February 8, 2016 | BITE: My Journal
Vandal: Celebrating Street Arts, Street Eats
Street food notions from around the globe in miniature, like these delicious blackened shrimp arepas.
“Suddenly it struck me: Street Food and Street Art.” He was standing on the Bowery outside the derelict space when inspiration hit, veteran restaurateur Rich Wolf recalls. He lingers now at our table, spinning the legend of Vandal, a busy, labyrinthine space luring the city’s obsessed first nighters to yet another oversized playground designed by David Rockwell for members of the Tao Group. “A love affair between street food and street art” is the mantra.
A mural painted by Hush. Gold leaf glass globe fixtures have etched images by Hush.
Be advised that it’s not pronounced Van-doll (as I supposed) but Vændl, referring to the vandalism of graffiti artists that is celebrated here. Indeed, two walls in the room we’re in are dedicated to photographs showing the artists at work in situ.
From the San Francisco artist Apex-tagged façade, you enter Ovando, a flower shop.
The Tao Group thinks big. They’re overseeing 22,000 square feet here. You enter into a flower shop with no clue that multiple dining rooms lurk beyond. Order flowers and send them to your table if you wish, or pass through. You emerge into a narrow, vaulted brick tunnel with an 11- foot long breakdancing rabbit, lacquered in the forbidden color known as Icy Grape.
At one end of the dark tunnel, a breakdancing rabbit is painted to invoke the defunct Icy Grape hue.
Street artists worked on site, pouring plaster and paint, gluing paper. There is no sign leading to the room they call “The Secret Garden” with greenery and garage doors that will open to the street when weather allows. Wolf leads us inside. Downstairs, the lounge is low-ceilinged, but when it’s full, as it was last Thursday, the house can feed almost 500 people in a swoop.
My dieting female friends seem to think grilled avocado salad will be a low-calorie option.
Living as we do now -- when today’s new launch lands on tomorrow’s Eater heat map -- we’re not surprised that the reservationist claims to have tables only at 5:30 or 9:30 pm. I had a number to call, so I did, sacrificing anonymity for front row center at the new mecca. I need to be an early responder, too. It’s my job. My first impression might help you decide whether you should consider bribing, slandering or sleeping with someone to score a table.
Spicy Korean rice cakes are tossed with mizuna kimchi to good effect.
In a booth against the far wall, our bare wooden round is soon crowded with exotic tidbits. Spicy Korean rice cakes layered with mizuna kimchi. Cacio e pepe rice balls in bubbling Parmesan foam. Broccoli-and-cheddar infusions make disappointing “Johnnycakes.”
Will we halve the three sticky rice dumplings stuffed with char sui pork or double the order?
I determine to make my $16 “barrel-aged” cocktail -- the smoky-bourbon-cocked Trigger Finger -- last, at least through the parade of nibbles the five of us are sharing. My friend who tends to be audibly judgmental about cocktails is pleased with the Manhattan-like “Mean-Spirited.”
Johnnycakes lose their classic doughy identity when laced with broccoli and cheddar.
Chris Santos (backed by Wolf at Stanton Social and Beauty and Essex) is the chef-partner here. With Executive Chef Jonathan Kavourakis, he circled the globe, I’m told, scouting revelations for the exotic notions on this menu.
Kobe beef tartare is too fatty for me on a soft, warm New York Pretzel.
Of course, it’s annoying when there are only three Reuben knishes in an order, or three sticky rice dumplings, when we are five or six. The menu should state how many of each item, so we know to order extra. In his earliest days at Stanton Social, Santos had a policy of letting you add on a potsticker or a tostada for a price. Though unstated, that’s how it goes here.
Grilled Chilean sea bass tacos with avocado and chipotle slaw make a hit at our table.
What seem like modest beginnings add up quickly for six. With an extra two, $18 snapper tostadas cost $29. A duo of additional arepas brings the total tag to $30. The excellent $21 grilled Chilean sea bass tacos with avocado cost us $35. I notice those things. But my carefree chums don’t seem to mind spending $166 per couple for dinner. I guess I’m getting used to it, too.
