It's impossible to miss Vagabond Restaurant when you're driving on Biscayne Boulevard on Miami's Upper Eastside. If the convivial atmosphere glowing through the windows doesn't attract your attention, the resurrected Vagabond Motel sign certainly will. Pull into the driveway and hope for a spot. Otherwise, there's ample parking around the corner.
Expect your draw to drop when you walk into the dining room. It's both retro and futuristic. Focal points are a sunken bar, a wall of photos paying homage to vagabonds, and an Airstream-style open kitchen. That's where you'll find 25-year-old chef Alex Chang expediting orders.
Chang's Mexican-Chinese background has led the talented toque to work a myriad of kitchens around the globe. At Vagabond Restaurant, Chang has combined his life experiences in Tokyo and Belgium and at famed Los Angeles eatery Animal and Pujol in Mexico City. "A vagabond is someone who travels the world and is nomadic," he says. "We're trying to incorporate that into the food."
Chang also earned notoriety at the University of Southern California when he and a fellow student ran an underground restaurant on campus that became the subject of Gil Freston's documentary, Paladar. While Vagabond Restaurant is anything but underground, it is Chang and partner/general manager Chris Wang's first solo endeavor, and an exotic one at that. The menu features items like beef heart, grasshoppers, and buttermilk-fried quail.
Polaroid-photo coasters of the staff are one of the many quirky, charming touches at this casual yet stylish 120-seater. While you sink into one of the most comfortable restaurant chairs you've ever experienced, be sure to look up at the hand-drawn constellations connecting the intergalactic light fixtures. If the Jetsons had a favorite restaurant, this would be it.
A full bar offers classic cocktails with a modern twist such as the milk punch (vanilla-and-cinnamon-infused Rittenhouse Rye, lemon, orange, and clarified milk) and East of the Tracks (Tequila Ocho Reposado, smoked pineapple, and Ancho Reyes). Cocktails are priced between $12 and $15.
Despite the restaurant's name, much of the food here is locally sourced. "We're definitely trying to see what Florida is made of," Chang says, "so we're using all local ingredients. There are no apples that grow in Florida, so there will be nothing with apples on the menu." Chang is so serious about the local mantra that he purchased 30 pounds of key limes to freeze for the summer. "Harvest here is backwards than most places, and not a lot of things grow in summer, so we want to prepare now."
As for the menu, it's divided into three sections: small, medium, and large. Diners are encouraged to order all items at once so the meal can be properly served.
Start with the stracciatella ($11). Dressed with leek oil, garnished with watercress, and accompanied by country bread it's a delightful precursor to your meal.
Zucchini salad ($12) is a must-have. Supple zucchini noodles are tossed with pistachio tarragon and a piquant Mexican pipian sauce that's refreshingly tangy.
If for no other reason other than to say you ate grasshoppers, try the peanuts and chapulines ($6). You can barely taste them among the peanuts, Szechuan peppercorn, cilantro, and lime anyway.
Medium plates include ricotta gnocchi with kale butter and lemon ($13), roasted kabocha squash with chicken liver mousse and almond pickled starfruit ($15), and sweet 'n' sour sun shrimp, which sing with notes of pineapple vinegar, chili oil, and ginger ($14). The last, served tongue-in-cheek in a P.F. Chang's plate that the chef found at a thrift shop, are utterly delicious.
A personal favorite of Chang's, the jerk chicken wings ($13) pay respect to Miami and the Caribbean. Wings are brined in duck-confit fat and then smoked over allspice leaves (one of the main ingredients in jerk sauce). They come topped with the Haitian condiment pikliz.
Pan-seared beef heart was cooked to a perfect medium-rare and served with egg yolk, shiitake mushroom, and shungiku ($13). Even though it arrived at the table a tad cold, it was still delectable. Served at its peak temperature, it would be stellar.
Large dishes range from a Vagabond burger and buttermilk-fried quail to cobia and sweetbread milanesa. Sliced Iberico skirt steak ($23) is served with xato sauce, charred scallion, and mojo canario.
It came with some crispy fingerling potatoes with smoked paprika and sherry vinegar.
For dessert, go for the pistachio cake with fennel panna and roasted white chocolate ($10). It's stupendous.
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Chocolate tart with sorghum, sea salt, and orange ($9).
Follow Carla on Twitter @ohcarlucha