Inasmuch as you care about how we find our stories, this one happened quite by accident. It came on the tail end of a trip to Europe for the madness that is the World Barista Championships, held last summer in Rimini, Italy. You lose a couple of days on your way into Europe from the American west coast; sure, convince yourself that you are a master of jet lag by staying up til 10pm the night you arrive, but sooner or later the exhaustion will come, and you’ll have slept 15 hours without meaning to, or be up chattering at 3 am. The only people who are truly resistant to jet lag are drunks: so great is their enthusiasm for the bar, they muster a kind of unnatural adaptation to the strains of travel. To ease this jagged transition, and hopefully avoid the bar too much, we decided to take a weekend off in Amsterdam on the way home–no working, no writing.
It had been a long 10 days in Europe before we got to Amsterdam, a city whose character felt charmingly authentic coming on the heels of our previous itinerary. (Berlin: overrun by Australians and Americans; Adriatic Italy: pasta menus in Russian.) We arrived on Friday night, the opening night of Holland’s 2014 World Cup bid, and it felt like the entire city was outside watching the game, in parks and outdoor seating sections for bars, in little neighborhood squares and sleepily stoned coffee shops. Holland trounced Spain 5-1. I had a lot of beer spilled on me. The experience buttressed my long-held belief that if you come to Europe for work, you’re doing it wrong.
The next morning our plans were vague: a magazine store, a cafe or two, some window shopping, a nice long walk. The weather was dreary and cool. I wouldn’t be working today. No laptop, no notebook, a proper day off. We’d had friends loosely recommend a cafe or two, but it seemed like most folks were surprised that we’d be bothering with Amsterdam as a coffee destination in Europe. Compared to Berlin or London or Paris, Amsterdam was surely lacking. The one new place coffee friends had half-heard of, but didn’t know much about, was called Scandinavian Embassy, located outside of Centrum in the De Pijp neighborhood of Amsterdam.
De Pijp was where we snagged a reasonably priced AirBNB, so it made sense to visit Scandinavian Embassy first. There was no hype whatsoever around this place when we walked in. I wasn’t prepared.
Scandinavian Embassy sits in a little shotgun storefront on a leafy block just off Sarphatipark, in a quiet corner of De Pijp. The space is all blonde wood and white walls, anchored by a long bank of bar seating perched in front of the coffee bar and open kitchen. It is an immediately intimate space, patrolled by the owner / operator duo of Rikard Andersson and Nicolas Castagno.
We were astonished, on first glance, by the beauty and simplicity of the space, its loving detail and warmth. As a welcome, Mr. Castagno pulled us a shot of Coffee Collective Kenya Kieni, as Mr. Andersson plated an achingly gorgeous, delicate set of poached eggs for the couple seated next to us. There was an audible hum of conviviality throughout the cafe. Our espressos were delicious.
The day off was canceled. I started taking notes.
Argentinian-born Nicolas Castagno moved to Sweden in his 20s to chase a girl, and stayed to get involved in Stockholm’s progressive coffee scene. His time in Sweden was spent largely with Drop Coffee, one of the country’s very best, and named as the Sprudgie Award winner in 2014 for Notable Roaster. That was the same year Castagno won the Swedish Brewers Cup, which meant travel to Melbourne for the 2013 World Brewers Cup championship, a trip that would prove to be highly influential for the service at Scandinavian Embassy.
Throughout our morning meal, Castagno skillfully prepared a wide variety of filter and espresso coffees on a La Marzocco Linea PB. The coffees at Scandinavian Embassy are all from Nordic roasters, which during our visit included Tim Wendelboe and Coffee Collective.
The food at Scandinavian Embassy is overseen by Rikard Andersson, who is originally from a small agricultural village in Sweden, where he was once a member of the military police. A photo of Andersson in full military regalia atop a horse hangs over Scandinavian Embassy’s toilet, a relic of his past life. Andersson later worked as an attorney in the financial sector of Copenhagen for many listless years before meeting his current girlfriend, who helped him realize and actualize a solution for his professional dissatisfaction.
