Here's a little truth for all the young chefs out there who want to change the world with big culinary ideas: Vandal on the Bowery is more popular than the latest Brooklyn-Italian spot selling hard-to-pronounce pasta shapes, the newest pastrami pizza joint with two hour waits, the chicest brunch-centric restaurant that gives out free cookies, or the most ethical chicken sandwich stand at Citi Field.
In fact, Vandal might be the best-trafficked new restaurant since Tao Downtown opened in 2013 — which isn't too surprising, because it's run by the same people.
Located on the Bowery, Vandal has 360 seats and can accommodate cocktail parties for a thousand guests, a fact that led me to believe, incorrectly, that I could walk in at 8:30 on a Friday evening. "We have nothing until midnight," the host said. That can't be true, I thought, and so a week or so later I checked day-ahead bookings for Saturday in the early evening. Result: OpenTable showed me availability for tables ranging from 12:00 a.m. to 12:45 a.m. Technically, that's Sunday.
Process that for a second. Then consider this: It's easier to get a prime time reservation at the twelve-seat Semilla, one of the most celebrated and ambitious new restaurants of the past two years, than it is at Vandal, a 22,000 square foot space specializing in mini-ramen, mini-burgers, mini-knishes, and an assortment of ostensibly edible things that have been fried into balls. You could fit the entirety of Semilla into the men's room at Vandal and still have space left over.
The menu is what you might end up with if you put Instagram-friendly culinary buzzwords through a randomizer.
Some observations, based on numerous visits: Every host is a woman. Every cocktail server is a woman. Every cocktail server wears a sleeveless, often very tight vest, so that when she leans over to take your order you look in the other direction to avoid looking like a creep. Every geisha depicted in the paintings throughout the room is in a stage of undress. Every male waiter wears regular clothes.
Also, every dish evokes a trend. The menu is what you might end up with if you put Instagram-friendly culinary buzzwords through a randomizer: cacio e pepe arancini, hot pretzel kobe beef tartare, shawarama salad, chicken Caesar street pizza, "banh mi'eatball sliders," Nutella cannoli, and macaron frozen yogurt sandwiches. (For that last one, part of the proceeds from sales go to autism awareness. Why not?) It all comes courtesy of Chris Santos, the chef famous for kitsching it up at Stanton Social with his French onion soup dumplings and tuna poke wontons.
Here's a snapshot from a recent meal at Vandal: A waiter ferries over a bottle of beer with an empty glass, and leaves. I pour it myself, and the head overflows onto my share plate. Another waiter arrives with the chicken Caesar pizza, which looks like what you'd expect if a cook emptied a bottle of parmesan dressing onto a pallid spa cracker, applied a squeeze bottle swirl of romaine pesto, and let the musky crumbs from a pre-shift meal of KFC waft down over that pizza. It is profoundly awful. I consume it without setting it down between bites, because that would mean getting it all soggy from that beer puddle in front of me, which also contains the floating detritus of a half-consumed reuben sandwich knish from an earlier round.
This is New York's most popular new restaurant.
The quality of the food has never been the sole factor in determining whether a culinary establishment is good or popular. Speaking about the closure of Elaine's, the erstwhile high-society hangout on Manhattan's Upper East Side, Woody Allen had said, "Despite the unrelenting bad food I went there every night for decades ... My theory was that if the food had been better, people would have gone only to eat. But keeping the food at a certain low level, everybody went for conversation and meeting people and chatting, and that was the success of the place."
Vandal is not the moneyed literary salon that Elaine's once was. It attracts a different crowd. Glittery people with last names like Hilton, Kennedy, Matisse, Kardashian, and Strahan have all partied here, under the faux-decanter light fixtures. Regular readers of the gossip pages know that the velvet-roped downstairs lounge has featured the spinning of society model/DJs like Hannah Bronfman.
The quality of the food has never been the sole factor in determining whether a culinary establishment is good or popular.
The restaurants in the Tao Group, run by Marc Packer, Richard Wolf, Noah Tepperberg, and Jason Strauss, aren't so much purveyors of food as they are adult theme parks selling manufactured fun, and proximity to vaguely famous people. These spots traffic in a more expansive style of consumption than one that's strictly gustatory in nature. Years before Carbone sold the experience of pairing $65 chicken parm with Jersey-accented waiters who sing on Saturday nights, the Tao Group's blockbuster Lavo hawked spaghetti with Kobe meatballs while the club downstairs hosted bikini brunches.
Then there is the Tao juggernaut itself, a trio of hot spots in Midtown, West Chelsea, and Las Vegas, where the diverse foodways of the global East are diluted down to overpriced Red Bull, wontons, and Wagyu. Tao sells "Asia," a bro-friendly bacchanalia where everyone is fluent in the universal language of loosened ties. I'll take two Grey Goose sodas... no, make that three! The food ranges from awful to passable, but I've found that sitting on Tao's candlelit staircase while overlooking the 24-armed Buddha statue is as surefire a way to impress one sort of date as cocktails at Bemelmans is another. Really, where else can New York diners pay gustatory tribute to the life of the humble Siddhartha in a way that would make both Lil Wayne and Michael Bay proud?
