Vandaag (New York City): A restaurateur offers a taste of the Netherlands and Denmark in New Amsterdam

Owner Brendan Spiro wanted to introduce New Yorkers to “New Nordic” cuisine at his East Village eatery, Vandaag.  Photos courtesy of Vandaag

Closed effective 5/29/12

Okay, so he’s half Jewish and half Greek.  But when New York restaurateur Brendan Spiro conceived his East Village eatery, he named it Vandaag.

And as you might gather, Spiro was going for something far more unconventional food- wise than your average Manhattan storefront when he opened Vandaag — Dutch for “today” — in July 2010.  He calls the menu “New Nordic,” as his farm-to-table restaurant riffs on classic Dutch and Danish dishes while adding Northern European twists to some house-invented creations.

Spiro, who has a soft spot in his heart for Northern European culture and cuisine, wanted to add something new to the city’s culinary landscape, which he found flooded with Mediterranean-influenced restaurants.

Spiro, who has always had a penchant for pickled and smoked foods, found these same flavors in Northern European dishes.  Photo courtesy of Eater NY

“We were tired to the point of exhaustion with the Mediterranean flavors that were so prevalent — especially here in New York City,” he says.

A native New Yorker, Spiro also grew up eating and loving many classic “Jewish foods” — smoked fish, pickled herring, pumpernickel bread — that have similar flavor profiles and preparations as their Nordic counterparts.

The 80-seat eatery is a hybrid — a bakery, gastropub and moderately upscale dining room all in one.  Depending on the time of day, one might find guests enjoying a kaffe and a smoked pumpkin-walnut muffin; or a bier and a Dutch cheese board; or a glass of crisp Austrian Riesling and an attentively plated piece of fresh fish.

“That’s how they eat up there. It’s very unpretentious,” says Spiro, who wanted to give diners an authentic Nordic dining experience.  “We want the clients to enjoy [us] in whatever way they see fit.”

The restaurant is a cafe, gastropub and dining room all in one, and it focuses on breads and baked goods, shareable appetizers and elegantly presented entrées.  Photo courtesy of Vandaag

Our group of six saw fit to enjoy a Sunday evening pre-theater dinner at Vandaag.  (Please note that as Spiro and chef Humberto Guallpa constantly update their seasonal menu, the items on it may be subject to change.)

Our meal started with an amuse-bouche of grainy pork rillete spread atop a tiny pumpernickel crisp, which The Husband, The Connoisseur (aka My Middle Child) and I happily consumed.  And without fuss, the restaurant provided a vegetarian substitute for our dining companions — The Cousin, The Cousin-in-Law and The Teen Second Cousin, none of whom eat pork.

Since pickling is huge in the Netherlands and Denmark, we ordered the seasonal pickle pot ($5) to start.  Included in our vinegary combo were crisp late-winter pears, rutabagas and parsnips.  We also shared a bread basket ($6).  As people are apt to grumble about paying for bread, I want to attest that the ample sampler — which some order as a meal in itself, according to Spiro — should not be bypassed.

“Bread is so integral to the flavor profile of the restaurant,” Spiro says.

Okay, it doesn’t come free, but the bread sampler, served with flavorful butters and spreads, should not be missed.  Photo courtesy of Vandaag

During our visit the artisanal mix featured sweet and grainy cranberry-walnut, tangy red ale beer bread, salty seaweed focaccia and a traditional rye crisp.  The fresh breads were served with gin-scented butter and super savory onion-bacon schmaltz spread.

As a split pea soup lover, I couldn’t resist Vandaag’s version ($13).  Although the satiny soup would have stood on its own, I appreciated the flavorful additions of a briny langoustine, a slice of bacon-like smoked Mangalista speck and a welcome splash of hot chili oil.

Moving into entrees, The Cousin, The Cousin-in-Law and I all went with the wild mushroom rösti ($21). (Sated from a recently consumed Pinkberry, The Teen Second Cousin passed on an entrée.)  Vandaag’s spin on this Dutch classic reminded us all of an elevated latke.  Crisp and lemony, the dish was topped with the aforementioned wild mushrooms, butternut squash and pine ash.

The Connoisseur gave his signature “thumbs up” to waterzooi, a seafood stew of mussels, shrimp, welks, rouget and smoked bread.  The Connoisseur’s only complaint:  he was disappointed to find just a single welk in his bowl, as he would have liked to sample more of this unusual sea snail.

A Broadway curtain time prevented us from trying Vandaag’s house-made desserts, but that gives us an excuse to return. Photo courtesy of Vandaag

The Husband selected quail satay ($25) with Brussels sprouts, Hunter’s sausage, spicy peanut sauce and chili.  The Asian-inspired dish, which also incorporates fragrant lemongrass, may seem like an anomaly on a Dutch/Danish menu.  But if one remembers that Indonesia was once a Dutch-controlled colony, a feisty peanut-sauced satay makes complete sense.  Indonesian spices are a staple in Dutch homes, Spiro says — “And we didn’t want to leave that [component] out.”

Desserts — a small list of Danish and Dutch sweets and American comfort treats — were begrudgingly skipped as curtain time loomed.  So it looks like the stroopwafel and smoutebollen will just have to wait until another dag at Vandaag.

103 Second Avenue
New York, New York 10003

Vandaag on Urbanspoon

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