Bilal Al Mashta

Delft, a canal-ringed city in the western Netherlands, has two major claims to fame. One: it’s an important cultural and historical centre. And two: it’s an emerging eating and drinking hotspot, thanks to the efforts of people like Bilal Al Mashta. A graphic designer, partner in one of the city’s most popular vegetarian joints and a soon-to-be-published author – Coulis, a book about Algerian food and art, is out soon – Al Mashta is an ideal guide to one of the Netherlands’ most exciting food scenes.
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One of The Netherlands’ Most Historically Significant Cities

Known as the “royal city”, Delft is historically very important to the Netherlands. It’s where King Willem van Oranje was shot – an event which ignited the French Revolution – and where important Dutch figures are buried including members of the royal family, and Baroque painter Johannes Vermeer who is a native of Delft. The city has the wonderful visual landscape you think of when you think of the Netherlands, from old architecture and majestic churches to beautiful houses along the canals. Visitors also come for Delftware, the notorious blue-and-white pottery that’s still made entirely by hand in the city. As you can imagine, the city always catered to an older segment of tourists, so you didn’t always have casual dining. When you went out, it was a formal event that you dressed up for. You went to a chic dinner bound by a certain etiquette, and it was always expensive, so you did it once or twice a year with your family. Although the city is home to TU Delft – one of the biggest technical universities in the world – its significant student community has its exclusive hangouts and doesn’t mix with the older segment. It was my generation that changed things entirely. The most interesting places in Delft today were created by the boys and girls I grew up with and placed the city on the culinary map.

My Relationship With Delft

I was born in Algeria to an Iraqi father and Algerian mother, then lived in Libya until permanently settling in Delft in 1996. Coming from the hubbub and warmth of the Mediterranean into a colder environment took some getting used to, especially the part where people wanted to be home by six o’clock in the evening. I got to know Delft very well over the years and became attached to it. I love that it’s conveniently located between all the big cities in the Netherlands. Nothing is too far: Rotterdam is less than 15 minutes away by train and Amsterdam is about 45 minutes. Although Delft has its touristy side, it caters to it in a very different way than the bigger cities, so it’s still a charming little place to live. 

Vegetarian Food in Delft

I’ve always wanted to add some value to my community. I have a very weird CV and studied law, then graphic design. In 2015, I joined The Living, the first vegetarian restaurant in town. It was founded by my business partner Jorine Koster, a talented cook who’s as idealistic as I am about quality, sustainability and affordability. We were a couple then and I went from being a helping boyfriend to a full-time partner in business within months of opening. It was a success so we wanted to reach more people with our vision of good, well-priced meatless food. A year later, we opened Hummus, which is now our main project. We serve Middle Eastern, vegetarian soul food with traces of my Algerian heritage: things like shakshuka, vegetarian tagines and different kinds of hummus. It was the first of its kind in Delft. We initially asked ourselves why no one was bringing food from that region to Delft, so we decided to do it. Before I knew it, I got deeper into the area’s food scene and we opened a second location in The Hague. What’s wonderful is that most places offer good vegetarian and vegan options now and it’s become much easier to follow this kind of lifestyle in Delft.

Cool Places, Delicious Food and The Best Ravioli

Investors from outside Delft often try to venture into the food scene but fail to gain the traction they’re after because the mentality here is to encourage authentic, local effort. I love that, over the years, these efforts ended up covering all dining segments: from low-end to high-end. In the higher segment is De Centrale, an amazing project opened by two brothers and a friend around the same time as Hummus. They renovated a huge space that was a club and meatpacking hall and changed it to a beautiful, ambitious restaurant. They’re serving fine Western European food, in a super creative way and it’s on point. They source sustainably and go out of their way to do the things that should be done by restaurants at that level. If they continue this way, they will earn themselves a Michelin star soon. We had dinner there with the team not so long ago and I had the best ravioli I’ve eaten in my life. 

Ambitious Cooking in a Casual, Relaxed Setting

Friends of ours opened an aperitivo bar called Lakila not too long ago. They were strictly in the catering business and wanted to open their own Mediterranean-inspired restaurant. The quality they achieve is so high, the cooking is perfect and the atmosphere is very relaxed. If De Centrale is high-end because of its price and style of dining, then Lakila is its casual counterpart that nails very ambitious cooking. When hospitality businesses were not allowed to open in 2020, they set up a special counter and sold delicious pulpo (Galician-style octopus) sandwiches. This is the kind of young, creative agility we have now and not the sort of place travellers would know about.

“One of the Best Places to Eat in Delft”

Visitors also wouldn’t know about Toko Idola, one of the best places to eat in Delft. It’s my high school friend’s Indonesian deli. The interesting thing about the Netherlands is that we have a lot of influences from the old colonial countries, one of them being Indonesia. It’s so hard to get good, authentic Indonesian food, but Toko Idola does it perfectly in a very sober, relaxed place. You can have your food to go as well. His parents cook and he serves, so it feels so wholesome.

Soul Food from the Dutch Antilles

Tesi Boen is far from the city centre and serves a mixture of food from Suriname and the Dutch Antilles. There’s nothing pretty about it. It’s a very rugged place and the woman behind the counter never smiles, but a friend of mine came back from his holidays in Suriname and told me that he couldn’t find food as delicious there. It’s also a takeaway kind of place. I stopped eating meat five years ago, but I still eat fish occasionally, so I go there for the broodje bakkeljauw, a sandwich of breaded, salted fish in baguette-like bread: it’s sort of like a local banh mi. 

