Monday, March 23, 2015

Vagabond Restaurant - Miami MiMo District

When chefs from other cities open restaurants in Miami, there's often a sort of "I'm going to show you how it's done" swagger that locals can find off-putting. You hear lots of broad brush "Miami doesn't have ____" and "Miami doesn't do _____" statements from people who sometimes have spent less than a week here. That limited experience doesn't keep them from professing to educate us all about ourselves and what we're missing.

I was worried we were getting more of the same when I read a pre-opening interview with Alex Chang, the young chef[1] selected to run the Vagabond Restaurant & Bar inside the newly renovated and restored Vagabond Hotel on Biscayne Boulevard.[2] Here's the brash newcomer telling us, "So ... it's different compared to other big cities... I think the food here is not quite as progressive and innovative. I think there's some great chefs here and a lot of people doing some really great stuff, but I think what I found is that there's something missing in the middle to me." And "I just don't think there are restaurants that are super unique here .. like, oh this restaurant bleeds Miami."

At least it was balanced by some humility too: "I'm just trying to really, really figure out what Miami is made of and what it can be..." So I was willing to cut the guy some slack. And if I'm going to be completely honest, though I may not completely agree with the categorical statements, there's an element of truth to what he says.[3] But more important, I wanted to try the guy's food. Let's see what you've got.

(You can see all my pictures in this Vagabond Restaurant flickr set).

There's a "DINER" sign outside the Vagabond Restaurant, keeping with the 1950's era style that's been so faithfully restored throughout the property, and the atmosphere inside is delightfully Jetsons-inspired, staying just this side of kitschy. But Chang's food is decidedly contemporary. Consistent with the "Vagabond" name, inspiration is pulled from all over the map: you'll taste flavors from Mexico, Japan, Italy, Cuba, Thailand, Jamaica, Spain and more – including South Florida. It was interesting to hear from my CSA farmer, Muriel Olivares of Little River Cooperative, that Vagabond has become one of their best customers, and is always interested in the more unusual items they're able to provide. That was a good sign.

(continued ...)
The menu is predominantly "small plates," with prices between $6-15 and portions that probably require about three items per person to satisfy. About a half dozen items skew more towards main course sizes, and are priced accordingly, topping out with a $42 16-oz. bone in short rib and a $54 (!) pork collar dish.

Vegetables are prominently featured; roughly a third of the nearly two dozen items on the menu are vegetarian or at least veg-centric. Multi-hued baby carrots are roasted until withered and charred, assembled tepee-style over a mound of a mole sauce (which I could have been easily convinced was a romesco), dotted with yogurt and dusted with chopped hazelnuts and za'atar spice.[4] Wax beans are caramelized until their skins blister, then napped with a zippy scallion vinaigrette and served over a Calabrian chile-infused aioli hidden underneath.

A haystack of pale endive leaves and palm hearts is speckled with cubes of crunchy kohlrabi, dressed in a pickled date vinaigrette, and then blanketed with finely shaved pecorino cheese. Florets of cauliflower and romanesco are roasted, then dappled with smoked, foamed goat's milk and dolloped with smoked trout roe.

Sometimes vegetable dishes can be bland, but Chang's mostly succeed in extracting big flavors from the products themselves (high heat cooking methods to concentrate flavor and bring those deeper sweet caramel notes out) and bringing other big flavors to the plate with smoke, chiles and spice. Only the last of these, the cauliflower, didn't hit the mark for me, the goat's milk lacking enough substance to make its presence known, the trout roe having nothing to cling to and mostly falling to the bottom of the bowl.

Chang doesn't shy away from using "off cuts" either. Beef heart (pictured at top) is seared rare, arranged in thin, garnet-hued slices draped with pickled shiitake mushrooms, slivered radishes, shungiku (chrysanthemum leaves) and a barely warmed egg yolk, which functions as a sauce – a reconstructed Japanese sukiyaki. A dish of kabocha squash, in roasted cubes and wispy, delicately fried ribbons, is plated over a shmear of chicken liver mousse. A "milanesa" of sweetbread arrived thin, pan-fried, and crispy-edged. It's plated with a swiss cheese foam, a burnt onion mustard nearly black with char, a salty, porky country ham vinaigrette, and a couple sprigs of frilly mustard greens. If you're not paying attention, you may not even notice that this is the flavors of a Cuban sandwich, repackaged.

Some dishes skew a bit more traditional. Ricotta gnocchi are napped in a bright green kale butter, and showered with crispy toasted bread crumbs; a few snow peas stand vertically at attention for some snappy contrast. The gnocchi themselves are quite good, but there was a tangy flavor in there (cultured butter? the ricotta?) that I found out of place. Jerk chicken wings are smoked over allspice leaves and topped with pikliz, a fiery pickled cabbage, a delicious and spicy nod to the Little Haiti neighborhood that lies just west of Biscayne Boulevard.

