Vandaag Tries for a New New Amsterdam
I've always believed there's no such thing as Dutch cuisine. As a Dutch-surnamed American, I've had to live with that. Especially if you don't include the cooking of former colonies such as Indonesia, Surinam, and South Africa, the food of the Netherlands is basically just rubbery cheeses, boiled potatoes, meat stews, and pickled fish. Which explains why, even though the Dutch have had a profound effect on modern New York (just drive through Bushwick and read the names of the streets), one of the ways is not gastronomic.
If you're going to start a Dutch restaurant, you can go one of two ways: play up the bland, starchy, comfort-food aspects, or mutate the hell out of it till it's barely recognizable. Vandaag ("today" in Dutch) has chosen the second route. As if trying to reclaim lost territory, the bistro recently bivouacked at the corner of East 6th Street and Second Avenue, just down the road from St. Mark's Church (built by Dutchman Petrus Stuyvesant in 1799).
"This place smells like airline food," my companion sniffed as we walked in the door. Indeed, with its beige tiles, concrete surfaces, and deep vistas, the space did smack of a transportation terminal. But the massive naugahyde banquettes are comfortable, and the waiters do look natty—if a bit twee—in their Delft-patterned aprons. The first thing to hit the table was an amuse-bouche of fish mousse mounted on a round seeded cracker and topped with a green grape—which shocked us, since Vandaag hadn't struck us as the kind of place where amuses are bestowed.
On that first visit, we loved the heirloom tomato salad ($11), which included several varieties in bright colors at the peak of ripeness, with wads of soft white cheese scattered here and there. However, the vanilla foam on some of the tomatoes scared us—either there was a rabid dog drooling in the kitchen, or a chef who fancied himself a molecular gastronaut. But we actively disliked the hamburger, a pork-beef combo with bacon wrapped around its circumference, while the sweetbreads app merely provoked a laugh: The mild flavor of the glistening gland got lost in the crazy salad of fruits and vegetables that surrounded it.
On subsequent visits, my fellow diners and I began to understand Vandaag better, and even came to love its inherent quirkiness. Out of curiosity, we began digging for stuff that was actually Dutch. Bitterballen ($10) sounds like a love act with a perturbed partner, but it's really a quartet of spherical oxtail croquettes—dabbed with a mustardy sauce, and quite delicious. Among desserts, "stroopwafel" denotes a pair of gridded wafers stuck together with caramel; brittle and deliriously good, it reminded us that the Dutch, not the Belgians, invented the waffle. The bread basket—for which the restaurant charges an annoying $6—contains a couple of Dutch things, including a bacon-dotted flatbread with the rather unappetizing name of spekdik.
Other dishes were Scandinavian, including a briny gravlox (cured salmon) served with orange roe and crème fraîche. But a large proportion of the selections deployed ingredients associated with the Netherlands in frankly weird ways, such as a cucumber soup with an alarming catalog of constituents: "ginger, mint, gin, pickled cantaloupe, smoked eel." It turned out to be scrumptious. Equally good was a summer vegetable nage ($15) that contained a squash assortment in a light beer broth flavored with lemon basil. Our favorite entrées, though, were a lamb blade steak with a buttery flavor, and a legless roast hen for two ($45), served with a brioche-mounted confit made from the egg-layer's legs. It was like eating a chicken sandwich before eating the chicken.
The list of alcoholic beverages nearly overshadows the food, including Dutch, Belgian, and Scandinavian beer in bottles and drafts (try the smoked ale called Norwegian Wood, $18 for 25 ounces); cocktails of aquavit, wine, beer, and genever (the Dutch forerunner of gin); and a wine list that's too pricy. Go for the beer.
One day I innocently asked the waiter, "Is the chef Dutch?" The reply: "No, his name is Phillip Kirschen-Clark." I did a double take. He was the original chef at Jimmy's No. 43, making a name for himself by working miracles in a drastically underequipped kitchen. (He was one of the first chefs to pickle baby vegetables, for example.) "Well, then, is the owner Dutch?" I continued. Again the same reply: "No, the owner's Greek." Which explains why Vandaag isn't so much a Dutch restaurant as a Dutch-themed one, proving how far a restaurant must go to distinguish itself these days. Interesting and inspired cooking just isn't enough.
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