The Coolest Hidden Places in the City Centre

If friends are in Delft for just one day, I would take them for a stroll on Oude Kerkstraat to some of the coolest hidden places in the city centre. We’d start with coffee at Miss Morrison, a roaster with one or two tables, run by a couple called Martin and Cisca. They source their beans on a direct trade basis from farmers in South America, Africa and Indonesia and roast on premise. They’re our coffee suppliers for the restaurants, have become good friends and are incredibly knowledgeable. For lunch, we’d turn the corner to Wildgroei, the only place other than us that is fully vegetarian. It only serves lunch and offers Eastern and European fusion done with so much attention and so much care. On the same street is De Lelie which many deem to have the best ice cream in the region. It only does chocolate and ice cream. Since I’m into the classics, I usually go for pistachio, hazelnut or chocolate, but they have staples that are very Delft. We made a waffle here called stroopwafel and De Lelie serves it as an ice cream flavour.

A Beautiful Microbrewery That Was Worth the Wait

I don’t have the exact stats, but Delft has one of the highest densities of hospitality venues in the Netherlands. The best part is that you have a lot of drinking spots. We have a big beer culture so the Delfts Brouwhuis (“Delft brewery house”) is a place to visit. It’s the second microbrewery in Delft but it’s fairly new. It took five years to renovate this old, monumental building with archaeological foundations in the basement and turn it into a beautiful microbrewery. It’s a great place to relax with a perfect brew. I usually like blonde beers but you can’t go wrong with any of its beers.

Jazz and a Terrace in the Summer

I love Jazzcafé Bebop. The name speaks for itself: it has jazz jam sessions almost every day and a beautiful garden in the summer. It’s on an alley where all the clubs are and ends up with a very student-y vibe so I don’t go as often as I would like, but the terrace is still worth it for the good music and a nice glass of wine. 

The Squares of Delft

We have beautiful squares that are lit with fairy lights in summer. Prinsenhof is a historically important one as it’s where King Willem van Oranje was shot. The bullet hole is still there, framed on a wall. There is a nice café-bar there called Barbaar. Doelenplein is another square where the art house (film theatre) is and has a lot of small bars and restaurants. It doesn’t matter which one you pick because you’re essentially there to enjoy the wonderful atmosphere. I also like going to De Gist which is close to the beautiful new train station. It serves food but it’s meat-heavy so I usually just go there for beers. We don’t have a huge cocktail culture in the Netherlands – even less so in Delft – but there’s a cocktail bar on the big market square called Cafe Luna

The Best Suriname Food in Delft (Plus Seasonal Ingredients 101) 

We have a market every Saturday which mostly interests me for the flowers, and another on Thursday which is interesting food-wise. There’s a stand there called Madame Rai which does the best Suriname food in Delft. It does vegetarian really well and serves a vegetarian version of pom (Suriname meat and root vegetable casserole) that’s even better than the one with meat in it. I don’t handle MSG very well and Madame Rai doesn’t use any in its food, so it’s heaven for me. Locals go for the lekkerbek (local fried fish fillet) at the market while they shop for seasonal produce. Winter in Delft is all about cabbages, squashes and roots. We always look forward to asparagus season in March; the rhubarb season in June and the herring season in July. Herring is not for everyone because it’s eaten raw for breakfast and your mouth ends up smelling of it the whole day, but I think it’s delicious. 

A Long-Standing Wine and Cheese Delicatessen

There is a delicatessen called Verkade & Jacques that I almost want to call legendary. It mostly sells wine and Dutch cheeses, like Maasdammer and Edammer, and is always very busy because of its incredible selection of both. You can also have cheese sandwiches there. There are a lot of cheese shops in Delft but this is where you need to go. It’s been open for a very long time and the decor is a great indication of that.

A Museum Dedicated to Our Local Pottery 

Delft is most known for Delftware. If you’ve made it this far you should visit the Royal Delft: a really special museum for the craft and a tourist attraction for good reason. It has been hand-making and painting this pottery since 1653 and you can buy the best of it there.

Growing Together With Farmers

Hoeve Biesland is a farm on the outskirts of town and one of the first farms to grow organically and biodynamically. The farmer’s daughter has taken over part of the farm and has expanded it even further. We got in touch with them six years ago and have been sourcing for the restaurants from them since. We used to bring all our composted trash to the farm which was fed to the pigs. The farm also makes our dough for the restaurants using flour from the one mill still operating in Delft. It’s a beautiful cycle we’ve created together. They used to sell their produce out of a small caravan and during the lockdown it was the only place to go, so the farm started to get more popular. They opened a huge hangar that’s become the market for their produce. It’s amazing to see how it’s resonated with the city. On your way, you can stop at Café du Midi, owned by the parents of the folks behind De Centrale. It’s always busy. They kind of started off as a French brasserie but now serve traditional things such as pancakes that the city centre doesn’t do so great. They get really good produce and know what they’re doing. You can tell that they put their heart and soul in it. It’s a beautiful place with a lovely garden that has a small animal yard. 

Where You Should Stay in Delft 

The Student Hotel may sound like a weird place to stay, but it’s a cool hotel that’s partly for students and partly for visitors. It’s massive, well executed, well located – it’s opposite the station – and well-priced. The staff there give you bicycles to ride around and tell you exactly where you need to go. It’s very convenient and I recommend it to people of all ages because it’s as interesting a sleeping experience as it gets in Delft.

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