Saturday, January 7, 2012

A Tale of Two Restaurants

Red Rooster and Vandaag are two restaurants that opened last year to much buzz and both I've wanted to visit, but have been remiss until just the other day when I was able to go to both of them on the same day.

Red Rooster is Marcus Samuelson's packed bistro in Harlem that Sam Sifton of the New York Times gave 2 stars.  Vandaag is unique in that it's a restaurant serving, in theory, Dutch food.  In reality it's a local look at Northern European cuisine. It also got 2 stars from the NYT.   Both have serious chefs serving delicious food (from what little I got to sample) and both have beautiful, albeit very different, rooms.

Red Rooster is casual and comfortable with a big open kitchen that almost invites you in, book shelves with brick-a-brak, wall paper of old recipes and communal tables.
Vandaag is all minimalist modernism clean lines and hard surfaces with a whimsical use of color.  

Where the two restaurants differ is service.  I'd been warned that the service at Red Rooster was bad, really bad, but I thought it was bad in the slow-it's-so-crowded-we-are-overwhelmed-way.  Indeed the restaurant was scarcely populated when I went in for lunch on Thursday.  The weirdness started at the host desk when I asked to sit in the dining room not in the bar area (which is very nice I just wanted to experience the main dinning room).  The hostess seemed disinclined to seat me there, but finally relented.  And sat me at a communal table facing the kitchen.
I would have thought for a single person sitting in a restaurant you might want to have given them a view of the room, but it was so empty I could easily have moved if I had wanted to and I love watching people at work in the kitchen.
Then there was the waitress.  Who was very perky (too perky for me) who actually said:

"Hi I'm ditzy (my name added I don't remember hers) and I'll be your waitress today.  What kind of water would you like to drink?  Would you like some corn bread it's really super good and I highly recommended it.  It's only 5 dollars."

Seriously it was more like Hooters in Houston then a sophisticated 2 star restaurant in NYC.  

I choose tap water and although well aware of the trend of restaurants to want to up the bill by adding extras like bubbly water, it's not a trend I like.  Eating out shouldn't be like buying a used car.  If I want Fiji water or Pelegrino I can ask.  Ditto the corn bread which in this instance should have been free given there was no carbohydrate included in the meal (3 delicious crunchy coated chicken legs on a small pile of collards). What really confused me about the service was how uninformed she was about the food she was serving.  I asked about the kind of meat used in the hamburger: the waitress gave me that Deer in the head lights look and ran off to ask another waiter.  He came over to me and pronounced proudly:  It's ground chuck.

I guess I wasn't clear, so I asked again:

Where is your meat from?  Is it from a farm or a factory?  Is it grass fed or corn fed or .....

It should be pointed out here that this kind of conversation is totally unnecessary in just about every restaurant in Brooklyn.  And the sourcing of food is a major conversation just about everywhere in NYC these days so the fact that it wasn't just outright stated on the menu was a little off putting to me. It is a point of pride for most restaurants to have a list of the farms they source from publicly displayed.

The second waiter came back and said: yes it is grass fed.

After all that I ordered the chicken.  $18 and a beer $7.

Dinner at Vandaag couldn't have been a more different experience.

There is an assuredness and intelligence to the service staff here; an attention to every little detail that I greatly appreciated.  I was just sitting at the bar having a burger (the beef is sourced from a farm upstate and the bartender said it was mostly grass fed but he thinks because it's winter it may have been finished with grains).  The wine list is all German and Austrian so the sommelier or manager (not sure) came over and we had a lovely conversation about the wines what they were like, what I preferred, narrowed it down to 2 wines, he poured me a taste of each...lovely.

The burger was perfectly cooked, and served on a homemade English muffin.    Both meals ended up being the same exact same amount. I look forward to going back to Vandaag for dinner.  I'll give Red Rooster another year to see if they can figure out the service thing.
I totally stole the above picture which was taken by Theo Morrison for the NYT because mine all sucked.







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