2310 30th Street, San Diego
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."
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.
"I was born and raised in Paris," says Philippe. "I had the equivalent of two years of college. When I was 20, I visited North Africa and got the travel bug. I got a job with Club Med for three years and traveled all through Spain and Italy. Then I went to the Caribbean for three years -- Guadeloupe, Martinique, the Dominican Republic. After that I came back here and opened restaurants, and then I traveled to Asia.
"I sold all my restaurants about six years ago. I needed a break from the restaurant business, and I started to work for a French company importing teak furniture from Vietnam. The food in Vietnam -- wonderful! After four years, the restaurant business was calling to me again and I wanted to get back into it. A French artist named Titouan Lamazou inspired me. He studied the arts in Paris and then traveled the world by boat, competing in open-sea races, and everywhere he went, he took photographs and collected things and wrote a travel journal called Carnet des Voyages. That gave me the concept for a restaurant that eventually became Vagabond."
"Now I'm going to go to South America to get married in Peru. My fiancée is Peruvian, and her mother came to the restaurant and taught Baltazar the recipe for the seco de carne. Her grandmother taught him the recipe for aji amarillo sauce. Baltazar is a really good learner...We get some of our other recipes from friends who live here who came from other countries....
"The one thing I'm proud of is that when I first came here, I was a waiter at Café des Beaux Arts, and we had one pâté on the menu, but nobody ever ordered it. Later, when I bought the place and turned it into French Side of the West, we did a charcuterie plate -- several pâtés from France, and the chef would make rillettes or head cheese. And the first thing we'd do, before we'd even give you a menu (it was a prix fixe), was to serve the charcuterie plate. Nobody would order it, but when I gave it away, everyone would eat it and love it. So I was the first one to introduce San Diegans to charcuterie.
"It's my art, it's what I do. I'm 42 years old and I have no money in the bank, but I love my life. What Vagabond is about is exposing San Diegans to the world -- other cultures, other music, other art, other cuisines. It's all about friendship, one world, no borders. When you travel, you bring back spices and art from here or there. So Vagabond is like a world house with a world kitchen, with art and spices from all over. Our success -- it's such a small place, such big crowds -- we're actually stretching a little too thin. I have to train new people constantly. I've always been a people person. This is not the greatest restaurant in the world -- it's a restaurant for the people, and when people come in stressed and then over their dinner they relax and enjoy themselves here, that's what I find so rewarding."