2310 30th Street, South Park
On a midweek evening a few months ago, my partner and I rambled over to our brand-new neighborhood bistro, excited because in all of South Park/Golden Hill there are only two other genuine restaurants. "No reservation?" said the hostess. "You'll have to wait at the bar for at least an hour. We have a big party coming in ten minutes." We glanced at the bar: bodies three to four deep. Noise like a trash truck in full collection mode. No thanks. Next day, we called for a res. "We don't take reservations for small parties," a different hostess said in a French accent. "You can put your name on the waiting list just before you start out, and you'll get the first available table after you arrive." We decided to put off going to Vagabond Kitchen until the dust settled.
Meanwhile, Vagabond grew into a hangout for local French chefs, SD celebs, and business hotshots coming from downtown and other high-toned districts. The gleaming tan-and-chestnut Mercedes parked at the yellow zone in front during our most recent dinner certainly didn't look like a South Park resident; nor did its owner, a tall, dark, and handsome cigar-smoker, wearing a fine white shirt with so many buttons opened, you could count his chest hairs.
The restaurant occupies a small, hacienda-style terra-cotta adobe. Inside, it's about half bar, half sit-down, with tables for 40. The decor combines France, Morocco, the Caribbean, and lands less known, with decorative bits of exotica wherever your gaze turns. There are banquettes along the walls lined with throw pillows, but most tables are tiny, with barely room for each person's entrée and bread plate. Each table holds a scented candle and a French canning jar filled with dining utensils, and the white tablecloths are topped, bistro-style, with white paper. The room roars with world music, bar blenders, and diners shouting to hear each other -- and that's on a quiet night. Most evenings there are huge parties, too.
The bill of fare has changed so often (mainly by expansion) that as of this writing, Vagabond's website still has no posted menu, and although a sign in the window says (in French) that you can take out any dish, there aren't any takeout menus either. The menu, subtitled "cuisine without boundaries," ranges over the world -- Europe (France, Italy, and Spain), North Africa, the Caribbean, and South America -- but the dishes are interpreted in a style that's at once distinctly Gallic yet highly personal. Paris-born restaurateur and world-traveler Philippe Beltran (co-owner of Vagabond with Jerome Gombert), who many years ago owned French Side of the West and the French-Caribbean Alizé, brought his long-time chef Baltazar Montero with him. The cooking may sport a French accent, but it's free from the manacles of classic French culinary restraint. The kitchen doesn't merely sprinkle on the herbs, spices, and condiments, it piles them on.
Take the ramekin of aioli that comes with the light, puffy Italian table-bread. "Honey, don't kiss me until you take a bite of this, too," said my partner after swiping his bread in it. I took a taste in turn: it proved to be the original garlic-loaded potion of southern France, not some newfangled lightened version. "No worries about Dracula tonight," I said.
We hesitated a bit too long over our order, and that was enough for our French waitress to gravitate to a newly entered party of ten, switching us to an American waitress (actually more cordial) who also had to deal with a giggly party of six halfway across the room and a threesome beside us. There were long gaps between orders and deliveries. We didn't mind the waits but were a bit put off by the musical-waitresses stunt, which made us feel that we'd been sized up for our tip potential and found wanting. After the meal, I phoned my friend Bill to compare notes, as he'd mentioned lunching there earlier that week. "I shouldn't have hesitated over the menu," he said. "When I couldn't order as soon as I sat down, my waitress disappeared for a full 25 minutes. I wondered if I'd ever see her again. Everybody else eating there looked so corporate. Maybe I was dressed wrong. I felt like they didn't really want me there."
Our first dinner began with an assiette française, an assortment of pâtés, deli meats, cheeses, and garnishes. When you travel in France, charcuterie shops become your mainstays for affordable piqnique lunches of pâtés, bread, and cheese (compared to the exorbitant grilled-cheese sandwiches at the cafés). I was grinning like the Cheshire Cat as I tasted my way through Vagabond's made-in-France assortment: a country-style pork pâté (which I loved but my less-traveled partner compared unfavorably to his favorite pâté, Spam); an ethereal duck-liver mousse that flew off the plate (and onto both forks); and slices of rosette de Lyons, a dainty French salami. Dairy showed up as two melon-ball scoops of salty Roquefort and two slices of mild semi-soft cheese, possibly Manchego. Classic garnishes included cornichon pickles, salt-cured ripe olives, and toasted baguette slices.
Fried calamari were winners, too, in a crisp, peppery batter, sprinkled with chives and bits of tomato, mingling with sweet-tasting roasted garlic cloves that send their aroma deep into the squid and prove delicious eating on their own. At that dinner, the dip was tartar sauce, but we cleaved to the aioli. Next time, we ordered a calamari salad, and aioli alone was the dip. The salad is about half fried calamari (including garlic) and half grilled squid a la plancha, mingling with crisp spring greens in a light honey-mustard dressing that we found irresistible. However, Vagabond was having a busy night (as always) and some of the squid came off the plancha too soon, still slimy and rubbery. In either of its guises, the calamari appetizers are portioned to share among three or four. Fewer at table? The salad leftovers make an ideal hot-weather lunch.
A summery "Italian appetizer plate" is meant for two to share. About half the plate is covered with insalata caprese, tomato slices with mild buffalo-milk mozzarella, topped with a layer of fresh-basil confetti. The tomatoes ranged from very ripe to cottony. The other half consists of two bruschetta on a sliced olive baguette, topped with ripe, diced tomato, basil, garlic, Kalamata olives, pine nuts, and a haystack of prosciutto slivers (which claims to be imported but actually tasted like any mild ham). "Between underripe tomato and undercooked squid, I'm not sure the Emperor is fully dressed," said my partner. "BVDs, maybe, but no ermine robe."