[Pigging by Wilfrid: July 18, 2011]
I welcomedVandaag after my first visit last year, relishing the kitchen's unusual flavor palette, the menu's ambition and the lively cocktails. I didn't love the austere setting as much as Sam Sifton, but agreed with his praise of dishes like "hot lightning" - "it makes for the sort of meal you can wake up thinking about a few mornings in a row."
If the joint praise of the Times and the Pig can't fill seats in a restaurant, what can? That must be what Vandaag's owners are wondering.
Not only do I walk by the restaurant regularly; it's also on my rotation for a quick drink and a snack. There's always something challenging to be found on Katie Stipes' cocktail list, like the "Turf War", a bracing and icy melange of absinthe, akvavit, Maraschino, Lillet and orange bitters. One couldn't fail to notice that, even when the bar was humming busily in the evening, most dinner tables stood relentlessly empty. Servers stood, hands clasped behind their backs, staring out through the large windows.
It was all rather sad. I felt I ought to eat there more often, just to show some support. Unfortunately, when I did so, I wondered whether I had left it too late. Chef Philip Kirschen-Clark was present; he didn't seem in the best mood when he visited a nearby table. Of two servers, one - I guess having finished his shift - spent most of the evening at the bar eating and drinking leaving his colleague to cope alone with the tables - although the restaurant again wasn't full, she was stretched.
Worst of all, the food gave off a "not really trying" vibe. Having turned down the irresistibly named "Eh, What's Up Doc?" - a cocktail featuring carrot and chickweed-infused akvavit, I sipperd an easier-to-ask-for "Rolling Orange" while I munched a snack of skyr toast. The cocktail featured chocolate/cocoa-infused akvavit along with tequila, sweet sherry, Amaro and orange bitters; not as sweet overall as you might think. The skyr toast was sweet - the eponymous white yogurty-cheese smear balanced by cherry jam and honey. It's a filling start to a meal.
The palette to which I alluded earlier featuresbrine and smoke among its key elements, notes which pair well with gins and akvavits (the wine list is an afterthought). It's bracing stuff and the chef doesn't hesitate to introduce dramatic sweet accents too. What could be better, I thought, than Kirschen-Clark's take on bacon and peaches?
It was better than the photo makes it look (another dimly lit table), but oh - it was a weary dish. Slab bacon should be invincible. The lamest home cook just has to put it in the pan and turn it at the right moment. Had this been sitting around? It was chewy, leathery, stale-tasting. A dark, vaguely spicy sauce (is this where the anise hyssop was?) coated the meat stickily, as if it had been waiting under a heat lamp.
I enjoyed some crisply diced Georgia peaches with pork belly at The Morgan recently but here the peaches were mushy. Just mushy; woolly, mushy. Deliberate? Inadvertent? In either case, hardly reflecting the best of which the kitchen is capable.
I followed with the special, a deep bowl of braised lamb with all kinds of crunchy vegetables scattered into it. Frehs peas and corn kernels provided some texture. Some slices of apricot too. Rather than serve any kind of potato, the restaurant sticks sa couple of slices of toast in the bowl. Stew and toast. Presumably traditional. This wasn't bad; neither was it thrilling. Where was the zippy invention of the crisply fried sweetbreads wih pickled Concord grapes? The textural fascination of pig's head and octopus?
Very hard to recommend right now. There are off nights, of course, but word of mouth has not been great recently either. I very much want a restaurant to succeed when it dares - so rare these days - to be different. But meet me halfway.
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