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Sunday, January 2, 2011

Vandaag (New York, NY)

103 2nd Avenue
New York, NY 10003
(212) 253-0470

Subway: N/R to 8th St. or 4/6 to Astor Place

Spanish mackerel
Think of Dutch food and chances are, you won't think sexy. Waffles come to mind, as well as smoked herring, boiled potatoes, split pea soup and Indonesian rijstaffel. It is a cuisine of hearty nourishment, not one of artistry. Enter Vandaag to turn all these assumptions on their head. 

Vandaag, in a word, is sexy. It isn't just the decor, which I won't get as googly eyed about as Sam Sifton of the New York Times did in his review. Suffice it to say that the space is open, sleek, fashionable and yet comfortable. It is a little bit CB2, which the restaurant wryly acknowledges: One cocktail on its long and delicious list is named CB3.

The food is also served beautifully, in slight portions and aesthetically plated. One special "snack" offered at a recent dinner was handpicked Maine sea urchin served attractively in its spiny shell with a thin, spicy sauce (soup?) and an odd side of what looked like kidney beans mixed with kelp. The bean/kelp combination was strange and not entirely harmonious -- maybe it was a riff off of nimame, simmered edamame with kelp? -- but the sea urchin was fresh and sweet. It probably would have been even better without the spicy sauce. 

Kale salad with pickled chestnuts, sweet onions and caraway was surprisingly not too tough, but it was slightly overdressed with a potent, vinegar-based dressing. The dish was undeniably beautiful, however, with kale in all different shades of purple and green. Chestnuts had a nice bite, in terms of both texture and flavor. 

A friend's pickled giant oyster was, indeed, humongous and served very simply and attractively on its shell. 

Spanish mackerel with rutabaga, pomegranate and rye berries (pictured at the top of the post) was almost too beautiful to eat. The mackerel was shiny, silver and looked like a bar of precious metal, especially topped as it was with gem-like ruby pomegranate seeds. The fish was pleasant to eat, though not quite as pristinely fresh as at some seafood-centric restaurants. I'm not sure that flavor-wise, the combination of mackerel with pomegranate really worked for me, but it was certainly visually stunning. The fish did taste lovely with the puree of rutabaga that lay underneath and with the rye berries. 

A main of Mangalitsa pork with rye, roots, stems, sunflower and rosemary was quite intriguing. The well-marbled pork (from wooly, Mangalitsa pigs, originally a Hungarian breed) tasted inexplicably similar to beef and was almost as tender as a sea scallop. It was mind-blowing, really, and some of the most delicious pork I've ever eaten. I poked around online to find out more about this delicious pig and found this blurb about Mangalitsas by Glenn Collins of the New York Times published just a few days ago, which noted the breed's growing popularity at iconic restaurants like The French Laundry. Good for Vandaag for being at the head of this curve.

Vandaag's perfect morsel of Mangalitsa pork, however, was served with an odd side of something tough (the dark brown hunk on the bottom right of the plate) that I could neither identify nor entirely swallow because it was so fibrous. The flavor of this something was actually pretty nice, but the tough, dry texture made it difficult to eat. 

Our friends ordered the fish of the day, a hake preparation with orange segments and candied peel and a grilled quail with sweet and sour Brussels sprouts, wild rice and mint. The hake was a beautiful, post-modern study in white, orange and pale green. The grilled quail, a more rustic-looking dish, was deemed to be "competent". 

As many others have noted, the cocktail list at Vandaag is pretty phenomenal. It's unique and interesting, including a number of genever (Dutch gin) cocktails, akvavit cocktails, beer and wine cocktails, meads, and hot drinks. I had the Gumtree Toddy, a mix of pear infused aquavit, blended Scotch, mead, benedictine, Peychaud's bitters & eucalyptus. Sounds a little busy and maybe off-putting because eucalyptus and and pear don't often go well, together -- but it was really a lovely thing to drink, especially given that I had a sore throat. It was attractively presented with a twig of eucalyptus immersed in the drink.  

I have to confess that I am a bit of a sucker for interesting, inventive food, even when it doesn't always work perfectly. I like food that makes me think and question my assumptions and boundaries. Not everything we tried worked well, but I very much appreciate the spirit of experimentation at Vandaag (which incidentally means "today" in Dutch) -- and I can't wait to return. For one thing, I intend to try a great deal more of the cocktail list once I kick this danged cold. Till next time. 

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