Fabulous Food and Fado by the Amstel

If you can’t get to Portugal in person, go to Restaurant Girassol on the banks of the Amstel River in Amsterdam. Even in winter, the expansive hospitality will warm you, the very drinkable house wines will charm you, and the imaginative, beautifully presented food will win you over. If you are a lover of traditional Portuguese fado music, you will find yourself in heaven on the restaurant’s twice-monthly winter nights with singer Maria de Fatima. In summer, the terrace on the River would make the trip worthwhile in itself.

Girassol’s dining room is small in the best sense, just 20 tables nicely clustered, including a glassed in porch at the front.

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Murals and fine tiles set the atmosphere indoors, but it’s the people who really make you feel that you’re in Portugal. As much as I enjoy being in the Netherlands, the service in many restaurants and cafés is often slow and indifferent. In only five minutes, three different people at Girassol had greeted us and offered us drinks, including co-proprietor Wilma Texeira. Every one of them smiled and showed concern for our welfare.

At that very busy time right before the fado was to begin, I asked to taste two of the house wines. No problem. The other owner, Carlos Texeira, brought them over himself and was gratified to discuss them. In moments, we had a bottle of superior rosé, crunchy bread hot from the oven and a luscious tapenade. Next, I chose a duck confit that any restaurant would be proud of, falling off the bone for only good reasons. The main dish was a fish whose name I didn’t catch cooked to flaky perfection, then served atop creamy potatoes and a variety of other vegetables that melted away on the tongue.

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When dessert arrived, it was the piece de résistance: four mouthfuls of superb flourless chocolate cake with a side of sponge cake, accompanied on the journey by strawberry and lemon mousses divided by a fine green line of mint. It looked like a fine painting but tasted much better.

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Between courses, we were treated to fado of a far, far better quality than we had any reason to expect in a tiny venue in Amsterdam. Maria de Fatima looks the part, with the black shawl and dress, the beautiful and wise features of a woman who has seen a lot in life, the well cut but simple coiffure. Her voice is as good as the best French wine you have ever been lucky enough to drink: rich, deep, longlasting and varied.

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She grew up in Lisbon and began singing this music at the age of eight, and was performing only a few years later. It is literally in her blood, and she has never tired of it, only held it closer and closer. Her accompanists on the Portuguese guitar, guitar and string base are as tuned to her as other human beings could be. When they play on their own, you realize what amazing musicians they are in their own right.

The mood of fado always includes a melancholy, or at least nostalgic, strain; they are after all songs of fate with origins in Moorish and Brazilian slave music. Maria also varied the program to include more upbeat moments, and she was skilled at luring the crowd into singing with her. Many seemed to be regulars who knew the songs. I can’t wait to join them.