Pisco Sours and "Kung Fu" Squid


2310 30th Street, South Park

(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)

Vagabond was a sensation when it opened in the spring of ’06. As the realtors say, it had a huge edge: location (times three). Restaurateurs Philippe Beltran and Jerome Gombert chose to open an eclectic bistro in the starved neighborhood of South Park. The menu combined French and international foods, many drawn from former French colonies (e.g., Martinique, Morocco), others from the owners’ peripatetic travels. The room they created looked like a boxful of exotic souvenirs, with bits of folk crafts from all over. After all, a vagabond is a poor but free-spirited wanderer — a more romantic figure than, say, a street bum — and the restaurant looked like not merely one faraway port of call but, potentially, all of them.

Then Beltran left to open Bleu Bohème, taking his longtime favorite chef with him, and possibly some of his Peruvian wife’s best recipes, too. (Her seco de carne stew was extraordinary.) Vagabond survived, but last spring, according to one hard-core “insider” foodie blog, Gombert called in the ultra-talented French chef Patrick Ponsaty (currently of BernardO’s, formerly of El Biz) as a consultant to remake the menu. This was hot news — hot enough to make my revisit mandatory.

My new friend and posse member Steve lives not far from Vagabond and from time to time heads there for early-bird tapas at the bar before the big crowds show up. The restaurant is usually mobbed, and your reservation doesn’t shield you against the exuberant shrieks of the Maenads who pack the scene-y bar triple-thick with their well-toned bodies. Architecturally, the room is one of those congenitally noisy spaces that makes diners and drinkers chatting loud enough to hear each other sound like a herd of hyenas rejoicing at an antelope kill. To try a dinner, we chose the dank, windy night before New Year’s Eve. This was, as we hoped, a quiet night, but not quiet enough. A mid-20s blonde eating with two friends was, herself, a whole New Year’s Eve bash a night too early, sending mirthful squeals echoing through the room.

Dinner began with warm Sadie Rose baguette slices and aioli dip. The tasty aioli is more citrusy and less fiercely garlic-ridden than it used to be. Coulda guessed that — in San Diego, fierce and garlicky never lasts long. I leaped on the opportunity to drink a delicious, rarely found Pisco Sour cocktail, the standard “tea” of Lima’s British-influenced five o’clock “teatime.”

Steve and I agreed to try only the newer menu items, those we’d never tasted before. We began with Indonesian-inspired “Narai,” fried balls of squid and chicken with a pineapple dipping sauce. The balls were vaguely pleasant but so bland they could have been made of tofu. We could see the seafood, not taste it. The dip was, oh, sorta sweet, sorta spicy, nice but not a heads-up. The combination might make a pleasant breakfast for someone inclined to gentle culinary adventures before noon.

Kung Pao Calamari offers batterless fried squid rings robed in Hoisin sauce, finished with fried dried chilies and ground peanuts. The squid is wonderfully tender, the sauce sweet, spicy, simple, and above all, heavy — such a hard hitter, the dish would be better named Kung Fu Calamari. For one thing, authentic recipes for Kung Pao don’t include Hoisin sauce — the sweet-tart edge comes from dark-brown Chungking vinegar instead. Then, too, in Chinese cooking, Hoisin rarely solos — it’s usually combined with lighter condiments into more complex sauces. So Vagabond’s version of the dish reminded me of one of those desperation-dinner 20-minute recipes in the cooking magazines: neither authentic nor alluring, merely pragmatic and trendy.

“These appetizers take me back to San Francisco, but not necessarily in a good way,” I said. “One of my best friends was a wildly adventurous cook. Everybody loved going to dinner at his house, you never knew what he’d do. But it was exciting amateur cooking — not professional restaurant cooking. We loved him, we loved the adventure, but if we’d had to pay for his experiments — well, he’d have run short of dinner guests pretty quickly.”

The wine list is already a joy, but a board over the bar lists ultra-bargain wines for $5 and $6 a glass. I placed my bet on an Argentine white, Torrontes, to stand up to the Asian flavors of the appetizers. Dry, full-bodied, as straightforward as a marine sergeant, it was a decent gamble — but Steve had a real winner with a slightly fruity Spanish Albariño, equally firm and gutsy, but with a touch of sweetness better suited to the pineapple chutney and Hoisin sauce. For the entrées, he ventured on a Languedoc white, while I played it safe with a red Côte du Rhône. At Vagabond’s prices, you really can have fun with wines.

If only the food gambles had the same odds! What has not changed in three years is the kitchen’s consistent inconsistency. Working doggedly through the whole menu when the restaurant first opened offered an alternation between a season in hell and a season in heaven. Some French dishes were fine, others pointless and drab. The same was true for the other destinations. (See “pick hits” for a few successes.) Regardless of the rumor, I could detect no sign of Patrick Ponsaty’s influence on the current menu, so a few days after the meal, I phoned Jerome to ask whether Ponsaty had been involved. “Patrick is an old friend and a good friend,” he said, “and of course when we see each other we talk about food, as you would expect of people in our business. I did see him last spring while I was working on the current menu; naturally, we talked about it a little. But it would be doing him a disservice to say he ‘consulted’ — he is the greatest, one of the greatest, chefs in this area, and his work is at a much higher level than ours. I would not want to give people the wrong idea that he is associated with us.”