There are many stories like Rikard Andersson: professionally successful young person in fact despises his or her chosen career path, and decides to give it all up for X. For Rikard, it was cooking. A lover of food and meticulously detail focused, chef work was a natural fit, and it took Andersson all the way to Amsterdam and the kitchen of Restaurant Christophe’, a Michelin starred restaurant that has now closed. Together with his partner and their dachshund, Java, they settled in the De Pijp neighborhood and began plotting a next step.
Rikard Andersson and Nicolas Castagno have known each other since the tender age of 16. Andersson was an exchange student in Nico’s home town of San Francisco, outside of Cordoba, Argentina. They bonded at an early age over a love of punk rock. More than a decade later they’ve built something together that isn’t exactly punk rock–at least not aesthetically–but is indeed authentically DIY, a genuine expression of their combined efforts, built plank by plank from scratch.
Our visit happened in early June, which is Ethiopian coffee time for many of the best roasters in the world. Sweet, fragrant, clean–the chorus of filtered Ethiopian coffees Mr. Castagno served us from Tim Wendelboe were a graduate course on the subject. Many places around the world source from these and other noted Nordic roasters, but rarely do they taste so expressive of their original style and culture as in Mr. Castagno’s charge. Drinking coffee from Nico Castagno at Nordic Embassy is like watching one of the masters work in his preferred style. Sure, you’d take any Picasso, but wouldn’t you prefer something from the blue period?
For what it’s worth, we don’t walk into cafes wearing our own t-shirts or handing out magazines. As any food reviewer can tell you, anonymity is preferable for the sake of judging authenticity of experience. But as any well-known food reviewer will admit, this anonymity is sometimes impossible, and when your cover’s blown, you go from there.
Our first glimpse of Scandinavian Embassy’s food and coffee left us hungry for more. The next morning, we came back for a full breakfast. When we sat down, the first words out of Andersson’s mouth were: “Are you hungover?” No, we took it easy last night. “Good, because I want to start you off with oysters, but if you were hungover, they might be a little strong.” That’s a bit of a gruff, no-nonsense way to start a service interaction, but for Rikard Andersson, and the food he cooks, it could not be more perfect.
The food at Scandinavian Embassy is unabashedly different, and at times challenging. Tearing into the fat of a gigantic Dutch oyster with a knife and fork at 10am as you sip on an espresso? Few would describe this as “morning comfort food.” But in that question–“Are you hungover?“–the chef is asking you to trust him, to trust not just that he understands the conventions he is challenging and why that might be a bad idea, but also to trust that what is most important to him is your happiness as a guest, not the culinary heights he might be capable of reaching. It is a very personal thing to be asked and answered across the bar; it disarms you in the best imaginable way, and prepares you for an experience that affords no divide at all between “coffee” service and “food” service, but is instead a wildly ambitious and challenging synthesis of both.
The second course at Scandinavian Embassy was a smoked Normandie oyster, prepared by Andersson with a satchel of ground Yirgacheffe coffee inside the smoker. It was served with a cooled Tim Wendelboe Brazil Sitio Canaa, served in a frosted wine glass. Prepared hot and cooled in an ice bath, this cup of coffee was brewed with an extra long infusion to stand up to the cool temp. It tasted like the clean essence of chocolate, and paired marvelously, if unexpectedly, with the brine and smoke of the oyster.
“Coffee is stepping up, food is changing,” Castagno told me as we moved into the third pairing of food and coffee. “Everyone wants to make better coffee, and we’re bringing the best in the market.” Up next was another Ethiopian coffee, this time by Drop, served as a cappuccino and just ringing with acidity and sweetness. This was paired with Andersson’s homemade blueberry porridge, served with Dutch goat yogurt and honey. Andersson is fond of taking drives out to the Dutch countryside on weekends, dachshund in tow, and buying up dairy products from small producers outside Amsterdam.
