Ideas

FOOD THOUGHTS: Vaandag (NYC)

As anyone who knows me well will tell you, I get excited by food.

I spend at least as much time thinking about it -- ethically, nutritionally, aesthetically, culturally -- as I do eating it.  So, why not write about it?  I've been writing here about other non-musical passions for years now (film, theater, books, comics), so indulge me if you may -- I'm going to try writing about food.  I have absolutely no qualifications for same, other than the fact that I love it, I eat out at least once a day in one of the greatest food cities in the world, and I travel a lot for work (which offers even more opportunities for amazing and unusual food experiences than I have here in NYC).  So, let's start with...

 

 

 I've wandered past VANDAAG any number of times since it opened last summer, admired what I could see through the large plate glass windows, thought about the day's menu, with its uncomfortable (for me) mix of creativity and delicious-sounding combinations of fresh, local ingredients combined with a puzzling preponderance of dead animals in almost every dish.  I've always passed by.  Sam Sifton's review in The Times last fall did nothing to change my mind. (Truth be told, although he constantly evoked my ire with his constant near-fetishization of said dead animal flesh, I tried never to miss one of Mr. Sifton's columns and miss his food writing dearly).

Last month, I walked by once again, but something was different. It was daytime, just about noon on a Saturday. The sun was flowing into the restaurant's welcoming interior, and the menu featured brunch, with a number of appetizing, unusual, and vegetarian-friendly items.  Even though I was en route to Momofuku Noodle Bar, my at the time go-to food destination in the East Village (that's since changed, more on that another time), something made me deicde to give Vandaag a shot.

I was immediately glad I did.  While I don't have much of a vocabulary when it comes to interior design (see Sifton's review, linked above, for a good description), suffice it to say that the place certainly has an elegant, Scandanavian feeling to it -- clean, austere, simple, airy, a lot of light and wood.  It reminded me of many of the restaurants I ate in when I was lucky enough to visited Stockholm a few years back.  There's nothing fussy here, nothing cute, nothing smacking of anything remotely like the "speakeasy" vibe that's currently played-out everywhere (it seems) in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Neatly laid out on the bar were the sections of the day's New York Times (including the Sunday supplements).  What a fabulous, underrated service that is to customers who, like me, enjoy the ritual of dining alone on a regular basis as a kind of public solitude.  I eagerly borrowed a couple of sections for my table, and sat down with the menu.

 

I ordered and ate two things, both astoundingly well-prepared and delicious.  The smoked mackerel scramble was, essentially, what it sounds like, with a few beautiful touches -- accompanying the fluffy scrambled eggs (at least three, I would guess) and the tasty bits of smoked fish were a couple of dollops of yogurt, onions, green peppercorns and fresh dill. This was all served in its own skillet, with a giant piece of the house's hot, toasted, buttered, "Red Ale Bread" -- perhaps the best piece of toast I've ever had, outside of the garlic toast at Tequila Bar in Uzhgorod, Ukraine.

I also ordered the Hete Bliksem, or "Hot Lightning," just because it looked so extraordinary on the menu.  While I am a 99% of the time pescatarian -- and even then, only if the fish is wild, and only once in a while, so let's call it a 75% of the time vegetarian -- I will make exceptions every once in a while if the dead animal being served is an essential part of a dish that I want to try, and if said dead animal is local and free range.  VANDAAG's "Hot Lightning" is described as crisp fingerling potatoes with bacon, apple and stroop syrup.  A dash of hot pepper makes it hot, and the syrup makes it sweet.  It sounded like something fantastic that I had to try on this Saturday early afternoon to accompany my smoked mackerel, and I wanted to honor the chef by ordering it as envisioned which, in this case, meant eating a little bit of bacon. I went for it, and I have to say that the dish is indeed extraordinary and worth getting, but next time I will not feel the slightest compunction about asking them to hold the bacon; while the intensity of the hot pepper and sweet syrup complement the crisp potatoes in an exotic, unexpected way, they completely overwhelm the flavor of the pork, rendering it into little tasteless bits of chewy flesh added for -- what, exactly?  Texture? I don't think so.  More likely to appease the foodie masses who happen to be in love with all things pork at this moment (see: bacon vodka, bacon chocolate, bacon ice cream, ad nauseum indeed).

