Amid Lost Eateries, Savoring Vandaag

Vandaag exteriorGloria Chung Vandaag, 103 Second Avenue.

This past summer, I arranged to meet my friend Clemence at Belcourt, a restaurant on Second Avenue and Fourth Street. But the place was locked, with the chairs up on the table. Another one bites the dust, I thought. (Actually, I later learned, they had stopped serving lunch — the equivalent of dead for those of us who work, but do not live, in the East Village.) On my way down, though, I had walked past Vandaag, a restaurant which hadn’t existed the last time I had been on the block. So we ate there instead, and very happily.

The marketplace principle which the economist Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction” rules the restaurant world in New York City, and above all in the East Village, where low rental costs allow anyone with a half-baked idea to take a flyer. For the rambling diner, this means something new every week; but it also means hardening yourself to the loss of beloved haunts. Over the last few months, and just on the two blocks between Vandaag and my office at Second Avenue and St. Marks, the blindingly white Thai restaurant Rhong Tiam has disappeared, ditto an obliging falafel place; in their stead we have Vandaag and the Vietnamese Le Dan Ang — a net gain, I would say.

Oh, but I mourn some of the losses. I used to go every few weeks to Daphne’s, a Caribbean food counter inside a deli on East 14th Street between Second and Third where if you were lucky Daphne herself would be ladling out your goat curry into your roti, a sandwich literally impossible to eat with your fingers. One day I walked up there, and a metal shutter had been drawn over both deli and Daphne. Ruben’s Empanadas on First Avenue — gone. The Chinese fried chicken place on St. Marks and Second disappeared before I had a chance to learn its name. And perhaps saddest of all, at least metaphysically, is the fate of Marco Polo Café, on Seventh Street between First and A, perhaps the only Chinese-Italian restaurant in the city. Nobody (except me) would eat such odd cuisine, and now the chef-owner has been reduced to the lowest-common-denominator of East Village food — the slider. She’s even more melancholy about it than I am.

Okay, I’ve finished my lament. Let the dead bury the dead; we who are living should celebrate the likes of Vandaag (103 Second Avenue), a clean-lined Scandinavian Modern space which makes claims to have been inspired by “the cuisine and culture of Northern Europe.” There is, of course, no such place as Northern Europe, or Southern Europe, for that matter. The restaurant’s name is Dutch, and the food is said to be Dutch and Danish — open-faced sandwiches, pickled oysters, kale. (Of course, everyone serves kale now.) It coheres well enough for me, though perhaps not for a Dutchman or a Dane.

Vandaag interior4Gloria Chung The interior of Vandaag, which describes itself as a “bierrestaurantbakery.”

In the course of my trips to Vandaag, I’ve had a few things I could live without, including a hamburger with a strip of bacon wrapped around its waist. But when I went back the other day with Clemence, I had a wonderful thing called bitterballen — a braised oxtail croquette, a kind of heavenly bar food. Vandaag calls itself a “bierrestaurantbakery,” and since Clemence was trying to break out of a gluten-free diet we ordered the bread basket, which included a splendid dark bread made with Rodenbock beer from Belgium, and was served with a juniper-berry butter and a lentil butter. Clemence felt acutely what she had been missing.

Vandaag is an exceptionally obliging place. Instead of opening only at dinner, as restaurants of its caliber normally do in the East Village, it stays open all the time — breakfast (with “trained baristas,” according to Kyle, our waiter) from 9 a.m.; and a late-night menu from 11 at night to 1 in the morning, Wednesday to Saturday. Lunch is a modest blip in the full spectrum of the day: The menu is highly nocturnal. The drinks menu includes four kinds of mead, as well as “cidre” and a cocktail known as Kopstoot, or “little head butt,” a glass of chilled Bols Genever, a juniper-based alcohol, with a shot of beer. You wouldn’t want to meet the big head butt. There are several “bier cocktails” and, of course, innumerable biers.

Perhaps Vandaag, too, will disappear before long. I hope not; it’s the only Dutch-Danish restaurant in the neighborhood. I’m hoping that will prove to be a more winning combination than Chinese-Italian.

Vandaag, 103 Second Avenue, 212-253-0470.