Not just another everyday pizza, Vandal’s wild mushroom pie with fontina is crisp and flavorful.
Not everything is as good as the luscious blackened shrimp arepas, fired with smoked chile and topped with a tangy purple slaw. Explosions of peppery heat in several items delight me, but some at our table feel attacked. All of us are impressed by the mushroom pizza, thin and crisp, with its exceptionally flavorful crust. On a later visit, the Caesar pie, crisscrossed with romaine pesto, garlic and crispy chicken skin crumbs, gets unanimous Hail Caesars.
I fought for Caesar pizza ribboned with romaine pesto and ground chicken skin, but everyone loved it.
The mini burger, juicy-Lucy style (cheese embedded in the meat), comes with a leaf of romaine and “fancy” sauce. “Small” is perfect. We’re skipping entrees ($28 to $68 for a two pound lobster Fra Diavolo or $115 for a 50-day dry aged 36-oz. Tomahawk rib eye) so we can taste more street snacks.
Did you think there was nothing new left to do with octopus? How about lettuce wraps & sriracha??
The dieters among us order the grilled avocado salad with lightly pickled vegetable ribbons and feta vinaigrette, hoping for a low-calorie option. Charred octopus to wrap in lettuce leaves with midori sriracha sauce is more original than delicious. We have the inevitable Brussels sprouts, here with chipotle and queso fresco, and spicy patatas bravas, piled high under dribbles of Mexican crema.
Here’s a good trick: patatas bravas both crisped and creamy dribbled with aioli.
On a second visit, strips of chewy chicken katsu with Hong Kong egg waffles strike me as weird. Branzino – normally a boring farmed fish that is usually overcooked – gets a boost billed as “Balinese Beach Style,” mounted on bamboo with vegetable strings. I prefer it to lackluster $48 chicken chorizo paella, even though the rice does develop some crusty socarrat after sitting awhile.
Usually dry and boring, farmed branzino gets a boost from a Balinese Beach dress.
A calorie-counting companion dismisses the Brussels sprouts as unwelcome intruders – vandals, you might say – because they’re enriched with crema. She refuses to count eggplant as a vegetable because it’s cut in cubes, dipped in miso glaze and fried. Good. More for me.
I’m not the only one at our table indifferent to chicken-chgorizo paella. Half of it is left behind.
At the end, she surrenders to greasy churros, though not their chocolate dipping sauce, which she finds overdosed with chile heat. I offer her a bite of my ice cream sandwich to cool her fever. We agree the ice cream needs something – rum raisin or chocolate chips. But the fact is, though she hates the din, and rejects the pepper explosions, she likes the place. It’s the place to be right now. She says she’ll be back.
I’m not a churros fan, but these are tough and greasier than usual. Not even spicy chocolate dip helps.
But I might not. Partly, it’s a response to the long detour for me and ears ringing from the noise. The street food concept might have been invented to lure me. I’ve flown across oceans and defied stern warnings from travel guides in search of great street food. Of course, it’s early and not everything I’ve tasted is worth revisiting.
I’m inspired to go back to the fantasy of Tao Downtown, hoping my favorite dishes are still fine.
But the truth is, my two visits to Vandal have served to remind me how much I love Tao Downtown, the $17 million theater of Rockwell dazzle. I find myself wanting to look up from the house’s remarkable lacquered Peking duck in time to catch the QuanYin stone goddess at the end of the descending stairs with her two dozen arms that seem to come alive along with flights of birds in the clever play of lights.
Nocturnal nomads, visigoths and diehard Vaucluse fans. If you’ve read this far, you should be able to decide if Vandal’s street drama is for you.
199 Bowery between Rivington and Spring streets. 212 400 0199. Sunday through Wednesday 5 pm to 1 am. Thursday through Saturday till 2 am.
Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2016. All rights reserved.
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