A few dishes didn't do much for me. A golden tilefish tartare, mixed with cubes of avocado and speckled with quinoa, was bland, missing the zing of yuzu promised in the menu description. A disk of crispy pig's head served over an avocado leaf hummus, topped with a tomatillo salsa and a handful of radishes and herbs, similarly lacked punch. And a dish that combined seared octopus with rancho gordo beans and hoja santa (a Mexican herb with an unusual anise or sassafras twang) seemed uncomfortable together, the components like strangers meeting at a party who had nothing to talk about.

Vagabond closes strong, though. The pistachio cake is among the best desserts I've had in Miami. The emerald green cake is pulled apart and crumbled over a fennel panna cotta, then draped with crumbles of roasted white chocolate and ribbons of candied fennel. There are such vivid, bright flavors here, and an interplay of textures that keeps you coming back for another bite. The key lime pie was every bit its equal. While I've grown wary, and weary, of "deconstructed" desserts, this one (which didn't actually use that word) got everything right: crumbles of chewy, brown-edged pie crust, a tangy, citrusy custard, dots of sticky meringue, and a light, bright coconut sorbet. I'm not usually big on desserts, but these were excellent.

Last weekend Vagabond rolled out a Sunday brunch service, with a menu that's equally eclectic. There's Scandinavian inspired smørrebrød with cured ocean trout and dill on Zak the Baker rye, and squash blossom quesadillas with "El Santana" masa quesadillas.[5] There's also Japanese milk bread French toast with pink guava, a great looking pork tonkotsu sandwich with yuzu kosho sauerkraut, shakshuka with rabbit merguez, and plenty of other intriguing mash-ups. Plus, with broad windows facing Biscayne Boulevard and an outdoor seating area that tumbles out towards the Vagabond's pool, it's a great spot for a lazy Sunday, maybe featuring their version of a bourbon milk punch (which lightens the drink up by using clarified milk).[6]

When you're taking chances, you run the risk that not every dish is going to work for everyone. And I'm OK with that. It's what I call the "Rob Deer School of Cooking." Back in the early 1990's when I still paid attention to baseball, Rob Deer was the prototype all-or-nothing hitter.[7] For eight straight years he hit more than 20 home runs; he also averaged 162 strikeouts a season (more than one a game) over that same time period, leading the league four different times. The analogy probably isn't fair: Alex Chang has a much better home run to strikeout ratio than Rob Deer. But still, my point is: if you're going to miss, at least go out swinging. There's not a dish here that fails for lack of ambition.[8]

I've had three meals now at Vagabond, and am already itching to go back for more. It's not a perfect restaurant. But it's a very good restaurant, a fun restaurant, an interesting restaurant, an exciting restaurant; and in its own way, it is doing a great job of capturing the flavors of Miami.

Vagabond Restaurant & Bar
7301 Biscayne Boulevard, Miami, Florida

Vagabond Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon

[1] Chang's backstory is a good one. With no formal culinary training, he started throwing dinner parties while a student at University of Southern California, which became so popular that they morphed into an "illegal" underground restaurant called "Paladar" (named after the in-home restaurants found in Cuba). A few years later, Paladar was the subject of a full-length documentary (you can see a trailer here, and see some more footage in this Munchies Chef's Night Out video). Since then, he's bounced through kitchens around the world, including a couple years at Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook's Animal in L.A.

[2] I live across the causeway from the Vagabond, and have driven by it nearly every day for the past twenty years. It's always been a wish of mine that somebody would do a proper restoration of the motel, probably the most glorious of the 1950's era properties along the stretch of Biscayne Boulevard that has been dubbed the "MiMo" (Miami Modern) district. After seeing the Vagabond change hands a couple times, it's finally happened, thanks to Avra Jain, a developer who has big plans for the Boulevard. Aside from the Vagabond, she's acquired several other properties along this stretch, including the Royal Motel next door (which is slated to house a cooking school run by chef Norman Van Aken!), the South Pacific down the street (which is apparently being converted into office suites), the Bayside Motor Inn, and the Stephen's International Inn. There's a good profile of her here in Biscayne Times. I couldn't have fantasized a better restoration job than was done on the Vagabond, which faithfully maintained all the great historical details while effectively rebuilding it anew to make it a livable, functional property. I think this stretch of Biscayne Boulevard is going to be a very exciting place over the next several years. Aside from the Vagabond, 50 Eggs (the restaurant group that owns Yardbird, Swine and Khong River House) is building its headquarters (and supposedly, a test kitchen) across the street; smaller scale places like Loba and Ms. Cheezious have recently opened, joining neighborhood favorites like Blue Collar; recently, word came out that Brooklyn pizza favorite Paulie Gee's is coming, to the old China Palace property just north of 79th Street. Lots of good things happening here.

[3] I think that comment pays short shrift to folks like Kris Wessel, whose menu at Oolite reflects many of the flavors and products of South Florida, what's going on right now at 27 Restaurant at the Freehand, what Michael's Genuine has been doing for the past eight years, and to a somewhat lesser degree, places like Eating House and Pubbelly. But it's true that it's harder than it ought to be to find mid-range restaurants that strive to be innovative and focus on local ingredients.