 

* * *

I've been back to VANDAAG several times since, and have continued to sample the menu (it changes daily), including the excellent seasonal pickle pot; the outlandishly good roasted chestnut soup (my friend and musical cohort Russell Farhang correctly compared the taste of it to fallen leaves on a chilly, sunny autumn afternoon); the decadent French Toast with pine, cranberry and stroop syrup; and the roasted sunchoke omelet (the only near-miss for me, but that may be simply because I'm neither an omelet guy or an artichoke guy; so why did I order it? I don't know).  I couldn't help but feel that the Stroop Wafel, a small, thin caramel-filled treat, would be even better served warm.

The service is always excellent, and the experience being there in the daytime is just delightful.  I do wish that they'd opt for better music, but I'm aware that this is a disease most eating establishments have -- they simply don't know how to leave a patron's ears alone.  If I'm with someone, I want to talk quietly between bites.  If I'm alone, I want to read.  Either way, I do not need nor want any thumping music, thank you.

I have yet to dine at VANDAAG in the evening, but it's absolutely become one of my favorite daytime places to eat in the East Village. If you're in the neighborhood, stop in. I might just see you there!

 

 

THINGS I THINK ABOUT: Bookstores

 

 

 

I've got an idea. 

What if independent brick-and-mortar bookstores charged an entry fee -- say a dollar --  and used the proceeds to enable them to level the playing field with online retailers in terms of pricing?

What if independent music and record stores did the same thing?

What if every retailer that sells something that could be had for less on the internet did it too?

* * *

I was browsing at The Strand last night, and I found a newly published book I wanted to read.  It was marked 10% off the retail price of $29.95.  Engaging in a common, if somewhat undignified, modern ritual, I pulled out my smart phone and checked to see what it would cost to buy it online at amazon.  I happen to despise amazon but, times being what they are, I wanted to see what my options were.

Amazon lists the book, brand new,  for $16.45.

And so ensued the ethical debate: support The Strand and pay a whopping $10 more for the book, or save the $10 and order the same book online, further hastening the imminent demise of great bookstores like the very one I was standing in? 

It seems like a no-win situation.  As much as I love The Strand and all it stands for, that's a huge margin of difference in price...and that's only one book.  Let's say I bought five or six books (not uncommon for me -- The Strand is a dangerous place), and let's say the same price differential applied, on average.  Using this calculation, I could spend $135.00 at The Strand, or I could spend $67.50 for the same books online.  Do the math.

So, am I (are you? are we all?) expected to subsidize the small, independent little guy simply because we know it's the proper thing to do?  I'm onboard with this in principle, and perhaps if one of my songs got placed on Grey's Anatomy I would...without question. But, like most people these days, I'm mindful of my finances. Paying a third more for exactly the same product seems, well...unsustainable.  This is not news. It's why bookstores and record shops and other Old Media outlets are disappearing faster than you can say Digital Monday.

I want The Strand to have my money. I really do. I'm willing to give them a little more than I'd spend online. Just because. I think that they deserve it, simpy for the service they offer me by having a physical store for me to browse in. That's absolutely worth something to me.

So, here's my idea.  Monetize what is now a free service. Let Old Media stores charge admission. A buck. Wouldn't you pay a buck to browse in The Strand for as long as you like? I would.  For a buck, you have access to their entire inventory. You can pick the books up, look at them, feel them in your hand, read a page or two. You can talk to the knowledgable staff, ask their opinion, shoot the breeze.  For a buck, you can be physcially surrounded by the greatest words ever composed from the greatest minds from all corners of the world.  And the best part? You're not obligated to buy anything while you're in there. But if you DO, it will be priced competitively with online retailers, because we all agreed to pay a buck for the privilege.

Wouldn't this be a great way to give those suckers (amazon, et al) some pause, even a run for their money?

I don't know the economics, so this may be a naive idea.  How many people walk into The Strand every day?  A thousand? Two thousand? Would every one of those people contributing a buck provide enough economic cushion to the retailer to allow for quasi-online prices?  And what about the little guy with the little shop in the litlle town in the country, who gets a dozen customers in per day? That owner probably won't be able to compete. But maybe the economics in the little town in the country are different?

* * *

All I know is -- I  love bookstores. The physical ones. And record stores (where they still exist).  I want them to stick around. I always want to be able to go and browse in them, and I'm willing to pay a premium to do it. But an extra 30% is asking a lot.  Something has to change about that calculus, and soon, I would think.

Give a dollar to get in to The Strand? Absolutely. All day. 

Wouldn't you?