The Pleasures of Today

Text by William Blake
Photography by Oleg March

Today, you can enjoy a wine cocktail alongside a beer cocktail alongside a liquor cocktail alongside a cappuccino, next to a friend’s bowl of sculptural pea soup or a stranger’s stroopwafel. Today you might experience a ‘head-butt’ or a ‘turf-war’. Today, as in all days, you can enjoy vandaag.

In shades of soothing blues and mustard yellows, the airy Vandaag is a rare example of inviting minimalism whose balanced hues and subtle use of concrete, teak tables, and slick tile bricks at once envelope you in comfort starkly contrasting the hustle of the East Village. Laboratory stools line up intimately along the bar as if for a show, and custom-made, bright orange wire frame light fixtures offset the modest but crisp lines of the dark hardwood ceiling. Designer Eric Mailaender’s mid-century modernist ideals imbue the space with a laid-back café vibe, much as it is in the non-discriminating cafés of Amsterdam and Copenhagen.

Vandaag (Dutch for “today”) is the collaborative effort of owner Brendan Spiro and his past and present chefs and cocktail directors, and their vision to create a neighborhood space that transitions seamlessly from morning bakery to evening hotspot, has proven remarkably successful. Executive chef Humberto Guallpa, who has worked under culinary giant Mario Batali, deftly executes the diverse and earthy menu of Northern European dishes with a flourish for flavor and design, frequently weaving in cocktail director Martim Smith-Mattsson’s house-infused spirits, syrups and ale reductions.

While Guallpa ambitiously runs the kitchen with an agrarian exuberance for in-house techniques like hay-smoking bread, it is the spirited traditions of Smith-Mattsson’s beverage program that bond the neighborhood joint day and night. Classic Dutch rituals like the kopstootje, or “little head-butt,”—a shot of malty genever and a crisp ale back—filter through a menu full of flavors as memorable as Guallpa’s dishes. Smith-Mattsson’s dense portfolio of obscure Dutch, Scandinavian and Belgian ales pays particular attention to small breweries who adhere to heritage-style ales and meads, and changes seasonally to compliment the kitchen’s freshly harvested dishes. It is in his beguiling and innovative cocktail menu, however, that his talent for invention and clever palate shine.

Though there are several remnants of the original director Katie Stipe’s cocktail program, such as the Turf War, Smith-Mattsson, has playfully updated the menu to include a broader selection of gin, genever and aquavit cocktails with ingenious spins on the classics. Perfect for summer is the Shoreman, a refreshing spritz of Plymouth gin, rosemary-infused Campari, muddled kumquats, fever tree tonic and a lime and rosemary garnish.

Vandaag’s rare Northern European menu, devoted farm-to-table aesthetics and original beverage program won early praise from critics, and the success of Mr. Spiro’s venture has led to another venue with Smith-Mattson in the works in Brooklyn, around the corner from the new Atlantic Yards development. In spite of expansion and diversification, this cozy East Village spot remains committed to reestablishing the traditions of gathering and the etiquette of imbibing, for Vandaag is neither a bar nor a restaurant, but a refreshing reminder of culture.

Turf War
Recipe by Katie Stipe
Photography by Michael Harlan Turkell

2 oz. Linie Aquavit
.75 oz. Lillet
1 big bar spoon Maraschino cherry liqueur
1 dash orange bitters
1 dash Absinthe

Stir all ingredients with ice in a pint glass, strain and serve in cocktail glass. Garnish with an olive and a lemon twist.