Not too long ago, it seemed Owen Lane had no home. In August, he shuttered the Magpie, his 5-year-old restaurant in Carver. Before that, as new co-owner of Estilo, he had a few excellent months heading up the kitchen before it was forced to close, too.
What’s one of Richmond’s top chefs to do?
It was unsurprising that Lane received a slew of offers. He’s made a name for himself as the guy who does cool things with uncommon meats and unusual cuts.
One of his offers — the one he took — was to team up with Daniel Delgado and Dave Peterson. They were co-owners at Coda, which opened a little more than a year ago in the space next door to the National. I reviewed it then and couldn’t stop talking about the lighting in the space. The place was dazzling in aesthetic, though the kitchen never had the feeling of hitting its stride.
And so Coda became Vagabond late last year, and it’s hard not to think that the name has something to do with Lane’s search for a home to hang his hat. Indeed, the space feels like someone has finally moved in permanently and is getting comfortable. There are touches of new décor and a fuchsia accent wall that turns the fantastic backdrop of wood, metal and glass into something cozy.
The menu is new as well, with more than a few nods to Lane’s previous haunts. Overall, it’s very much in line with what he’s best at doing: complex combinations that sound slightly precious, seem effortless in the making and taste deeply satisfying.
Naturally, there’s a fancy cocktail menu, too, and suffice to say, it’s similarly complex. One creation, the De Young ($10), is a reconstructed margarita made with a white grape shrub and salt air. For real. Along with that spirited creativity, there’s a solid local draft beer list and thoughtful wines by the glass.
As is the trend, there are three plate sizes, with an appropriate mix of adventurous eating and crowd pleasing, from beef tartare crowned by a quail egg ($10) to the taco du jour ($14) that always seemed to be pulled pork.
All of it is interesting — even the cheddar beer bread ($4) that’s like a grilled airy focaccia — and many dishes achieve rich flavor profiles as a result of Lane’s intense interest in condiments. I imagine the kitchen staff as old-timey cooks in aprons and white bonnets, spending days pickling vegetables, roasting nuts and canning jams.
One of my favorite plates is the griddled ham and Idiazabal bocadillos ($8), essentially ham and sheep’s cheese sandwiches. But the layers of condiments — pear and onion marmalade and pickled mustard seeds — make them memorable, as does their obvious grilling in a delicious pool of butter. In general, who cares about turnips? But there’s a whole menu item devoted to them ($8) and it works brilliantly because it’s prepared with pickled chili, smoked salt and shallots braised in port.
Meat dishes follow this same formula of taking one main ingredient and dancing a party of accouterment around it. The rabbit sausage ($12) reclines atop bitter collards simmered in a spicy broth and laced with sweet jam. Seared venison ($27) is served mighty rare alongside Brussels sprouts, sweet apple, and a lush red wine sauce that I want a lot more of. Beef short ribs ($23) are deeply savory, though it’s the other textures I’m into here: pillow-y gnocchi, chewy mushrooms, tender butternut squash. Not all the dishes are as complex — even good oysters are relatively simple — though I didn’t have one thing that wasn’t at the very least satisfying.
My advice is to spend lots of time on dinner and don’t worry about dessert. You don’t need to because the sweet has already been ribboned thoughtfully throughout your meal. If you must, the burnt lemon cream ($7) is an extra thick crème brûlée, and the chocolate panna cotta ($7) is rich and dense and doesn’t budge.
Generally, I don’t bother calling for reservations on weekdays, but you’ll want to plan ahead for nights when there’s a show at the National. The restaurant will be packed before 8 p.m. and it might run out of some dishes. Though that’s the worst case, you could order something else that’s equally awesome and sit at one of the beautiful bars. S
700 E. Broad St.
Mondays-Thursdays 11 a.m-2:30 p.m., 4-10 p.m.; Fridays 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 4-10:30 p.m.; Saturdays 4-10:30 p.m.