During the recently vanished go-go era, it was relatively easy to hire an eccentric fusion chef from Bangkok, say, or Lyon; hang a chandelier (or a disco ball) from the ceiling of a warehouse downtown; and call your restaurant “cutting-edge.” But in these stripped-down, monochromatic times, it’s more difficult to separate yourself from the pack. Which may explain why the proprietors of Vandaag are marketing their interesting new East Village restaurant in all sorts of eclectic, slightly confounding ways. The name means “today” in Dutch, but the food isn’t Dutch exactly (“We call it ‘Northern European–influenced,’ ” a waiter told me). Vandaag is also a gin bar (cocktails made with old-fashioned Dutch “genever” gin are a house specialty) and a boutique farm-to-table restaurant (ingredients come from “the bounty of the Hudson region,” according to its website), and if you want first-class baked goods (gingerbread, macarons, fresh rye bread), the restaurant has those, too.
Vandaag’s inventive executive chef, Phillip Kirschen-Clark, is an acolyte of Wylie Dufresne (he also worked briefly for Paul Liebrandt at Corton), and he has a penchant for madcap, slightly obsessive locavore experimentation. Pickles are brined on the premises and adjusted according to the season (our $5 pot contained okra and pickled cherries), the excellent bread basket is made from scratch (Kirschen-Clark forages for the flour in local markets) and served with butter and a pat of mashed red lentils, and the salty-sweet Pine Island oysters are doused in white-wine vinegar and genever, in accordance, our friendly waiter intoned, with a recipe from 1840s Manhattan. The dense, strangely addictive house burger is wrapped in smoky bacon and made with a combination of beef and artisanal pork, and my Dutch-fusion version of Caesar salad was garnished with a crumbling of sausages and pistachio and spritzed with a subtle herring vinaigrette.
Inevitably, some of these experiments work better than others. “I think I’ve reached my pickle limit,” muttered the lady to my left, as she tasted a bowl of cool cucumber soup garnished, Northern European style, with a few too many tiny crispy eels, as well as ribbons of overpickled cantaloupe. The littleneck clams I sampled were fresh enough but swamped in an awkward broth flavored with aquavit and too much vanilla, and the flavor of my properly fatty artisanal pork chop was slightly lost under a thick glaze made with mead wine and Mission figs. The salty, well-charred lamb steak was more successful (it’s a blade steak, plated with an inventive purée made with cauliflower and goat’s milk), as were the seafood dishes, like striped bass (filleted, with a spoonful of sweet fennel jam on the side), and piles of crispy fried sea bream garnished with grapefruit and more fennel, which Kirschen-Clark serves as an open-face smørrebrød sandwich, at lunch, on a slice of toasted rye.
The room at Vandaag is bright and airy, in a clean, modish, Euro-style sort of way, and my favorite time to visit is at lunch, when the big casement windows are thrown open to the street and the menu includes other smørrebrød sandwiches, topped with ribbons of lamb or slabs of Benton’s bacon sweetened with fresh peaches. For diligent boozehounds, lunch is also a good time to begin working your woozy way through the bar list, which includes frothy “witbier” cocktails (ask for the Radler), twelve mostly Belgian and Dutch beers on tap, and a series of deadly cocktails made with different varieties of aquavit, and more genever. If you’re still standing, I recommend the baked goods for dessert (especially the gingerbread folded with apricots), and the supremely filling, aptly named Dutch calorie bomb called “smoutballen,” which is a giant, baseball-size fritter filled with clouds of freshly made hazelnut chocolate mousse.
Takashi, which has been open now for several months on a quiet stretch of Hudson Street, in the West Village, is another eccentric little establishment with its own quirky, slightly off-kilter agenda. The proprietor, Takashi Inoue, grew up in Osaka, eating the decorous Japanese version of Korean barbecue called yakiniku. At this yakiniku establishment, the focus is on beef in particular (“The West Village’s New Meat Mecca” is the restaurant’s motto), and more precisely the exotic innards of the beast. You can enjoy three varieties of cow stomach grilled at your table (“Please cook until charred,” the menu advises), tender slices of beef heart, “flash-boiled” Achilles tendon, and a $22 tasting adventure called the Tongue Experience, which includes three cuts, ranging from the very tender tip “to the more chewy, sinewy part in the back of the mouth,” according to our waiter.
I never did try the Tongue Experience, although I enjoyed my encounters with the stomachs (especially the third one, darkly charred and drowned in miso sauce) and a tasty raw-beef creation called niku-uni, made with sashimi-like wafers of raw chuck wrapped with shiso leaves and spoonfuls of uni. The grilled short ribs at Takashi (dusted with salt and sesame oil) are worth a special trip, and so are the milky strips of rib eye, both of which are impeccably sourced (like all the innards) from boutique farms like Creekstone, in Kansas, and Lindsey Farms, in Oregon.
The handful of non-meat dishes available at this polished little restaurant (peppery edamame, seasonal Korean namul pickles) are boutique-quality, too. So are the sakes (should you need to fortify yourself before the Tongue Experience), and the single, satisfying house dessert, which is a bowl of soothing, soft-serve ice cream infused with Madagascar vanilla and flecked on its top with gold leaf.
Address:103 Second Ave., at 6th St.; 212-253-0470
Hours: Dinner Tuesday through Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Monday 5 to 10 p.m., Sunday 6 to 10 p.m. Lunch Monday through Saturday noon to 4 p.m. Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $8 to $14; entrées, $16 to $26.
Ideal Meal: Romaine salad, “ham” burger, or lamb blade steak, smoutballen.
Note: Sunday brunch includes eggs scrambled with smoked mackerel, and buckwheat “pannekoek” with wild blueberries.
Scratchpad: One star for the drinks and ambience, another for the promising, if occasionally uneven, cooking.
Address:456 Hudson St., nr. Barrow St.; 212-414-2929
Hours: Dinner Tuesday through Thursday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Friday to 11 p.m., Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Sunday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $6 to $20; entrées, $12 to $28.
Ideal Meal: Seasonal pickles, short ribs, beef cheeks or grilled rib eye, soft-serve ice cream with “the works.”
Note: The best seat is at the bar, where you can sit two to a bench and watch the beef “sushi” chefs work their magic.
Scratchpad: One star for the quality of the nose-to-tail ingredients, a second for the impeccable execution.