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Vandaag: Pining Away


When I first started hearing burbling about Noma—was it years ago? Months ago? It now feels like Rene Redzepi has always been present—the first thing I thought was that I’m never eating pine needles no matter how en vogue it becomes (then again, I also said I’d never wear leggings when they started reappearing in early ’06 and now I do occasionally. Next stop, pajama jeans).

Buckthorn, hay, nettles, fine, but pine needles—even though the prickly leaves and menthol perfume aren’t radically different from rosemary—conjure up a depressing Pacific Northwest dampness from my childhood. Hobbitty, green and moist with moss clinging to tree bark, mushrooms sprouting in suburban lawns, sidewalks slicked with drowned earthworms after a hard rain, larvae the size of two grains of rice wriggling from filberts you’d crack open with rocks during recess and slugs, nearly black and glistening like a turd with feelings, soft little giraffe horns moving. Were they looking at you? No matter where the gastropods appear, they always surprise and spark a guttural repulsion (just looking at photos makes my stomach upset). But I never wanted harm to come their way. I just didn’t want them in my life. I still don’t.

But to my knowledge, modern Scandinavian cuisine hasn’t added slugs to their repertoire yet. They certainly weren’t on the menu at Vandaag (more Dutch and vaguely Northern than Nordic) where I spied many signifiers of this growing trend: juniper, rye, mead, kelp, sea beans, caraway and yes, pine needles (in a duck for two special that I now kind of wished I had tried). Things were being pickled and smoked with wild abandon.

The hefty toast triangles that came with my clams in an vanilla-aquavit broth (prettied with a few flower petals— along with long-stemmed leaves, another phobia of mine that I’ve come to terms with) weren’t merely grilled, but smoked with a wood that our server couldn’t identify for sure but knew had to be a conifer. And the subtle resiny, charcoal flavor was wonderful. I could be wrong about this pine thing.

My spice tree cocktail, a blend of Applejack (I’ll always try anything with this sprit, and it’s certainly the season), honeycrisp apples and ras el hanout aquavit, was more fruity than spiced and definitely not tree-like. There’s not a single pine needle on the drinks list.

The kicker turned up on the dessert menu. A six-dollar-item simply called pine cone. What the heck? I did not order the pine ice cream drizzled with pine syrup in a cone that may or may not have been pine flavored because I imagined something garish and beautifully emerald (I am a freak for unnaturally hued foods, particularly green and blue ones) like a Shamrock Sundae even though I doubt Vandaag would employ artificial dyes, and couldn’t stand the thought of not being able to take a photo.

Despite my goal of weaning myself from photographing restaurant meals, I had indeed toted my camera along—only to discover that I’d forgotten the memory card at home. This had to be a sign. But I’m not superstitious, don’t believe in higher powers and think resolutions are a crock, so I hope to return soon, camera in hand and plans to go pine crazy. I’ll be open-minded until I start seeing slugs appear on menus.

Vandaag * 103 Second Ave., New York, NY

Images from nikao and Arj

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