Choosing entrées, Steve and I debated: Should we order the lomo saltado (Peruvian stir-fried beef with french fries in the sauce)? “I’ve seen some positive mentions of it on blogs,” Steve said. “Which blogs?” I asked. He named Yelp. “I’ve never found Yelp very reliable,” I said. “I doubt that many posters there have tasted enough Peruvian food to judge the dish. And this is a dish that, if it isn’t great, is gonna be dreary.”

The entrées we finally selected sent us both into irate foodie rants. Steve, who has worked in restaurants on and off for years, tried the Poulet Basquaise, billed proudly on the menu as an “airline breast” (meaning, a chicken breast with a wing drumette still attached). “Why do restaurants bother listing ‘airline breast’ on their menus, like it’s something to be excited about?” Steve grumbled. “Most laypeople don’t even know what it means. And if they thought about it, it wouldn’t bring to mind filet mignon in first class on Air France — it’d remind them of dried-out, nuked-dead chicken in coach on Continental!”

Well, the Basque breast actually made airline food look good. It was overcooked to shoe leather, even the drumette. Not one bite was chewable. And the sauce may have started with whole tomatoes but devolved during cooking into a thick, underseasoned colloid that tasted as though it had been amended with canned tomato paste. The garnishes included firm fingerling potatoes, mushy, overcooked eggplant slices, and soggy red and green pepper and onion slices. The sole redeeming feature was a plethora of tender whole garlic cloves. Otherwise, it was like Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s tale of a European adventurer who wanders far enough to lose his soul: “The horror! The horror!”

I ventured on the Moroccan lamb shank tagine with couscous. This was the second time in a year I’ve reached for the salt shaker in a restaurant. And salt was not enough. “Where are all the Moroccan seasonings?” I asked rhetorically. “Back in the days of the spice trade, Morocco’s ports were trans-shipment points for spices heading across the Mediterranean. Real Moroccan food still explodes with exotic, fragrant spices, beautifully blended, balanced, aromatic. Have you been to Kous Kous in Hillcrest? No? Let’s go there soon so you can taste their amazing lamb tagine with honey — a real taste of Morocco.”

“This lamb is very lamb-y,” said Steve, sampling a few bites. “Bland and a little greasy. I don’t see the point of it.” “Yeah, if spices were dynamite,” I said, “it wouldn’t have enough to blow its nose.”

For dessert we shared an odd clafouti — normally a loose, creamy custard showcasing seasonal fruit. Here, ground almonds enter the mix and turn it heavy but not yet exotic. The texture resembles crème brûlée, the flavor hints at Sicily and the Middle East, but the voyage is aborted on the launching dock.

Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” But inconsistency is the ghoul of good palates. The best way to handle Vagabond is probably to go as a foursome or more and pass around plates so nobody gets stuck with (down, boy!) the BAD dish. Currently, the dishes that have been constants on the menu from the start seem to be the best (the moules frites are particularly outstanding). Vagabond’s other potential use is to provide a bargain grazing meal: Show up before 6:00 p.m., belly up to the bar, and feast on the day’s international tapas while drinking $5 wines or affordable exotic cocktails. (Along with the Pisco Sour, the caipirinha is made with genuine Brazilian cachaça, and the mojitos are popular, too.) For those of us who live nearby, sometimes a meal at Vagabond is inevitable: Where else can you eat something even slightly interesting south of Switzer Canyon?

Vagabond: Kitchen of the World
2310 30th Street (Fern at Juniper), South Park, 619-255-1035, vagabondkitchen.com.
HOURS: Open daily from 11:30 a.m. until the last diner has finished (about 10:30 p.m. weeknights, bar menu until midnight on weekends)
PRICES: Appetizers, $5.50–$11.50; salads, $7.50–$12.50; entrées, $15.50–$23.50. Lunches, $8.50–$18.50.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Eclectic international choices with France as home base. Affordable international wine list, loads by the glass, starting at $5; full bar, including genuine tropical cocktails at moderate prices.
PICK HITS: Charcuterie plate, moules frites, Caribbean-style fish in banana leaves.
NEED TO KNOW: Raucously noisy when crowded; quieter before 7:00 p.m. Early hours better for bar seating with tapas menu. Informal atmosphere, but some patrons spiffy up in date-dress. Difficult street parking. Seasonally changing menu with several vegan/vegetarian items.

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Though you've presented fascinating historical context w/r/t the Moroccan spice trade, it's also true that spices were especially valued at the time because it was necessary to cover the taste of spoiling meat (a common problem in non-refrigerated days or yore). Personally, I actually prefer my lamb to taste "lamb-y" (sorry, Steve).

I'm a fan of the Vagabond, and actually keep going back expressly for the lamb tagine– the sauce accentuates the meat without overpowering, and I find the balance between savory and fruity sweet particularly gratifying over flesh that falls tenderly from the bone and firm couscous that rolls and pops on the tongue.

I get that you guys don't like to dine too close to "Maenads" and "laypeople," but isn't it nice to know you don't have to go to Hillcrest to find cosmopolitan people enjoying themselves over a meal? To paraphrase my favorite transcendentalist, "I don't like crowds, either, but all the best places seem to have them."

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