Over the last decade, Europe has seen somewhat of an explosion in modern Middle Eastern food. Think bestselling cookbooks by the wonderful Yotam Ottolenghi (who spent a year living and working in Amsterdam); a complete reinvention of the food scene in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem kick-started by the hugely lauded Machneyuda; a new obsession with Israeli/Palestinian staples houmous and falafel (to say nothing of a total reinvention of the humble cauliflower) and a glut of high quality award-winning restaurants across Western Europe including The Palomar and The Barbary in London and Miznon in Paris.
Riding the back of this wave in Central Europe a new name burst on the scene. In 2009 NENI arrived in Vienna’s historic Naschmarkt and has since expanded from Austria to Germany and onwards to Amsterdam.
NENI is the brainchild of kitchen matriarch Haya and sons Nuriel, Elior, Nadiv and Ilan (yup NENI).
Born in Tel Aviv, Haya spent her childhood in Germany and settled with her husband in Vienna where she started a catering business before eventually opening the first branch of NENI in Vienna’s Naschmarkt. The business created a real stir, shaking up a rather traditional Viennese food scene and after subsequent successful expansion into the heart of foodie Germany via Berlin, Hamburg and Munich, the business has now extended further to branches in Paris, Majorca and Amsterdam. Meanwhile Haya has somehow still found the time to pen a cookery book packed with stories, pictures and recipes from her beloved Tel Aviv.
For NENI Amsterdam, the family took over the iconic Citroën garage building near the Olympic Stadium and gave the space a new lease of life. NENI is more than just a restaurant, the building also houses a deli, a cocktail bar and a bakery. The huge space has been brought to life with trees, a vast open kitchen and lashings of NENI yellow paint.
I was lucky enough to be invited for dinner, and who better to take as my partner in crime than the fabulous Sharon – fellow foodie and Israeli-Amsterdammer.
Much as it did in its native Vienna, NENI has rapidly established itself on the Amsterdam food scene. Since it opened earlier this year, there has been a buzz about the place that has kept it busy from dawn to dusk. With huge sharing tables in the deli that make it the perfect location for a working breakfast through to booths, banquettes and larger round tables for weekend brunch, weekday lunch and dinner (followed by cocktails in the Lemonman bar) Amsterdammers have made it their own and the convivial atmosphere has meant that from celebrations to dates, the tables under the indoor trees already have stories to tell.
The space is lovely and quite refreshingly for Amsterdam these days it has not entirely been designed around Instagram moments. So rather than pouting influencers you tend to get the hum of an international clientele getting on with enjoying good food, good company and good drinks.
So what of the food? As tempted as Sharon and I were by the idea of the Balagan menu:
Take a journey through our cuisine with the Balagan menu. A selection of Mezze, Main courses and Desserts to share in the the true essence of NENI.
Of course it’s the most fun to share with a minimum of two people and the bigger the group, the bigger the Balagan. Basically this is what Balagan means: sympathetic chaos.
we are picky eaters who were especially keen to try specific items so we opted for a la carte with four mezzes, two mains and dessert.
First up was bread served alongside a plate of olives with labne topped with sumac and za’atar and a glug of chilli olive oil. I ate far too much of it before the meal had even begun.
Starters included raw fish crudo topped with pomegranate; popcorn falafel (with an incredibly moreish lime and ginger tahina), charcoal roasted celeriac, and my nemesis – roasted cauliflower. I don’t eat cauliflower as a rule, in fact I generally can’t abide it but having been told it was a NENI speciality, I felt I had to commit fully.
The cauliflower was probably the mezze highlight – served with gremolata and yoghurt it proved to be extremely good as was the tahina which we scraped clean.
For mains it was a hard choice between items from the ‘Plancha and Stove’ and those from the ‘Charcoal Grill’ (the ‘Stone Oven’ was out of action on our visit). We decided on the Spicy Caramelised Eggplant and Butcher Steak. Though not spicy at all, the aubergine was sweet and sticky, the perfect accompaniment to the steamed rice. The steak was tender and worked perfectly with cherry tomatoes and horseradish cream.
For dessert we opted for Mascarpone Mousse (served with cantucci cookies and madeira) and the Knafe which might just have been my favourite part of the meal – described as “Cheese filled baked kadaif, served with yoghurt ice cream” it was strands of sweet baklava served with a very slightly sour creamy cheesy mascarpone ricotta mixture. It was excellent as the empty plates below attest.
Drinks were also notable. Whilst Sharon had a good glass of wine (and a sundown arak) I opted for The Lemonman signature cocktail:
Bombay Sapphire Gin, Lemon Juice, Elderflower, Rosemary syrup, Orgeat [a sweet syrup made from almonds, sugar and rose or orange flower water] and Tonic.
It was as dreamy as it sounds and full of fragrant rosemary. So good in fact, I had a second.
And for those looking for something non-alcoholic, the range of juices and homemade NENI lemonades are barely a compromise.
*We were invited as guests of NENI but would only ever offer positive reviews of restaurants that we would genuinely be keen to recommend. NENI has made it onto our “50 Amsterdam Restaurants You Can’t Afford To Miss” list and deservedly so. We are 100% happy to endorse it.