I've just worked out why there are 600,000 bicycles in Amsterdam: it's because you have to be able to cover the ground fast to keep up with the local dining scene. Over the last three years, I've watched with amazement as a new breed of sophisticated, fashionable, modern restaurant has cropped up next to the herring stalls and croquette automat bars.
First came Anoushka Hempel's Blakes Hotel (now The Dylan), where chef Schilo van Coevorden conjured up deconstructed East-West fusion food such as foie gras soup with Thai basil and lime. Next came the enchanting De Kas, which is not only set in a stunning greenhouse in a park, but grows its own vegetables and herbs for the gentle, well-bred flavours of its highly seasonal menu.
Since then, there has been Brasserie Harkema, with its feed-the-people philosophy; Jamie Oliver's train-the-people charity franchise, Fifteen; and the look-at-the-people Onassis, with its tuna tartare bruschetta. In the last six months, both The Mansion and Envy have kept the bicycles so busy that the tyres are wearing thin.
Now I'm here to check out one of the most unlikely success stories of modern Amsterdam, at the chic new boutique hotel, The College. What makes this place different is the fact that it really is a college. Housed in a glorious former school built around the same time as the nearby Rijksmuseum, it is also a hospitality training centre owned by the ROC Amsterdam Hotel Management School. So the place is run by a bunch of hotel trainees, while the stunning-looking restaurant is run by catering students and apprentice chefs, with the odd professional strategically placed to make sure they don't kill anyone.
Executive Chef Schilo van Coevorden divides his time between The College and The Dylan, here taking his inspiration, charmingly, from Dutch home cooking. Childhood flavours (cheese croquettes, licorice, calf's liver, apple cake, crepes) are turned into something at once familiar and futuristic on the deliberately opaque menu, which cites "mussels from Zeeland ice-cream" next to "shrimp cocktail, deep-fried, toast, salad".
Amsterdammers keen to taste the cappuccino lentil soup with baked black pudding, warm smoked eel with radish and apple syrup, and treacle wafer soufflé with advocaat ice cream, have to prepare themselves for a three-week wait for a table. By the look of the heaving bar, they've all decided to sit it out with cocktails and Grolsch.
Set in what was once the school gymnasium, the split-level, whitewashed dining room is a modern space with homely touches - drawing-room lamps, corduroy banquettes and blue-and-white crockery reminiscent of Delftware. A long, narrow gullet of a kitchen runs alongside one entire wall in River Café style, and one can just make out head chef Pepijn Schut and his black-capped brigade of seven students and one sous chef. I conquer my fear of death-by-apprentice and put in an order.
What follows puts me to shame. Take the "Neerlandsch Pallet", a Dutch platter of little mouthfuls that are both rustic and radical. A miniature square of oxtail terrine layered with a frosting of mustard jelly is an earthy joy, while a shot glass of verdant apple infusion with corn wine is about as appley as apple gets. A craggy, golden croquette filled with melting, mature Stolwijkse cheese is slowed-up fast food, and a pale scoop of Zeeland mussel sorbet is weird but wonderful, like icy cold mussel essence.
The wine list is not so rich in Dutch references, but has a decent array of middle-range European wine with new-world offerings, including a plummy, spicy Black River Malbec from Patagonia (€37.50, £25).
The hit of the night is "veal liver heaven and earth"- thickly sliced, pinkly cooked liver topped with sautéed apples and a slab of sweet, black, blood pudding. It's a great dish, taking gastropub flavours to an elegant level, with a pool of bacon-studded jus supporting a film of mash the texture of silk.
Also good is a miniature Dutch apple pie drenched in a perfect custard, and a wooden box of house-made chocolates and "old Dutch cookies" including a divine, pink-iced millefeuille vanilla slice that is everyone's childhood rolled into one.
The only real miss is a starter of sautéed wild oysters, wrapped in bacon and served in their shells, in which overcooking robs the oysters of their juicy plumpness and their point. That's one small minus in a night of plusses: perfect pacing, solid technique, and a harmony of flavours that would leave many a trained chef gawping.
Given that 80 per cent of the staff are students, I'm in awe of their professionalism. If this is any indication of the level of industry training, then I'm not surprised by the quality of the recent openings around town. Just imagine what it's going to be like in two or three years when these kids graduate. Memo to self: buy a bicycle.
15/20 The College Restaurant, The College Hotel, Roelof Hartstraat, 1 Amsterdam, tel: 00 31 20 571 1511
Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 OK 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Lunch daily; dinner served Monday to Saturday, €78 (£53) for three courses for two, plus wine and service
Second helpings: More happening restaurants in Amsterdam
Envy Prinsengracht, 381, tel: 00 31 20 344 6407
Bert van der Leden of the Supperclub and the design team Concrete have combined to create this very new, very hot wine bar and restaurant, dishing up small plates of beautifully finessed flavours. I loved the tuna sashimi with soy jelly and wasabi foam, and the chocolates-on-a-stick.
The Mansion Hobbemastraat, 2, tel: 00 31 20 616 6664
This Draculean mix of Nobu, Hakkasan and the corner Chinese is a black-netted, crystal-chandeliered, theatrically lit mansion. The beautiful crowd go for new-style sashimi, steaming dim sum baskets, Cantonese duck rolls and lobster and noodles.
Brasserie Harkema Nes, 67, tel: 00 31 20 428 2222 Housed in an old tobacco warehouse in the heart of the city, this vast, French-style brasserie has been popular since it first opened back in 2003. A goodly cross-section of Amsterdam drops in to fuel up on burgers, risotto, pasta, and steak and chips.
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