For a number of years now I have heard stories about one of Amsterdam’s most unusual and special dining experiences.
Vuurtoreneiland (literally lighthouse island) is a restaurant on a tiny island on the edge of the Ijsselmeer bay to the East of Amsterdam city centre. But this is no ordinary restaurant – in Summer this rugged outpost plays host to a temporary glass greenhouse whilst in Winter dinner is served in an underground bunker warmed by a fire and blankets.
Island occupancy began more than three centuries ago. At the time, the mayor of Amsterdam had a stone lighthouse built: the “Lantern of Ydoorn”. The current cast-iron lighthouse dates from 1893 and is still the only one in Amsterdam. In 1809 the island was turned over to military operations and was later handed to the Dutch forestry and nature commission. They in turn looked to entrepreneurs to preserve its heritage and the ambitious small-scale, high-quality, sustainable plan for the Vuurtoreneiland restaurant was born.
The idea is to eat “in and from nature”. The restaurant has no electricity or running water so the environmental impact is paramount and the set menu is of course seasonal. Despite a meat-based main on our visit, the menu is heavy on vegetables grown locally on the Beemster polder. Prepared using ‘old-fashioned artisan techniques’ everything is cooked entirely on an open fire.
When you book (2 months out unless you manage to secure a last minute slot) your €85pp secures you a boat trip, aperitif and snacks on the boat, a 5 course menu, water, coffee and tea. Wines or drinks with dinner are extra and are paid for on the boat on your return.
Vuurtoreneiland is a full evening commitment. the boat from the Lloyd Hotel dock leaves at 18.30 and returns 5 hours later at 23.30. Alternatively the “Sunday matinee” offers a chance to leave at 16.00 and return at 21.00.
With an hour’s boat journey each way that leaves 3 hours on the island for food and a chance to explore.
Let me say at this point that this type of experience is NOT Marc’s favourite in any respect. A fan of unpretentious, low-key places and an aversion for being committed to anything for hours (let alone something vegetable-focused!) meant that he definitely joined me on this adventure more out of love and loyalty than anything else (thanks Marcy!).
The boat waits for no one so we arrived in good time at the dock, ahead of departure. At about 18.15 the captain pulled up and guests started arriving ready to step on board.
As it was a warm evening everyone headed to the upstairs deck. Seating was “cosy” but we found a spot before popping into the hold for a picnic box containing cheese, charcuterie, nuts, homemade mustard and pickles. We also opted for the soft-drink accompaniment to the meal which proved to be a bit of a mistake. More of that later.
It takes an hour to get to the island. Amsterdam’s open water is less beautiful than its canal ring, so after initially enjoying the journey out past some of our favourite hotspots in North East Amsterdam we were less enamoured by the more industrial Eastern views. Eventually the boat has to pass through a lock and sluice gate (this takes quite some time) before pulling up at the island itself.
Arrival is a special experience. The staff stand along the little jetty whilst sheep and ducks roam across the wild terrain beyond.
Before the food is served, guests are encouraged to explore the little patch of land and take in the views of the water, land, a ruined fort, the lighthouse and of course the restaurant structure itself.
Let me cut to the chase and say that for me, the building, perched in this remote landscape is probably the most wonderful part of the experience. Stunning in its simplicity it is exceptionally beautiful and on our visit came to life in all weathers from bright sunshine through to torrential downpours as dusk turned to sunset and night.
In their words:
Eating in the greenhouse is elementary, there is almost nothing between inside and outside, clouds and weather pass you by immediately. Sometimes sunny and warm, other times spectacular thunderstorms, every evening unique and different.
Our experience absolutely lived up to this – not across several evenings but all in one.
It’s fair to say that Vuurtoreneiland embraces the slow food movement and I mean that in every respect. There are breaks between each of the courses (time to explore the landscape a little) and the food arrives when it is ready. Nothing is rushed out here.
Food wise, whilst hugely impressive in its production, we weren’t blown away. The lamb main was nice although there wasn’t a huge amount of it, starter and amuse bouche a little more hit and miss. Least impressive were the non-alcoholic juices and kombucha which ranged from odd to downright undrinkable.
But don’t let that put you off. I suspect that had we chosen wine from their cellar, or gone for the wine pairings, and had the experience been more Marc’s “thing” then we would have enjoyed the evening as much as everyone else around us.
This poetic description of their ethos on the website, perhaps does more justice than our own experience:
We do the cooking on Vuurtoreneiland with special care. It’s about tradition, nature, culture, labor & craft. Being together, eating together, sharing and experiencing. Meat on the bone, fish on the bone, vegetables from the ground. Suppliers and producers with whom we have a personal relationship. Local and seasonal. Products with character and a story.
Our producers are good for the environment, people and animals. Self-employed farmers, local hunters, fishermen, brewers and distillers, who follow their own path and share the same vision and passion for real food. We work with a fixed menu and from ‘head to tail’ in order not to waste anything.
Dishes are traditionally prepared, with hard work and our own hands. Fermenting, brining, preserving, preserving, smoking and roasting. With heat from an open fire and a wood-burning oven
But for me it was the building that was the biggest selling point. I absolutely LOVED the way it sat in the wild environment. Every time the light changed I dashed outside to take it all in again. Best of all was in the whipping rain when the place felt incredibly beautiful, wild and romantic.
Leaving as the sun set was again utterly extraordinary and as we pulled away from the jetty we saw the staff leaping into the water to celebrate the end of another long night.
The boat journey home was once again slow but tea and coffee were offered along with homemade biscuits.
Marc was visibly relieved when we finally docked back at The Lloyd Hotel. He won’t be rushing back, but for a one-off, foodie experience, Vuurtoreneiland is pretty magical and if you can spare the time you won’t forget it.