Vagabond offers hits, misses from around the globe
Alcohol makes me far too forgiving. I can't count how many times in the past few years I've found myself, after a modest number of drinks (OK, sometimes a little more than "modest"), singing praises to my waiter and thanking him profusely for an amazing dinner when what I ate was nothing more than a lackluster meal comprised of a few tasty items but mostly stuff I could have just as easily made at home. Holding true to my forgiving form, I ventured out with a couple of friends to Vagabond in South Park, a restaurant touted by one local critic as "eclectic world cuisine, presented with flair." That "flair," unfortunately, appeared for me only briefly-and only after my third glass of wine.
After making a reservation a mere two hours earlier, we were seated in the loud and bustling dining area within minutes of our arrival and served slices of flavorful, spongy bread with a delicious garlic saffron aïoli that whetted our appetites. The décor in the restaurant was an attractive mix of art from around the world (hence the name "Vagabond"), including Middle Eastern, Moroccan, Italian and Asian pieces. We laughed about the Latin rave music that was booming through the place, reminiscent of a recent night of partying in Tijuana, and then dived into the drinks we chose from Vagabond's immense international wine list, many of which are priced at only $5 per glass. Our first course, the heirloom tomato caprese and the Singapore Street Soup was served promptly, but, just as promptly, we became disappointed with our selections. The bland caprese included less-than-ripe yellow and red tomatoes, slices of mozzarella cheese and basil, all of which were drizzled with virgin olive oil and pleading for more flavor. Even a small dash of ground pepper would have saved this dish from mediocrity. The soup, a watery, chicken-based yellow curry with glass noodles, lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves, had significantly more character than the caprese, but the addition of the soft-boiled quail egg caused the flavor combination to fall flat. Clearly, another glass of wine was in order.
We moved on to Vagabond's variation on the Niçoise salad, with scallions, anchovies, capers, cured black olives and the unusual inclusion of edamame and seared ahi tuna, which added an Asian vibe to this traditional French salad. The tartness of the balsamic vinaigrette brought forth the best attributes of each of the ingredients in the Niçoise, especially the tuna, which, like our caprese, was lacking flavor.
Since my companions were full after the first two courses and the wine, I ordered the lone entrée: the Caribbean-style Chilean sea bass, a dish our server claimed was "famous," having been featured in magazines from Mexico and New York City. The thick filet of sea bass, wrapped in a cornhusk with Caribbean spices, soy sauce and peanuts, and roasted to perfection, was undoubtedly the highlight of my entire meal. What absolutely baffled me, though, were the sides our chef had chosen to accompany such a savory dish-a scoop of mostly dried-out saffron rice and a small bowl of black beans that tasted like last night's leftovers from Chevy's Fresh Mex. I avoided the rice and beans and devoured the sea bass, relishing one delicious juicy bite after another, allowing myself almost no time to breathe. I'm sure my wine was largely to blame, but, despite even the substandard side dishes, I couldn't help but rave to our server about how incredible this entrée was.
For dessert, we mulled over choosing the trés leches cake or cappuccino mousse, but decided to go with the pineapple upside-down cake. Upon presentation, the dry, crumbly cake topped with a leathery ring of pineapple was not at all visually appealing, even with the plate's artful drizzles of red raspberry sauce and whipped cream. One bite of the cake was all each of us needed to conclude that this particular dish was our poorest decision of the evening. No amount of wine-fueled forgiveness could have saved that dessert.
While not all of the menu items at Vagabond may be considered "world class," the restaurant still manages to offer its customers a diverse gustatory journey across many parts of the globe. Just make sure you sample several wines along your adventure-they'll help ensure you enjoy the trip.
2310 30th St.