103 Second Avenue, New York NY 10003 (at East 6th; map); 212-253-0470; vandaagnyc.com
Service: Welcoming and knowledgable enough to compensate for opening glitches
Setting: A surprisingly lofty, cheekily decorated East Village space
Must-Haves: Bread basket, cucumber soup, Bitterballen, Hete Blicksem
Cost: Drinks around $12, starters $8-14, entrees $17-26
Vandaag, in a word, is refreshing.
Not just its drinks, though they are—built around genever and akvavit, beer and wine, some spirit-forward, some sweeter, all a bit more drinkable than they should be. Not just the food, though much of it is: vinegar and ginger and spirits winding through the menu, vibrant flavors that defy the salt-and-fat paradigm of so many restaurants these days.
But it's refreshing, too, to navigate an East Village dining room without climbing over chairs or toppling a busboy. To find entrées and appetizers, not a roster of small plates of heritage pork belly and bacon-fried everything. To be greeted warmly at a young downtown restaurant. And to find a menu that doesn't seem derivative—either of a single culinary tradition or of current restaurant standards. It's hard to compare Vandaag to another restaurant in New York right now.
The loosely Dutch and Danish venue, whose name translates to "today," opened in late July, a partnership of Brendan Spiro and chef Phillip Kirschen-Clark, who's put in time at Corton, wd~50, and Jimmy's No. 43. Dinner service soon followed. But while a better part of its opening press billed Vandaag as a genever bar that brought a kitchen along for the ride, it'd be unfair to regard it as anything less than a full-fledged restaurant. Sure, the bar takes center stage, and the place has a sense of humor—there's a projector running films in the basement, outside the bathroom; the walls are decorated with wacky print plates (hello, five-eyed cat!). But any kitchen that kicks off your meal with two amuses—two beautifully composed amuses, at that—clearly takes its food seriously.
Designed by Katie Stipe, formerly of Brooklyn's Clover Club, cocktails revolve around genever, akvavit, wine, or beer—though many other spirits find their way in, as well. The B-Side Sling (Bols genever, roobis vermouth, lemon, maraschino, bitters) and Pack Mule (strawberry-peppercorn akvavit, ginger, Pimms, lemon, Campari) were both sweeter than we'd anticipated, but well-balanced and terribly drinkable; the Manolin (akvavit, white rum, yellow chartreuse, lime, grapefruit syrup, kaffir lime) was more spirit-forward, drawing out and softening the sharp bite of chartreuse without obscuring the spirit.
Two amuses, delivered in smooth succession, immediately elevated our expectations for the meal. A tender sunchoke heart was topped with a pickled watermelon rind and accompanied by a creamy sunchoke puree; a custard-smooth corn soup shows off all the vegetable's August sweetness, with lemon verbena and saffron artfully laid on top; a chili oil and pickled okra kept things interesting. These two sips left me wanting a bowlful.
The menu's upper third may read as skippable—bread, pickles, and the like—but each description is far too modest an account of what ends up on your table. The bread basket? Country white and country wheat, sturdy crust and tender crumb, along with a beautiful fig-cardamom semolina bread, all from Vandaag's own bakery. Alone, they're worth an order, but become unmissable with the addition of a lentil-sumac spread and a small mound of gin butter. It's sharp and herbal, incorporating the aromatics of gin (orange zest, cardamon, juniper, pepper), with none of the alcohol; topped with a triumphant crown of sea salt, it now rivals Del Posto's whipped lardo for my favorite slather in town.
Soups are a strength, here: while many cucumber soups can be flat and muted, or almost juicelike, cucumber here is given body and a velvety texture, its fresh vegetal bite a backdrop for the cocktail of gin, mint, and ginger dancing on top. It's texturally playful, too, a soft ribbon of pickled cantelope under salty smoked eel that didn't sog in the slightest. It makes you think differently about what cucumber can accomplish. And the starters, with the sole exception of the heavy, lifeless lamb sweetbreads, were equally memorable: a sort of reimagined Caesar, taut fingers of romaine in a herring vinaigrette with crumbles of sausage and pistachios; a single massive prawn flanked by dehydrated corn and battered zucchini blossoms.
While much of the menu is this sort of bright, fresh fare, where Vandaag does rich and hearty, they do so extraordinarily well. Bitterballen, oxtail croquets, are fried to a greaseless crisp, an almost fragile shell housing a melty core of slow-braised oxtail bound with a gouda bechamel. Perhaps better is the Hete Blicksem, translated as "hot lightning"—a dish that, after two bites, had me longing for winter. Fingerling potatoes, apple bits and thick-cut chunks of bacon, all netted in a web of sweet stroop syrup: sweater food at its finest.
A slip of sea bream is given a spectacular crust, the mild fish perked up with pickled fennel and grapefruit confit that didn't lose its citrus punch. Lamb shoulder, cooked to a rosy medium rare, receives a similar treatment: just enough crust, tender flesh, enlivened by a bed of thinly shaved eggplant soaked through in the juices of sour cherries. And little neck clams bathe in a broth touched by aquavit, aleppo pepper, and vanilla—a sharp, saline elixir that tastes like nothing so much as an ocean liqueur. Perfect with the salty crunch of parsnip "frites."
A "Ham" Burger divided the diners at our table. Vandaag's is a blend of Pat LaFrieda pork and dry-aged beef, rolled in Benton's bacon, and slow-cooked as a roulade to medium rare; it's then sliced up and seared. Most of us loved the deeply funky meat trio, unlike any burger you've had: "It's more hammy in taste and texture than any burger you'll find," said Spiro, "thus the name." But if you're expecting a burger, you may object to the stiff bun, a bit difficult to bite through. By any standard, the potatoes, poached and then fried, are exquisite.
As with earlier dishes, desserts are works of skill and imagination, each more exciting than it first reads—a thick, spoon-clinging chocolate pudding topped with anise sprinkles and partnered with a chartreuse ice; peach lambic crisp with a quenelle of ras el hanout ice cream; and a Frisbee-sized stroopwafel that is bound to disappear, no matter how many plates preceded it.
Still in its opening weeks, Vandaag's service is not yet quite polished: in our time there, incorrect drinks were delivered twice, and one entrée followed the others by a good fifteen minutes. But the servers' knowledge, affability, and enthusiasm more than compensated for these missteps. Diners are greeted warmly; servers will elaborate and opine on any of the menu's dishes. And with very few exceptions, the caliber of the food is enough to excuse any bumps along the way.
To speak frankly, it's been a long time since I've been this surprised by a restaurant. I went expecting some sort of elevated, vaguely European-accented bar fare; I left with a renewed faith in New York's restaurants to produce something novel and exciting. Vandaag's kitchen operates within its own framework: the celebration of sour, of pickled elements and sharp fruits; the alliance of alcohol and food, beyond beer batters and wine-splashed reductions; the powerful use of anise and chicory, herring and roe, dishes that don't shy away from the flavors they harness.
Though Vandaag is more than a genever bar, that spirit of that liquor echoes through the menu. It may not be quite what gin drinkers are accustomed to: it's a bit more mature, a bit of a throwback, but with a greater depth of flavor than you might expect. Each sip has more going on than a first look would betray. And in the world of restaurants, that's a very good thing indeed.