Some of the first food in the early days of New York City was Dutch, prepared by the predominantly Knickerbocker community on Manhattan Island. As New York grew and diversified first through the immigration of the English, Irish, French and German populations from Europe and then through the Chinese movement from the West Coast to the East, the prevalence of Dutch food declined, so significantly that it is virtually extinct in Manhattan. Vandaag, a sleek and ultra-mod restaurant in the East Village, is bringing back the Dutch.
The corner spot on 2nd Avenue and 6th Street sticks out from its neighbors; where brick low-rise buildings with cutesy storefronts reign supreme, Vandaag’s slick charcoal and completely unadorned look with wide picture windows is a chic change of pace. The restaurant inside is remarkably spacious, with high ceilings, slimline furniture, and an appealing neutral color palette. It is contemporary, devoid of trinkets and kitsch, sparse, and casual. Space is everywhere – space between tables, space around the bar, wide central spaces; the effect is a refreshing roominess, infrequently found while dining out downtown.
The food is modern and Dutch, a most likely unfamiliar cuisine to most. Think meat and potatoes, mutton pie, notes of juniper berry, a sweet sauce called sloop; the flavors are predominantly earthy. Even if you aren’t used to eating Dutch, the menu is understandable with recognizable dishes like a romaine salad, beef short ribs, pork chop, gravlax, and various fishes. The mutton pie starter is a nod to the food of Dutchmen past, served in a small single-serving atop a nest of dark green leafy microgreens. The pastry is close to perfect: ultra-flaky, buttery, golden brown, with both soft chewy spots and crispy corners. Inside, the mutton filling is minced and shredded, salty and well-seasoned, utterly satisfying on a frigid winter night. On the lighter side are a variety of salads: romaine served grand in shooting stalks with a bitter and salty herring vinaigrette, kale with sweet onions, arugula with lobster claws. Though ordering a salad to start is not my favorite way to begin a meal, Vandaag’s are unusual and flavorful enough to warrant skipping over other tantalizing appetizers like the traditional bitterballen (an oxtail-stuffed croquet) or a classic preparation of gravlax with dill and watercress.
The entrees are rich and unusual. Beef short ribs, an American classic, are braised for so long they just melt in your mouth, no knife needed; though the quality of the meat speaks for itself, flavors are enhanced with a mellow artichoke puree. The grilled quail is exceptional, cooked such that the charcoal flavor from the grill lingers on the tender meat. Served with crispy wild rice, mint, and mini sweet & sour brussels sprouts, the dish just exploded with different tastes; it was sweet, savory and salty all at once as well as texturally interesting. Without going too far over the top, it was an artfully-created dish. Though dishes change seasonally, expect offerings like Spanich mackerel with grain mustard sauce and both pebble and sweet potatoes, a vegetarian dish featuring the best of the season’s crop, the Vandaag ‘ham’ burger topped with Gouda and a mess of charred onions, or a pork chop with a dousing of mead, slices of pear and toasted barley.
Vandaag is a wonder. It sticks out like a sore thumb, ultra modern and bright yellow, along 2nd Avenue. And yet, despite looking so out of place, Vandaag is right at home in the East Village, where restaurants touting cuisines of all cultures thrive. This Dutch favorite of New York Times critic Sam Sifton isn’t cozy or ‘cute.’ Instead, the focus is on how exciting the food is, the quality of it, the joy of eating something unexpected. And it all goes down even better with one of the slap-you-in-the-face good Genever cocktails or a selection from the extraordinary beer menu, featuring many a Dutch favorite that’ll have you under the table before you can say Sloop!
Perfect For: doing something different, meeting a Scandinavian boytoy, discrete dates, sampling Genever cocktails, foodies or impressing foodies