When I went out to restaurants as a child, my parents would warn me, "Don't fill up on the bread basket." At Vandaag, the East Village's Dutch-Scandinavian eatery, it's hard not to do just that. You seem them on nearly every table, the porcelain bowls overflowing with slabs of bread and billowing sheets of crisps. Accompanied with a flight of Danish beer, the bread makes an excellent cocktail-hour meal, especially when smeared with Vandaag's gin-scented butter and lemon-eggplant spread.
According to Vandaag owner Brendan Spiro, bread has been a center of the restaurant's offerings from the start: "We wanted a flavor profile fully owned by Vandaag. We knew that commercial bakeries would give us European-style boules, maybe with some seeds and pumpernickel in them. But we really wanted to build the flavors." With rare ambition for a neighborhood restaurateur, he decided to build his own bread program. He brought in Nathan Berg, a baker with roots in the New York Jewish baking world, and together they began to push the bread-making envelope. Today, Vandaag produces Scandinavian-style breads made with innovative flavors and techniques. Think semolina bread made with sour cherries and cardamom or a country white smoked with hay. They're delicious and, not coincidentally, they perfectly complement Vandaag's great selection of Northern European beer and flavored aquavit.
Vandaag divides its bread offerings between seasonal loaves and perennials. The top year-round loaf is the country white, a flour-dusted loaf with a touch of sweetness and the soft texture that's a hallmark of Vandaag breads. A much more intriguing version of this loaf is smoked by placing dry hay in the hot oven and allowing it to smolder next to the bread. The smoke lends an aroma that permeates the crust, but only whispers through the crumb. It makes a perfect counterpoint to a soft, tangy cheese to be washed down with beer.
The restaurant's beer bread is a seasonal that's making it onto the perennial list. It comes out of the oven artfully blackened, a technique that helps caramelize the defining ingredient: Rodenbach red ale from Belgium. The crumb is soft, with a rich, slightly sweet flavor that is set off by the slight bitterness of the crust. You find a similar loaf in Vandaag's wild honey wheat, the sweetest of their "savory" breads. Its tantalizing perfume vies with the hay-smoked white in the breadbasket. You don't need jam: The honey wheat with butter and a cup of strong coffee make the complete breakfast.
For a completely different taste, the Vandaag breadbasket also offers slices of seaweed foccacia--a nod to the summer beach season, I guess. Nathan makes it from three kinds of seaweed: wakame, kombu, and kelp. The bread is only a touch oily, with a salty flavor redolent of the sea and a hint of umami. And at the back of the breadbasket rise twin sails of pumpernickel flatbread. They're crisp, crunchy with rye berries, and addictive. As you graze your way through these offerings, you realize that the Vandaag bread basket is a kind of Trojan horse: Every bite seems to call for another sip of a really good beer. This is bread as bar food of the very highest caliber.
In addition to the bread basket, you can buy whole loaves from Vandaag at the bar.