[4] It's a delicious dish, but perhaps not quite as innovative as Chang's pre-opening shpiel might lead you to believe – a point on which I'll expand in another post.

[5] I love the grainy, intensely corn-y masa Steve Santana makes at Taquiza, and is now providing to other restaurants, but these tortillas were too thick – practically like pancakes, overwhelming the delicate squash blossoms layered inside.

[6] I've enjoyed all the cocktails I've had at the Vagabond, including the flowery, botanical Upper East Side with Dillon's Rose Gin, St. Germaine, Dolin vermouth, absinthe and a cucumber slice; and the tangy, tropical On Miami Time with Diplomatico rum, coconut shrub and lemongrass.

[7] I remember Deer as a Detroit Tiger, but he played for the Milwaukee Brewers from 1984-1990. In 1991 the Tigers added him to a lineup that included a bunch of other all-or-nothing guys: Cecil Fielder, Mickey Tettleton and Travis Fryman all typically had 20+ HRs and 130+ KOs. I guess Adam Dunn would be the contemporary analogue.

[8]I really do hope this review doesn't come off as negative, because this is a place I feel very positive about. I've written less frequently about Miami restaurants lately, and that's partly due to time constraints, but it's also partly due to the fact that I prefer to write about places that genuinely excite me. Vagabond definitely falls into that category. If I criticize, it's because I want the place to be even better the next time I visit.


  1. You didn't try the shrimp dish? That was the highlight for me, and I agree they have a lot of tweaks to...tweak. Great read!

  2. Thanks. And I've still got to get to that shrimp dish.

  3. This site has become so disappointing. You've morphed into one of those pseudo highbrow newspaper writers, who just go on and on about the "chef". You're writing to other food writers instead of your readers; unless of course all of your readers are other food writers. Trying to convince us how much you know about the worldwide chef scene is just plain boring.

    1. Wow. This is the kind of criticism I would typically really take to heart - except when I look back at this review, out of 2,000+ words there are less than 400 about the "chef" and pretty much none about the "worldwide chef scene."

      When I write about our Cobaya dinners I may tend to talk about the chefs a bit more, but the whole purpose of those dinners is to give the chefs a spotlight, so it kind of comes with the territory.

      If I were to complain about this site, I'd be complaining that there aren't enough current reviews of local restaurants, that "the list" hasn't been updated in more than two years, that there are too many footnotes, that the quality of the photography is inconsistent, and that the design is kind of antiquated.

      But if you think the problem is too much chef worship, my money-back guarantee still stands.

  4. I lost interest long before I read the entire post.

    For example, you have PICTURES of the food. Do you need to also describe it as if we're blind; is there a braille version of the site? Or do you just like saying "teepee style"?

    You're writing like a 1980s newspaper critic; they didnt have pictures, so they had to describe everything in gory detail. When you have pictures, you can skip that; maybe pointing out what's wrong or right about the dish.

    The entire premise is build around the chef, you started and ended with him and in-between dissected his food. How many chefs and other places did you mention? "Look at me; look at how much I know about food".

    You mention the view of the bay, why is there no picture of that? I don't get any feel for what the experience is like. Did you feel uncomfortable? Did they try to stick you in the corner in front of the kitchen. Was it loud? Is there dance music or a 3 piece string band playing? How is the beverage service? Did you get refilled in a timely fashion? Is it crowded, will I have to wait? Is the waiting area comfortable or cramped? You must have visited 3 times. What happened? It's like you sat in the kitchen and just sampled dish after dish.

    Ok, Im going overboard here. But here's the point. You must have spent $100s here and I still have no idea if I want to go or not. Isn't that the entire point of doing a review?

    If Emeril is in the kitchen, let me know. Otherwise I couldn't care less.

  5. Another huge criticism :)

    You need captions on your photos. What the hell am I looking at?

    1. Too much description of the food, but no captions for the pictures? There is no pleasing you. I'll also call bullshit on describing dishes but not pointing out what's right or wrong - there's plenty of that in here, and if you can figure out what's in all these dishes just from looking at the pictures, you're a lot more perceptive than me (also - then you probably shouldn't need captions).

      But I will admit it's a fair comment that I don't generally focus nearly as much on service and atmosphere as I do the food. It happens to be what I care about the most. I think I may be a bit lower maintenance than some folks, but generally I don't find service worth commenting about (and typically don't) unless it's exceptionally bad or exceptionally good. Ditto on atmosphere: I may have a word or two about the look & feel of a place ("Jetsons-inspired") but it's not really what commands my attention.

      After all, the blog is called "Food For Thought" and not "Architecture and Interior Design for Thought".

      However, you must improve your reading comprehension: there's no mention of a view of the bay, and the restaurant is on Biscayne Boulevard. (There is a nice view of the old Coppertone Girl sign which used to be downtown and is now across the street from the Vagabond).

      But in any event, criticisms duly noted. And in all seriousness, I do appreciate the feedback, it's always interesting to hear what people think.

  6. Ok, well then it's not a restaurant review. Because the food is only one aspect of a restaurant experience. It's a chef's review, which is exactly what I originally said