This porridge course…it makes me want to break the rules of how to write about taste experiences by comparing it all to music. A great big symphony of lows and highs, flutes and violas, sweet and savory and biting and comforting all at once, creating a symphonic swell in our mouths. The yogurt should be a cream note, but it somehow isn’t; this is raw, earthy, funky yogurt, farm direct and challenging and almost kind of disturbingly delicious. The cappuccino should be a cream note as well, but it somehow isn’t; a cappuccino in the right hands can be so much more than milky bass tones, and this cappuccino had zing and zip and zest.
You almost start to wonder if they fully realize what they’re doing, this complete integration of food and coffee, a barista and a chef with decades of friendship between them, working in tandem to hand extraordinary things to you across the bar. But they know full well. It is not a happy accident. The execution is is intentional. “This place is about using coffee as an ingredient, and not being afraid of doing that,” Andersson tells us, as we snack happily on a mid-course piece of perfectly semi-sweet Scandinavian cardamom rolls, prepared earlier that day by Scandinavian Embassy’s staff pastry chef, Kristina Larnsdotter Ndebele. Because of course this tiny beautiful cafe has its own pastry chef, who puts the doughs on the espresso machine to warm and rise each morning before they open. The air gets so rare it’s nearly dizzying.
More coffee. More courses. The show-stopper comes out next.
A single-leaf bed of lettuce containing potato salad, smoked moose offal, and Swedish brown bear sausage, accompanied by yet another deliriously sweet Ethiopian brewed coffee, again by Tim Wendelboe. “Pairing something salty with something sweet is often what we like to do,” Andersson tell us. “For us, the sweetness of something like an Ethiopian coffee makes for opportunities like this.”
Potato salad in this style is so quintessentially Nordic, ringing with earthy, deep elements of the ocean (“pureed anchovies”, we’re told, but he could have just as easily said “magic” and we would have nodded, and kept eating). Compressed, smoked moose offal? Sure. Bear sausage? But how? It’s from a farm in the north of Sweden, which along with a variety of produce (lingonberries, chanterelles, you know) are being snuck through Dutch customs on a regular schedule by Andersson’s family and friends. I can taste the moose offal now, months later, because I have never tasted anything else like it in my life.
It’s rare that we make value judgements in the content published on Sprudge. Our preferred style is documentarian, the implication being if we’re writing about a place or a person or a moment in coffee, it’s a point worth making, ink worth shedding. But after much consideration, it’s our conclusion that there’s simply no way to talk about Scandinavian Embassy without stepping out from beyond those norms. This is one of the best coffee bars on the planet right now, and its food service, prepared with daring intimacy across a simple communal bar, is worthy of consideration by Michelin or any other restaurant tastemaker.
This place alone is worth a visit to Amsterdam. Rarely are food and coffee artisans able to fuse the immediacy and honesty of an owner-operated business with the kind of polish and execution Mssrs. Castagno and Andersson achieve. Together they’ve created something so extraordinary, so noteworthy, that we cannot write about it without using those words.
Progressive coffee is toddling, step by careful step, into being fully embraced by the highest heights of the culinary world. It’s my belief that we’ll see more daring chefs like Rikard Andersson teaming up with coffee professionals like Nicolas Castagno in the coming years. In a way, at my most optimistic, Scandinavian Embassy is like a message in a bottle, sent back in time from a future where the best food in the world and the best coffee in the world hold hands and blow minds in gleeful congress. It’s a world I want to live in, and it’s a union that great coffee deserves.
But Scandinavian Embassy is here right now, and open for business on a quiet parkside street in Amsterdam. Start planning your pilgrimage, and thank us later.
Jordan Michelman is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge.com. Read more Jordan Michelman on Sprudge.
All photos by Alex Bernson for Sprudge.com.