JUST WHEN YOU START TO THINK San Diego has become one faceless megalopolis . . . one homogenized stretch of housing developments . . . one soulless sea of cars and fast-food joints . . . something comes along to remind you that our city still has honest-to-gosh real neighborhoods and one-of-a-kind places to eat. This welcome epiphany arrives with the recent opening of Vagabond.
Near 30th and Juniper in South Park, Vagabond is a gourmet version of a bar filled with regulars who know everybody’s name. Many are residents of this close-knit community, a group as varied and eclectic as the classic homes being restored on nearby streets. Others are drawn from throughout the county by executive chef Philippe Beltran, who earned legions of fans with his earlier restaurants French Side of the West and Alizé (former French Side chef Baltazar Montero is also at Vagabond).
We hope Beltran ends his vagabond ways and sets up shop here for good. He and co-owner Jerome Gombert (a former gourmet food purveyor who, like Beltran, is a native of Paris) have created something special.
Inside the extensively remodeled space (it was once a used-appliance store), the owners have created an oasis both rustic and exotic. Dramatic arches and intricate painted mosaics surround simple wooden tables and banquettes dotted with throw pillows—purposely placed close enough to foster conversations and budding friendships among guests.
Like a deejay spinning world music for a global party, Beltran samples cuisines from French to North African to Caribbean to Asian. The wine list, the cocktail lineup and the menu all traverse the Northern and Southern Hemispheres with results unexpected and savory.
Take a seat at the bar, and you’ll be tempted by well-made mojitos and Peruvian pisco sours, in addition to $5-a-glass wine specials from Chile, Italy, France and Portugal. On the appetizer list, a très French sampler plate of chicken liver mousse, imported cheeses and country pâté ($7.50) shares space with Vietnamese flash-fried squid in an airy batter crust ($7.50). For an extra cross-cultural twist, the latter is served with Provence’s garlicky aioli spiked with chilies for extra zip. It’s more than enough for two.
Also ample for sharing: the Caesar salad fashioned from two hearts of romaine and topped with whole anchovies, tomato and hard-boiled egg ($6.50). Even if you don’t order a starter, the house bread (provided by nearby Sadie Rose Bakery) with aioli makes a nice nosh as you await the main courses.
PATRONS OF THE OLD French Side and Alizé restaurants have fond memories of entrées such as rack of lamb, coq au vin and Caribbean renditions of filet mignon and steamed fish. They’re back—and better than ever.
The coq au vin ($14.50)—chicken simmered for hours in red wine and giblets for unsurpassed richness and depth—is the equal of any served in Burgundy. Delicate Chilean sea bass ($18.50) brushed with butter, herbs and soy arrives fragrant and steaming in its cornhusk wrapper; a sprinkling of peanuts adds extra flavor and crunch.
Rack of lamb ($21.50) is pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming good. The chef slices the meat back from the bones, stuffs in a mixture of fresh rosemary and thyme, then sauces with harissa (North African chili paste), garlic, mustard and rum before baking to medium rare.
And if you favor rare beef, the filet mignon ($19.50) is for you. Thick medallions are pounded for extra tenderness, marinated with fresh ginger, honey and olive oil, then seared just long enough to be thoroughly hot yet very rare—what the French call “bleu.” Fantastic.
Most dishes include a side of hearty black beans and a bland saffron rice that’s the only disappointing item here. You might want to request an order of pomme frites instead, flavored with a “Wow, what’s this?” combination of lavender, thyme and rosemary.
Desserts are made elsewhere and are decent, occasionally memorable. The list changes daily, but standard choices include a petite chocolate ganache “pyramid” with a crunchy almond base ($6.50) and a simple lemon tart ($6.50).
Instead of dessert, we’d prefer to kick back with a glass of Port or something intriguing from the lengthy wine list. With about 75 choices (a number of those served by the glass), it’s the perfect opportunity to sample Spanish Tempranillo, Chilean Cabernet, a floral Chardonnay from France’s Catalan region or earthy Italian Sangiovese. Bottle prices are generally friendly, with plenty of choices in the $20 to $30 range.
Given its small size—Vagabond seats only about 40, with some additional spaces in the bar—you can expect to wait for a table most nights. The reservation policy is a bit fuzzy, depending on who answers the phone; you may be asked to call in an hour ahead to get on a waiting list. Said list may not always exist.
Other than that, service is friendly and adept, with the owners making sure to welcome new faces as well as visit with familiar ones.
Aptly subtitled “Kitchen of the World,” Vagabond is filling a void in our increasingly impersonal city. It’s not just a neighborhood restaurant; it’s something of a neighborhood itself, drawing people of multiple backgrounds into a web of community spirit. Merci beaucoup, Philippe et Jerome.
Vagabond serves lunch Thursday through Sunday and dinner nightly at 2310 30th Street in South Park; 619-255-1035.