody can eat happily instead of trying to target one particular group of fans. I gave the rest of mine to Lauren.

Another “G” word is gumbo, a southern US favorite popular in Louisiana, served to us at Sharpshooters Billiards and Sports Pub. We were just in time for the ladies to pour out another fresh steaming pot right before our eyes. Along the sidelines was a topping bar complete with cooling avocado cubes, jasmine rice and hot sauce for those who want to fan their flames. Though I’m not much of a gumbo fan, (I prefer jambalaya), I really appreciated the medium-perfect cook on the shrimp. This one is expected to hit the salty spot with thick slices of andouille sausage, but what I loved most was the peppers. I could taste the delightfully bitter okra, but it was balanced out with the tongue-tingling heat. I’m just glad it wasn’t slimy on the way down. It had some nice body to it. Pass the avocado, I’m burning just thinking about it! Jeremy got the rest of mine this time. If you can’t take the heat, go to the next soup.

Fresh taro with root vegetables and corn were all the rage in the voted-most-unique, Cuban chicken soup at La Piazza Social Club. We were given lemon wedges for a bit of brightness, so I kind of dunked mine after giving it a good squeeze. Kudos to the chef, I’m keen on taro root, but I could never find a good place for it other than as a side dish. I might just have to make this trick a habit. Usually, soup is served on the side introducing a hearty meal. This sample gave us the slip that a full bowl would’ve been very satisfying before you even think of entrees. The chef said there were enough tiny pieces of bone left to share with her dogs. Bone broth is so good for your calcium levels and general wellness in the teeth and obviously skeleton. I fell head over heels for the strings of juicy and tender chicken. The miniature corn cob brought me to a sunny summer day. It goes to show that just because it comes from a certain style of cooking, doesn’t mean it’s all the same. We awarded this soup half of first place.

The Irish American Club on the other hand didn’t so much have a soup as they did a combo platter. They served up a cup of cheese and potato soup and let customers buy a corn-beef sandwich with chips and dill pickle spears on the side. Now that’s a value meal. Doesn’t it remind you of our cheese sandwiches dunked in tomato soup? The variables alone are okay, potato chunks in cheese with a strip of bacon, yum! But once paired with the corn-beef on rye, it’s a completely different picture. The meat seemed so barren with no sauce or condiments that it made the soup a necessity. Together, these deserve a manly thumbs-up. I’m sure somebody likes just cheese and potato as a soup with a sprig of parsley on top, but for me, with no rye to bring out the flavors and tone down the weight of the fat, I would’ve given a lower vote. One-note food is better than bland, but like I always say, “bland is boring.” So, I’m giving this one an average opinion.

I peeked at a spare menu in Creek Stone and there were many sugar-spice desserts like their she-crab soup such as the one presented to William Taft during his presidency. To me, it tasted like my Ravenclaw house inspired white hot chocolate. I’m guessing there was some cinnamon or nutmeg involved. As mine had a few pieces of shell, I can’t say it was perfect, but I would serve this as a hot dessert at a dinner party, especially since they used real shreds of crab meat instead of settling for surimi crab-stick like in most sushi restaurants.  No way, Darling, I would never put soup out as a dessert, no matter how sweet it was. This may have tasted like tiramisu, another good point, but still…it wasn’t all that interesting to me. I’m putting it below the Irish American Club, but I’m not spitting it out either. Yup, Lauren got the rest of mine again.

Bosco’s clam chowder was the cream of the crop. Even our photographer couldn’t get enough of this one. We both loved the use of soft corn kernels and hearty pancetta mingling in such silky broth. Highly sifted flour such as Wondra binds seamlessly into gravy, sauce or chowder without any disgusting pasty clumps. I suspect something like that was involved. Pancetta is powerful enough to cut through the cream and spice things up to perfection so you can ease up on the dashes of salt and black pepper. I adored the variance in texture most of all. Bosco’s Family Restaurant brought the flavors of Italy to the maritime comforts of the northeast US with this triangle of chowder, cream corn and cured meat. We’re calling it the warm and savory twin of rocky road ice cream. We both agree it deserved the other half of first place.

Our trip around the city was well worth the pocket money we spent. Amsterdam’s annual soupfest is a keeper in our books. It brought people together in the city, supported local eateries, and sparked a little healthy competition. I had a fun time too, much like an explorer taking everything in, learning tricks to the trade and diving head-first into a fun, mild adventure. There wasn’t a worst to award, but rather a treasure in each cup, be it for Jeremy, me, or both of us. I found mine in the simplicity of vegetables, the tender meats and the fullness of creams. As for me, I admired the spices, the blending flavors and bold choices. If we had our own entry, I’d like to try and do something like that Greek octopus soup we tried last summer. Maybe, or we could try and make something that tastes like fish tacos, or perhaps Swedish meatballs. Darling, you may just be on to something.

Read more of Lauren and Jeremy’s food adventures on their blog Table for Two