Pisco Sours and "Kung Fu" Squid

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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