August 30, 2010 | BITE: My Journal
Buckle Up for Flights of Gin
Vandaag’s juicy, pink pork chop comes with barley and figs. Photo: Steven Richter
I like the idea of a gin bar. (The year I drank too much – my freshman year in college – I made a fool of myself sipping gin and tonic, 16 trying to pass for 18.) And I was curious to explore Dutch cooking. I imagined walking into Vandaag on the Lower East Side, ordering a flight of different gins and pairing them with… here my imagination faltered. Do you remember what Hans Brinker ate? All I know of the Netherlands, never having seen them, is Edam, tulips, Vermeer, Anne Frank and Vincent Van Gogh. I supposed there would be potatoes.
Fingerlings fried to a crunch with bacon make hete bliksem a must. Photo: Steven Richter
And there were - weird and fabulous hete bliksem - translated on the menu as “hot lightning” - crisp fingerlings with bacon, apple and caramel-like stroop. “If I did it the authentic Dutch way, it would have been boring,” chef Phillip Kirschen-Clark confides. “But it does translate into “hot lightning, so I added citrus and cayenne.” Starting in Venice, California, at Rockenwagner, and with stints in French, Italian kitchens and American star kitchens, most recently, Corton, on his resume, Kirschen-Clark knew little about Dutch cooking when Vandaag called. He spent several days in Holland, “to see what products they used.” The best meals he had there were French. “When I asked people where to go they gave me names of tapas places and great Japanese.” Amsterdam’s chefs are into global trends and updating the cuisine. So KirSchen-Clark is committed to gin and aquavit, barley and pickles, aged gouda and bitterballen (slow braised oxtail croquettes), distilled through a fusion of his own taste and experience. The menu is Dutch and Danish with a few French references tossed in.
Midway through dinner, the lights lower but it’s still an awkward room. Photo: Steven Richter
I expected a more gemutlich ambiance, dark paneling perhaps, pewter, possibly even giant sunflowers, something Van Dyke or Van Gogh – not this bright, clean, uncrowded, almost luncheonette look, with a big picture window on Second Avenue. Our restaurant consultant companions, taking in an understated tile wall and the metal bar stools, suggest this may be Belgian Industrial. “It’s supposed to be the hot new design trend,” says Rozeanne Gold.
Vandaag makes a design statement on Second Avenue at 6th Street.
It says “Today” in big black letters on the menu. That’s meant to be the message. The chef says he goes to the farmers market himself four times a week where he deals only with stands that actually grow what they’re selling. When a restaurant has the nerve to charge for bread I always order it, figuring it must be special. Vandaag’s own bakery turns out lush cakey breads, semolina with dried fig and cardamom, pumpernickel crisps with fennel seeds, “all made with flour from organic local grain” the chef tells me later. The $6 basket comes with marvelous gin butter and a lentil spread with garlic, sumac and sherry vinegar. The $5 seasonal pickle pot surprises with tiny okra, cucumber sticks and fat summer cherries.
We share smoked sausage sticks, pickles and bitterballen, oxtail fritters. Photo: Steven Richter
Our server seems discombobulated. She delivers the amuse bouche - sprightly cuttlefish on a small rectangle of slate – after our bar snacks, nutty popped barley and cuts of smoked pickled sausage standing up in a glass like raw carrot sticks, than returns to announce that the kitchen has run out of lamb sweetbreads. She’s not selling gin or the house’s exotic biers. Our friend’s order for a really dry gin martini comes icy cold but layered with flavor in a small wine glass. Alas, it’s not Dutch, she reports when he asks. It’s Beefeater. On a second try, there’s more in the glass and it’s Bols. So I’m not trying to be 18 anymore and we’re not getting drunk.
The four of us, three food world professionals and the Road Food Warrior, a foodnik by long association, are torn between adventure and finding a dish we know we’ll like on the modest list of items I’ve never seen anywhere else - the whole globe artichoke vinaigrette being a pleasantly retro exception. I notice we’re shying away from provocations like red Russian kale with green strawberries, heirloom tomatoes with melon and almond cream or chilled cucumber soup with pickled cantaloupe and smoked eel.
Clams poached in vanilla-spiked aquavit are topped with parsnip shoestrings. Photo: Steven Richter
Clams poached in the shell sit in a puddle flavored with aquavit, vanilla, and alleppo pepper, under a tassel of parsnip frites. They’re bigger than the Littlenecks advertised on the menu and perfectly cooked, as is a mammoth pork chop – juicy and rarish, served with toasted barley and black mission fig stewed in mead. Fusion comfort.
Guinea hen for two is nicely lemony, its confited legs served on toast. Photo: Steven Richter.
The guinea hen for two sits on smashed fingerlings in a baking dish with chopped dandelion greens alongside between Rozeanne and me.The confit’d legs are served separately on toast with batons of radish, one for each of us. I love the bird’s lemony aura but I’m not a white meat fan and ultimately this breast is too dry.
I’m already regretting we didn’t have room for the Vandaag “Ham” burger, the house’s aged Gouda, and the smoutballen – a big fritter filled with creamy custard, or the peach crisp cooked with beer and served with ras el hanout ice cream, a nervy import from Morocco. But we all settle of a single dessert: the spicy apricot and ginger cake with cuts of apricot, fresh and dried, and lemon verbena sorbet with just a hint of salt. Desserts are Kirschen-Clark’s too and I like his taste for measured sweet – if not in the potato’s stroop sauce, at least in the finale.
