To serve grasshoppers is a risky move. But that's expected of Alex Chang, the 25-year-old chef who helms the Vagabond Restaurant & Bar. The 120-seater opened earlier this month as part of a multimillion-dollar hotel renovation that aimed to restore the complex to its mid-20th-century glory.
The restaurant's interior was revived with sleek retro furniture. Curvaceous, black-and-white Saarinen chairs surround solid wood tables that rest on narrow, circular pedestals. Two-foot-wide ceiling lamps that look like metal spheres burst with light that bathes the room in a cool glow and highlights celestial orbit patterns meticulously etched into the ceiling.
A sunken bar at the center offers a brief, affordable wine list that favors France alongside a concise cocktail selection. The Upper Eastsider -- a blend of gin with the elderflower liqueur St-Germain, vermouth, cucumber, and absinthe -- is a light, bright apéritif.
Still, Chang, a Mexican-Chinese cook with a thin mustache and short-cropped hair topped by a jet-black bun, is the main attraction. The Vagabond's marketing machine promoted him relentlessly ahead of the winter opening, and it was enough to earn him a "30 Under 30" nod from Google-owned Zagat before the place served its first paying customer. He was catapulted into this quasi-culinary stardom following the 2013 premiere of the documentary Paladar, which described an illegal restaurant he and roommates ran out of their apartment while students at the University of Southern California.
After graduation, Chang embarked on a worldwide trip, with stays in vaunted kitchens stretching from Tokyo to Belgium, as well as a two-year stint at Los Angeles' James Beard Award-winning Animal Restaurant.