Starting at Vanderbilt Avenue and running west along Bergen Street, 10 times deeper than it is wide, the newly opened Vanderbilt first presents an extensively windowed front room, given over to a few raised tables and a long bar. This area is strictly for tipplers, since a snack menu constitutes the only food available. Luckily, the snacks are excellent: More Malaysian than American, the sticky beef jerky pokes out of its coffee cup, an impressive quantity for $6. I also recommend the trio of crisp croquettes, their squishy insides flecked with Serrano ham; hard-boiled eggs pickled yellow, served in a slush of dark chutney; and, best of all, a new take on brussels sprouts ($5), wherein the small cabbages are roughly chopped and then sautéed, so that the crisp outer leaves fall off and become coated in sweet sesame sauce.
An extended row of tables marches deeper into the restaurant along an unbroken banquette—punctuated by lavish flower arrangements—toward the darkened rear dining room, which is clad in what look like railroad ties. But mid-restaurant, opposite the banquette, discover a beautiful counter of white Carrera marble. As if the focus of some Renaissance masterpiece, the counter is brilliantly illuminated. Perch on one of the stools and you can be Jesus, blessing the well-organized tumult of the open kitchen, as soups are poured and garnished, salads tossed, and entrées carefully positioned on their schmear of squash or potatoes.
That counter is the best place to experience the heart of Vanderbilt’s menu: charcuterie. Partners Saul Bolton and Ben Daitz pride themselves on their homemade sausages, and there’s none more succulent than boudin blanc ($9), a thick, pale link that arches over a bed of braised cabbage. The blood sausage ($10), redolent of cumin and cayenne, is every bit as good, though hacked into pieces and secreted in a copse of frisée, as if waiting for the homicide squad to arrive and make a gruesome discovery. In similar fashion, a North African merguez materializes impaled on a stick, while another sausage—called Jagerwurst one week, kielbasy the next—shows up pungently smoked and accompanied by a German potato salad shotgunned with yellow mustard seeds.
And that’s not the end of the charcuterie. You can also order pork belly browned on one side and stranded without a boat in a lake of lentils, chopped chicken liver served with grilled toasts and cocktail onions, or duck rillets that struggle against a tide of figgy jam. The only thing that bombed were the pig feet ($10). Compressed into squares the size of Eskimo Pies, the trotters had been too thickly crumbed, so that a fork-proof pellicle formed around the rich gelatinous flesh.
The other categories of culinary endeavor pale somewhat in comparison to the magnificent charcuterie. The best in the section dubbed “Vegetables” is a reconfiguration of the classic frisée salad, defined more by its accoutrements than by its lettuces. In addition to frisée, the autumnal assemblage features faro, cubed pumpkin, toasted hazelnuts, goat cheese, and a science-cheffy egg, which the line cook breaks over the salad, then watches as it wiggles like a fan dancer. On the seasonal and ever-changing menu, also find a fennel salad ($9) that utilizes both cooked and raw shaved bulbs. The dressing is rather unassertive and, while the salad doesn’t completely blow, it’s also not very good.
There are sections featuring slightly larger dishes of fish, poultry, or meat, too big to be designated small plates, but also not large enough to be true entrées. A swatch of Spanish mackerel ($14) rests as if tired of swimming on a red-pepper piperade. Among meats, the pork chop is certainly worth ordering, though sometimes pork loin is offered instead. Odd man out among “Meats” is a heap of chicken wings, which were citrusy one week, and sesame-flavored the next. Not bad, though they really belong on the bar menu.
All in all, the food at the Vanderbilt is splendid, and I left after my third visit wishing I could go a few more times. While the wine list is a slender volume, with some absurd mark-ups, and the specialty cocktails often a little too goofy, the heart of the booze menu is beer, which is just what you want to drink with perfect charcuterie. Among a dozen bottles and a half-dozen drafts, the favorite for me was a bottle of Saison Dupont ($9), a slightly sour Belgian farmhouse ale that cuts through grease like a buzzsaw through a soft fir tree somewhere in Canada. Merry Xmas!
For more of our restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road