As Dana said in her last post(s), we’re experimenting with giving you a view of a single meal from both her and my perspective. Granted as much as I love to eat Dana’s cooking this will likely be a rare occurrence as it’s logistically difficult for her to cook in every restaurant I eat at. It’s also important to note, that even though I claim objectivity is not a real goal for any food reviewer, you’ll have to understand that since I am an unabashed fan of Dana’s cooking (and we’re partners here on tastingmenu) that my opinion comes from a fan’s perspective. With all the small talk out of the way, let’s get on with the meal.
As Dana explained, Vagabond is a non-traditional or underground restaurant “event”. On this evening we were at Portalis Wine Bar who had graciously offered their lovely space for the Vagabond dinner. The kitchen was small, but it didn’t seem to matter. Dana and her small crew of helpers kept things simple. One of the nice things about the restaurant is the selection of bottles that literally surround you. There’s something nice about picking a bottle of wine for dinner from a rack or a shelf as opposed to a printed list. I don’t know why more restaurants don’t make a visit to the cellar (even a guided one) part of the dining experience. I bet most people would love it. We chose an Australian bottle – 2004 Two Hands Brave Faces, 65% shiraz and 35% grenache. Super enjoyable.
Dinner started off with a Salad of Romaine Lettuce, Red Onion, and Croutons tossed in a Roasted Garlic Ranch Dressing. The dressing was thinner than I expected and gave the salad an almost coleslaw like quality. The thinness was unexpected, but not unpleasant. The flavor was decidedly buttermilky. The highlight however was the croutons (which I fought over when a second bowl came around). Normally I refuse to eat croutons. They are essentially stale bread. Why would I want to eat stale bread. These were definitely something else altogether. The best way I can describe them is as buttery cubes of crispy goodness. Soft, toasted, almost juicy with butter. These are croutons I could fall in love with.
Next up was Corn Bread. The corn bread was sweet and cakey but still light. With the honey butter it was delectable and it had already started out pretty buttery. Walter, who grew up in Tennessee was the perfect dinner companion as he had an opinion to offer on the authenticity of the food. His take on the corn bread was that it was good but not like Mom’s. In Chatanooga the corn bread is crispy and crumbly and not at all sweet. Walter described Dana’s corn bread as “not-all-the-way-north-northern-cornbread”. I described it as yummy. Walter agreed with that description as well.
I’m a fan of corn. On the cob, niblets, etc. I love it. We got an enormous bowl of Corn off the cob with red pepper. It had a slight spike on the finish and was oily in a good way. I wasn’t happy sharing.
Finally we moved into high gear and got to the main event – the Pork and Beans. Adding garam masala to the pork was a very good idea. It was clearly there but still in the background, not overpowering. The beans (which often can go awry) were not overcooked and mealy. Instead they were firm and juicy providing an excellent foundation for the pork.
Every dish of the evening had a sweetness to it. And while in general I gravitate towards the savory side of things, this realization was nice as the sweet was like a note on which the food could rely as a baseline while other flavors weaved around it. Dessert stayed the course in terms of the sweet factor with Fluffernuttter Pie and a Rice Krispie Treat. I’m not entirely sure how to describe this other than amazing. Any word I choose seems to pale in comparison to the deep peanut and chocolate flavors, the impossibly smooth textures, and the incredible integration and balance present in this “simple” dessert. I usually don’t spend a whole lot of time on dessert, but this was a dish to honor with a slow and appreciative pace. And besides, it was so rich that you had no choice but to eat it slowly or you’d go into a diabetic coma.
Lest I be accused (again) of being a snob or too cool for school because I appreciated being invited to this meal, anyone (even you) can find a way to Vagabond dinner by sending mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Do it soon before the waiting list gets way too long.