At Revamped Vagabond, Chef Alex Chang Makes His Mark

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Yet Chang's very respectable resumé isn't quite as alluring as the world glimpsed in the documentary. The sepia-tinted hour of shaky footage is soaked in booze, testosterone (mostly courtesy of former roommate Robert Kronfli), and an enthusiasm for hospitality. What began as a way to offer friends a homestyle alternative to overpriced fast food quickly takes off. Weekly dinners grow from 12 to more than 60 diners, and the three-course, $15 menu evolves from roast chicken and cheeseburgers to oysters and squid-ink pasta. Hundreds of hopefuls remain on an email waiting list while Chang and his merry band chug cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon while cooking in a cramped kitchen ventilated by a box fan.

You won't get this kind of excitement at the Vagabond. Just as the Ramones and Blondie grew out of the legendary Lower Manhattan punk club CBGB, Chang sprang from Paladar. Today he is stoic and runs a well-oiled kitchen. He suspiciously eyes dishes as they leave the kitchen and consults with servers to gather diners' feedback. Yet it's clear from the deceivingly simple one-page menu that the naiveté and enthusiasm that propelled a college kid to open an ad hoc restaurant is alive and well.

In addition to cooking with grasshoppers, Chang also experiments with offal and odd cuts. He plates them with familiar ingredients to quell and delight the squeamish. Ruby-red beef hearts are the starting point for a pivot off sukiyaki, a Japanese-style hot pot traditionally garnished with chrysanthemums, mushrooms, and green onions. His artful approach abandons the broth and instead marinates the meat in sake, soy sauce, and mirin before a fast, hard sear. Despite the cut's lean texture, thin slices against the grain result in butter-soft bites that gather richness from the accompanying warmed egg yolk.

Equally delicate are sweetbreads fried golden outside but still silky within. Chang says they're a tribute to Miami but, like the beef hearts, call for some explanation. "It's inspired by a medianoche sandwich and a milanesa," he says. The creamy glands are paired with an almost overly rich Swiss-cheese foam bound with cream and potato that has a cloud-like texture. But a country ham vinaigrette and an inky slick of burnt onion mustard -- made of charred onions blended with mayonnaise, brown sugar, and apple cider vinegar -- provide a hit of acid at just the right moment.

The perfect crust on a buttermilk-soaked fried quail also hides a few morsels of the bird's delicate meat, but this time the plate looks South (or north, rather). Plump, fragrant grains of Carolina Gold rice, cooked pilaf-style with onions and butter, cling to a salty, savory gravy made of rendered Benton's bacon and cream with bitter collard greens that help lighten each bite.

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Zachary Fagenson became the New Times Broward-Palm Beach restaurant critic in 2012 before taking up the post for Miami in 2014. He also works as a correspondent for Reuters.
Contact: Zachary Fagenson