Gone are the grasshoppers, beef hearts, and sweetbreads. Now there are houndstooth-check seats, a new menu, and even a name change.
Vagabond Kitchen & Bar (no more "Restaurant" in the moniker) in the MiMo District is heir to the place that chef Alex Chang for more than a year vehemently tried to get locals to embrace. His ambitious cuisine drew praise from critics and adventuresome diners, but commercial success didn't follow. This past June, it was announced the 27-year-old Mexican-Chinese toque and the restaurant's owners were leaving.
The task of attracting customers to the Biscayne Boulevard eatery now falls upon new owners Julian Géliot and Fabien Chalard of Pléthore et Balthazar in Lyon, France. Partners in business and in life, they were enticed by the flourishing neighborhood as well as the renovated 1950s-era Vagabond Hotel, with its Jetsons-style restaurant. They've created a menu composed of simple, affordable dishes with a "contemporary twist" and a reliance on local ingredients.
Helping them realize their vision is chef Roberto Dubois. A native of El Salvador, Dubois grew up mostly in France and moved to Miami seven years ago. His resumé boasts stints at Makoto, Juvia, Klima, and Azul, in addition to the South Beach outpost of the now-defunct Pléthore et Balthazar. It's there that Dubois met Géliot and Chalard. He cites the French duo's passion for hospitality as the main reason he signed on to be the executive chef at their new venture.
The eatery opened in July — just three days after the original occupants left. Most of the cooks turned in their toques before the new owners took over, but Chang stayed on for a month to help Dubois with the transition.
One of the only items that has crossed over from the former menu is Chang's stracciatella starter featuring Zak the Baker toast. The difference this time around is there's too much leek oil surrounding the soft cheese, and the stracciatella has a slightly unpleasant sourness.
Another small plate is the tuna poke toast. Dubois enhances the raw fish through sesame oil, sesame seeds, chives, and a touch of seaweed. He arranges the cubes of ahi tuna atop a warm corn tortilla chip and tops it all off with a dollop of avocado mousse. Miami is going through a poke phase, and though this version isn't the most exciting interpretation of the Hawaiian staple, it's fresh, clean, and satisfying.
A salad of roasted baby beets comes plated with oranges, dill, labneh, and watermelon. It's good, but a couple of red beets were slightly undercooked and could've used more seasoning. Conversely, the meat in a trio of mini Wagyu burgers was overcooked. As a whole, the starter failed to elicit much enthusiasm.
For Géliot and Chalard, the restaurant's bar program is as important as the cuisine; their goal is to make Vagabond Kitchen synonymous with after-work libations and late-night revelry. On weekends, the doors are open until at least 2 a.m. Chalard hopes to see guests dancing on tables — something he did just a couple of weeks ago.
Indeed, on a recent Friday evening, the sunken bar in the center brimmed with predominantly 30-somethings sipping midcentury-inspired concoctions. Most of the tables were taken as well, and by all accounts the crowd appeared to be enjoying Vagabond 2.0's convivial atmosphere. The space has been warmer since Géliot and Chalard swapped out the futuristic navy-and-white chairs for cozier black-and-white houndstooth ones. They also added soft LED lighting.
But as fun as Vagabond Kitchen & Bar looks and feels, the cooking has some catching up to do. Despite a polite waiter's suggestion, an order of grilled octopus was so chewy it had to be sent back. Meanwhile, an appetizer of roast beef "carpaccio," with arugula, crisp shallots, Parmigiano, and garlic aioli, tasted like deli meat that sat out longer than it should. Thankfully, the bill arrived with no charge for either dish.
Then came a surprisingly large portion of creamy polenta. Chef Dubois combines the cornmeal with crisp mushrooms, Parmesan, a slow-poached egg, and giant pieces of asparagus that proved cumbersome to eat. It looked like a messy afterthought and didn't taste much better.
Main courses include crowd pleasers such as steak frites, half an organic roast chicken, and king salmon. The short ribs, which are braised and vacuum-sealed, are a good choice. The meat and the silky cauliflower purée beneath it were nicely done. A few points had to be deducted, however, for the clumsy presentation.
Though it goes by the name Vagabond burger, the popular entrée has undergone changes since its first incarnation. Dry-aged beef has been replaced with Wagyu, and the bread is now a brioche bun. It's only OK.
Desserts come from Fireman Derek's Bake Shop, although Dubois would eventually like to make most of them in-house. Try the chocolate peanut butter pie for a decadent treat or Derek's key lime version for something lighter.
It makes perfect sense that Vagabond Kitchen & Bar aims to be more approachable than its predecessor; after all, the MiMo District just wasn't ready for Chef Chang's boundary-pushing fare. But approachable cuisine is not to be confused with lazy cuisine, and unfortunately too many dishes here beg for extra attention. Owners Géliot and Chalard understand how to create a welcome atmosphere, while the kitchen shows glimmers of promise. Let's hope that the food receives the love it deserves and that the party continues.
Vagabond Kitchen & Bar
7301 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 786-409-5635; vagabondkitchenandbar.com. Dinner Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday 6 p.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.; brunch Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Tuna poke toast $14
Baby beet salad $12
Mini Wagyu burgers $8
Grilled octopus $16
Roast beef carpaccio $14
Creamy polenta $14
Braised short ribs $32
Vagabond burger $18
Chocolate peanut butter pie $10
Key lime pie $10
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