The best of our entrées royally completed the Emperor's costume. The masterpiece was a Caribbean-style dish of Chilean sea bass baked in banana leaves. The leaves are soaked in water to soften them, and the moisture poaches the fish during a brief trip through a very hot oven. Topped with a lime slice and a bay leaf, our fish was cooked to trembling opalescence, while the charred leaves contributed an earthy flavor. The sauce was subtle and lime-y, and we loved the topping of roasted chopped peanuts. Alongside came saffron rice and interesting nuevo wavo Cuban-style black beans, sweet with molasses and herbal with a heavy waft of thyme.
In the Peruvian stew, seco de carne, beef substitutes for traditional goat meat (and I can't blame the kitchen for that, given that most Americans won't order chivo). The deep, dark herbal sauce not only does Peru proud, it actually outshines most Peruvian folk versions. This magic potion is laden with cooked-in cilantro and green peas, beef cubes, and potato chunks. The spuds, cooked separately, are topped with herbed yogurt, and the tart dairy flavor seeps into the sauce, adding an unexpected fresh-sour note. "I see why they call this 'Seco,'" said my partner. "This beef is pretty dry. I'd rather have some nice, fatty goat." "No, the recipe's name is because the sauce -- not the meat -- is supposed to be seco, that is, thick and not runny," I protested. I didn't mind the beef too much -- especially since this was still the tastiest seco sauce either one of us has ever laid fork to. (Unfortunately, it's not long for the ever-changing menu: Beltran plans to substitute lomo saltado, Peruvian sautéed steak strips with French fries in their sauce, as a lighter dish for summer.)
I'd have loved to sink into a bathtub filled with the sauce that swathed the moules-frites, a classic Belgian dish of mussels cooked with sliced celery in white wine, finished off with an enrichment of cream and fries on the side. The small mussels from chilly Prince Edward Island in the North Atlantic were dense-textured and full-flavored, and the flawless straw potatoes were sprinkled amply with salt, black pepper, and toasted, crumbled dry rosemary.
The lesser entrées stripped the Emperor back to his skivvies. I'd heard rumors the paella was good. It proved to be not paella at all but a French fantasy of the dish. It was more citrusy than saffron-laden, and smothered with chopped fresh basil. Served in a small iron pan sized for two, it included mussels, clams, chicken breast, Spanish chorizo, and loose sausage -- all rather dry. It wasn't bad, exactly, but if your mouth is set for authentic paella sized for a couple, better head to Costa Brava (in PB) for its Sunday brunch version, rather than this oddball rendition.
The dish we liked least was a "Caribbean" rack of lamb stuffed with a large branch of rosemary, based on a recipe from Guadeloupe-Martinique in the French West Indies (where it's made with beef). In a half-dozen trips to the southern Caribbean, I've never seen one sheep -- just lots of goats. (Sheep wool stays thin and patchy in the tropics, and ovine eating habits are too destructive for thin-soiled volcanic islands.) Nor did I ever spot a sprig of rosemary, a Mediterranean herb that swoons in the heat. "Our spiciest dish," said the menu, but we didn't detect any significant hot pepper. Wherever the recipe came from, the rosemary was overwhelming, the meat slightly greasy. (Happily, this dish, too, is scheduled to be replaced -- by a Moroccan extravaganza of lamb tagine, merguez, and cous-cous.)
Other popular options that we didn't try include numerous salads (most temptingly, a salade niçoise made with freshly grilled ahi) and coq au vin, which seems to be making a comeback lately -- Le Bastide, Cavaillon, and Stingaree are among the celebrated new restaurants that feature it. (I couldn't bring myself to order it; during my first romance with Julia Child, Volume 1, seduced by its low cost and easy technique, I cooked it for a few too many dinner parties.)
The wine list is a joy, with something for every taste and budget. If the weather is still steamy, run your eyes down the whites by the glass, thinking, "Anything but Chardonnay." The list includes both a Muscadet and a Vouvray, perfect hot-weather aperitifs, and both fine matches for Asian flavors. But if you must have Chard, the DeLoach is fuller-bodied than the minor French bottling and is worth the extra four bits.
Lamb aside, I generally enjoyed eating at Vagabond (as reflected in the rating), but as my friend Bill noted, there's something in the atmosphere that's oddly unwelcoming to just plain neighborhood folk. The owner states that he wants his restaurant to be a place where people can relax, but in some subtle fashion, the staffers at Vagabond seem to embody a chilly Gallic "hipper than thou" stance. (Hipper than moi? Est-ce possible?) However delightful the food, it doesn't quite match the heights of the 'tude -- and attitude's not something I expect or want from a bohemian neighborhood spot serving adventurous bistro fare.
"I'm not really a chef, I don't know the techniques," says Philippe Beltran. He's a restaurateur with a trusty long-time chef, Baltazar Montero, starting with Beltran's French Side of the West (the predecessor to Vagabond, and currently the site of Nathan Coulon's Modus). "I had a French chef there," he says, "and Baltazar started as dishwasher and worked his way up to prep cook, cook, and then became sous-chef, and he learned everything from the French chef. Then I had Alizé [which featured the cuisine of the French West Indies]. The chef there was a younger guy named Olivier (who was a friend of Fabrice Poigin, all those people who came over from France at one time). Baltazar worked under him to learn some of the newer techniques and basically from there on became my chef and has followed me everywhere." Philippe comes up with the decor and collaborates with Baltazar on the menu and the overall recipe for each dish and often works in the kitchen putting the final touches on the plates and making sure everything is okay. Baltazar does the actual cooking.