To be frank, the look of Vandaag puts me off, though it’s worth a detour for a tease of Dutch and Danish cooking by a passionate farm-to-table champion. And that reminds me I must get to Amsterdam before they forget how to make stroopwafel.
103 Second Avenue on the corner of 6th Street. 212 253 0470. Tuesday through Sunday. Coffee and baked goods from 10 am to noon. Lunch noon to 4 pm. Dinner Tuesdayr 5:30 to 11 pm. Sunday till 10 pm. Bar open till 2 am. Closed Monday.
Behave Yourself at Recette
Recette has the look and feel of vintage Village restaurants. Photo: Steven Richter
At first I was annoyed. Then I was intimidated. Finally I was bracing myself for defiance. I was so caught up in toxic emotion at Recette, it wasn’t till the next day that I realized what I’d eaten was actually pretty good. Was it just our server or is the entire staff trained to be steely? Nicole, or so it indicates on the bill, gave me a prickle with her opener, “Have you eaten here before?” Actually, that’s not a phrase that makes me feel cuddled. It’s a giveaway that the menu is quirky and/or the chef is an egomaniac and you’re not likely to fathom how to order but I’ll fill you in.
A closeup of three tiny cod fritters in a nest of pork sausage. Photo: Steven Richter
Sure enough, Recette’s menu is opaque. The snacks are small, we’re told. Really small. Our foursome might want to order five or six or so for the table, our server advises. Then there is a category called “Plates,” from $12 to $38. The roster leads with wild arugula and kumquats followed by local baby lettuce with watermelon radish, and heirloom tomato. So you suppose the less expensive items might be starters although one is spelled “salade” and the other “salad,” no explanation is offered for the missing “e.”
Four ounces of overcooked halibut with chorizo and white bean puree. Photo: Steven Richter
Our companion orders halibut. “You need to know that’s a small portion too,” Nicole responds, intent on full disclosure. “It’s just four ounces.” Maybe other customers have accused her of withholding evidence or stormed out without paying on seeing how small the portion really is. We can’t say she didn’t warn us. The square is not merely tiny, it’s overcooked. And three – why three, why not four? - small cod fritters in a nest of lamb sausage ragu with curry aioli for $12 are nothing special. The sausage sits uneaten. Chilled corn soup is a tad too cool and I’m not sure why it needs an island of foie gras, other than to justify a $16 price tag. Just one tight tiny curl of petrified rock shrimp and two chunks of turnip cling to the diminutive cake of pork about as big as an energy bar.
Heirloom tomato salad with peekytoe crab, burrata and basil. Photo: Steven Richter
But the truth is… when I cool my jets and sort it out later... at least half of what we’re eating I find very good. Chef Jesse Schenker endows his marinated hamachi with a powerful whiff of uni, a salty crunch of sea bean and the heat of harissa. The heirloom tomatoes with Peekytoe crab and burrata in a basil vinaigrette is an exuberant gathering and not stingy at all. Red wine glaze cuts the sweetness of carrot purée and ribbons of raw carrot on deftly cooked scallops. Large lemony lobes of crisp fried sweetbread in brown butter with capers are a luscious classic, with bits of escarole adding a pleasant bitterness.
One rock shrimp and turnip cuts sit on a rectangle of pork belly. Photo: Steven Richter.
The decision to open his own small family-backed spot on this quiet corner rather than move up the ranks in star kitchens – he came here from Gordon Ramsey at the London Hotel – lets Schenker do it his way. When early responders asked for a chef’s tasting, he put two on the menu, five courses at $75, seven for $100. Starting Monday, September 13 he’ll clear away a few tables for a more refined experience at a $125 ten course tasting called “Mondays with Jesse.”
Recette, French for recipe, somehow led me to expect something grander. I’m charmed at first by the modest space and it’s simplicity with bare tables and walls bare too, except for two Early American-style vintage floral paintings. But it’s a small room with low ceilings, tables tightly packed, and two expanses of mullioned windows looking out on West 12th and Greenwich, amplifying the noise. We’re exhausted from shouting.
Christina Lee’s deconstructed S’mores is small and delicious. Photo: Steven Richter
By dessert time, there are no more lectures on proper behavior. The room has emptied and it is suddenly, blissfully, subdued. I’m tempted by almost all the desserts of pastry chef Christina Lee, most recently at Per Se. I’d order the peach crumble on almond curry cake with raspberry sorbet, the carrot cake or the Apricot sacher. But our guests have heard her deconstructed “S’more” is a must: Graham cracker ice cream, toasted marshmallow sauce and “hot” chocolate. It’s just enough for four to taste.
As we leave I catch Schenker taking a break to study the reservation book at the welcoming podium. He has a chef’s knife tattooed on his left arm. I ask him for a copy of the menu. “How did I do tonight?” he asks. I smile. “Well, I guess I’ll find out tomorrow,” he says.
What shall I say? Loosen up?
328 West 12th entrance on Greenwich Street 212 414 3000. Sunday through Thursday 5:30 till midmight. Friday and Saturday till 1 am. Breunch Saturday and Sunday 10 am till 3:30 pm.