If you’ve never participated in one of Jenny Vergara’s Test Kitchen events, put it on the calendar. Her most recent endeavor –- a pop-up –restaurant concept called Vagabond -- has already closed the business door on day two of its five-day run, and, as of Wednesday’s grand opening, seats were still available. There’s only one way to make a reservation, though, and that’s through the Test Kitchen Web site. The wife and I were goofily eager for our Thursday-evening dinner date for almost two weeks, even before our reservation request was accepted.
Having seen and heard the pub –- a Kansas City Star front-page article and an NPR interview (Editor's Note: This isn't the one I heard, but you catch my drift.) –- I knew we were in for something special and Vergara’s front-of-the-house team, paired with Chef Alex Pope’s culinary crew, did not disappoint. We opted for the second seating (you can request 5:30 or 8:30 availability for Sunday) Thursday night, and got there a few minutes early in order to select a great two top, even though there really isn’t a bad seat in the house.
Vagabond is taking place at the Orange Event Space at 1815 Grand in downtown Kansas City, but don’t show up expecting to be squeezed in. Your testkitchenkc.com reservation includes your food, drink, and gratuity, and it's the only way in, which, for my money, is the perfect way to organize a dining event.
“Yeah, I don’t want to deal with money,” Vergara said, as she made her mid-evening rounds.
My wife and I couldn’t have agreed more. Show up, check in, enjoy.
I’ve never noticed the building before last night, but you’d never guess that Vagabond was a temporary installment. Vivid colors of paint coat the walls, and newly hung artwork gives the room personality. There’s a bar, a prep/execution areas, nicely spaced tables, a comfortable temperature, and a fluid setlist of appropriate-volume tunes coming from someone’s iPod.
And Chef Pope’s seven courses flirt with perfection.
First was a salad that featured late summer nightshades (foodie code for baby eggplants?) with olive oil and tofu. It was a very seasonal first course that contained a crisp mix of local ingredients, some grape tomatoes, sweet-potato chips, two different flavors of tofu, and a puree or two. A 2009 Hirsch Gruner Veltliner from Austria made it delightful.
Up next was a sashimi-style scallop that came with celery leaves, a buttermilk-rosemary sauce, truffle, and popcorn. It also had some sliced, de-seeded raw jalapeno, of which the wife said, “There are fewer better combos than jalapeno and popcorn.” I said that putting raw jalapeno on the plate was a bold move. Course two came with a Bridalwood Chardonnay, another 2009, but from California.
(Note: Oops. We were too eager to eat.)
In the three-hole was wild salmon. It appeared to be baked, perhaps griddled, but it was in cake (like crab) form, atop a fresh pork rind, and accompanied by some delicious fennel, Bing cherries, a cardamom sauce, and finished with some country ham. This round’s wine was a year younger, and hailed from France, a Colombelle Rose to be exact.
Batting cleanup was lamb cheeks. Or, as Vergara said, “Lamb cheeks…awesome.” Some pungent mint was either in the fresh garbanzo beans or the coconut gelato. They shared a plate with an incredible slice of heirloom tomato, which tasted of bacon. Vergara checked with Pope, and reported back:
"There's bacon in everything," she said.
A black sesame paste underscored the dish, and it was a fascinating touch, appearing to be a powder, and tasting almost of mole. Its partner was also three years old: Idolee e Olena Chianti Classico from Tuscany.
Round five was a whole hog confit, which looked like a chunk of bratwurst, but ate like no pig you’ve ever tasted. Someone showed off their mandolin skills by flanking the protein with some beautifully thin slices of fresh beet. Also in the mix were figs, masa chips, corn, and a Maytag sauce that might’ve been the nicest accent of the evening. This plate, though, was blasted with a paintball pellet made of beet juice. Righteous. The whole thing was paired with a wine that perhaps bears my favorite name of all time: Writer’s Block Syrah. Another ’08, this one comes from Kelseyville, CA.
After five flavors of awesome, it’s time to mellow it out a bit. Not in flavor or profile, don’t get me wrong. Course six contained some arousing slices of manchego cheese, cantaloupe slivers, pistachios, Phyllo dough crisps, and a hops puree. Yeah, as in the stuff they use to brew beer. It was a smash success, a delightful reminder of how wonderful it is to eat clean food. This wine had us curious. The Manzanilla Sherry (Hidalgo, Spain) probably doesn’t rock by itself. Paired with this course, however, I could roll with it all night.
Bringing up the rear was an Horchata, which had me skeptical. In my culinary days, the Mexicans used to love to brew up Horchata on a hot day, which, to the best of my recollection, had heaping scoops of coconut milk and rice in it. It was like their lemonade. It was also not for me. Pope, however, made a panna cotta out of his Horchata, and dressed it up in hearty servings with peaches, a bourbon-cream sauce, sprinkled Rice Krispies, and bands of lime zest. It came with a four-year-old Two Hands Semillion out of Australia, and was a really nice ending to a fantastic meal.
Mad props to Vergara, Pope,
and the entire crew. May I ask for their forgiveness regarding any verbiage errors as their execution was error-free. They left no detail unthunk, but don’t take my word for it; make your reservations before Vagabond vanishes.
Oh, and when you sign up for Test Kitchen, read the rules, people. No jeans. I'm looking at you, three dudes that rocked the denim last night.