Just in case you have any illusions on the popularity of these venues, the three Tao restaurants plus two Lavos are five of the top-grossing independent restaurants in the U.S.; in 2015 they reportedly pulled in $156 million collectively, 44 percent more than what it cost Ridley Scott to make The Martian.
When dollar churros cost $16, it’s hard not to be a little cynical.
This all brings us back to Vandal. Its size, prices, and population density seem likely to earn it a few dollars of its own. And it has its own approach to storytelling fun. Here's the Tao Group website with the formal narrative: "Located on Bowery, a street that dates back to the 17th century ... Vandal celebrates the art, architecture, and food of global street culture from New York to Vietnam to Barcelona and beyonddfsdfsd [sic]."
Their web editor might have fallen asleep at the keyboard, but that part about art and architecture is true. There's a certain aesthetic joy that one experiences in taking in the restaurant's graffiti, murals, and sculptures, from Hush's wall-sized naked geishas to the Rockwell Group's giant sculpture of a breakdancing purple rabbit, to Shepard Fairey's Soviet-style billboard prints in the Garden Room.
The space is fascinating enough that if Vandal simply served competent brasserie fare, the entire endeavor would be somewhat civilized, a place for the cool kids to congregate and look at art. But what Vandal serves is not competent brasserie fare. And this is where I must disagree with Woody Allen: In my opinion, it's generally better when expensive restaurant food doesn't completely stink.
This is a good time to talk about Vandal's banh mi'eatball slider. The name of the dish is a portmanteau of three trendy foodstuffs: the banh mi, a Vietnamese sandwich of pate, pork, pickled carrots and chiles; the slider, a tiny White Castle-style burger; and the meatball, an Italian-American symbol of thrift. Now here's what you actually get: a single dense ball of spiced ground lamb, sandwiched within a slaw-stuffed baguette. The menu says the dish includes foie gras, none of which I detected. This two-bite travesty costs $8, which is more than what you ought to ever pay for an entire banh mi, a single meatball, or a solitary slider.
Vandal doesn't want its food to be bad. If it did it wouldn't have hired Santos, of Stanton Social as well as Beauty & Essex, one of the least worst Tao Group restaurants. (The venue famously pours free sparkling rose in the ladies' room. Depending on your point of view, it's either generous or insidious.) Santos' food has always trended somewhat gimmicky, but during my meals at Beauty & Essex when it opened half a decade ago, I remember a chef serving delicious, ambitious fare, from a solid lamb burger to a Wagyu carpaccio dusted with seaweed, amping up the umami of the beef.
The space is fascinating enough that if Vandal simply served competent brasserie fare, the endeavor would be somewhat civilized.
At Vandal, Santos smears beef tartare over a hot pretzel, resulting in hot mush. The menu is "inspired by street fare from around the world," the restaurant's website asserts, a statement that raises the question of what precisely is "street" about a two-pound lobster scampi that costs $68.
Inspiration, of course, doesn't mean replication. And there's nothing wrong with luxing up cheap eats. But the source has to be believable. And when it comes to elevating the price, the actual culinary art of refining such fare should play as much a role in the calculus as the tax on eating it in a chic, high-rent location. This gets to the heart of why Vandal doesn't quite work: The Tao Group sells a story about global street fare, but fails to deliver on that story.
Take the fish tacos. Vandal takes an small amount of (expertly cooked) Chilean sea bass and overwhelms the delicate fish with a mess of slaw. Cost: $24 for three tacos. Consider the rice balls. Vandal calls the under-seasoned creations "cacio e pepe arancini," and uses a side of parmesan dipping foam to command a $15 price. How about paella? It's not really street food, but that's the least of Vandal's problems. The dish contains no soccarat - the life-alteringly wonderful crust of rice that forms at the bottom and edges of the pan, packing in all sorts of complex flavors — instead, it's just mushy rice with chorizo and chicken.
A modicum of credit is due for the adventurous spirit, though. Most sceney establishments pooh-pooh trendy fare in favor of tried-and-true classics, but Santos's kitchen embraces modern food culture, their menu riffing on the sort of thing Anthony Bourdain and crew will likely show off in their giant West Side food hall opening up next year. Sometimes it really works: Dishes like glutinous rice cakes or octopus huaraches are absolutely brilliant; the former act as a pleasant conduit for a spicy broth, while the latter is all soft cephalopod and pure corn bliss. Even the mini-ramen, a small bowl for $9, packs firm noodles and a wallop of smoky, bacon-laced dashi.
But when dollar churros cost $16, it's hard not to be a little cynical, to wonder whether Santos and the Tao Group really think of Vandal as a restaurant, or as a forum to poke fun at modern gastronomy, a chance turn their guests into unwitting participants in a parody on what it means to eat out in 2016. Or maybe it's just a machine to make money. Whatever the intention, Vandal will continue to draw in the crowds.
Cost: Small plates under $20; medium plates at $12-$24; large dishes at $28-$115
Sample dishes: Pan con tomate, New York hot pretzel steak tartare, banh mi'eatball sliders, shawarma salads, grilled Chilean sea bass tacos, chicken Caesar street pizzas, lamb loin kati rolls.
Bonus tip: Walk-ins can partake of the full menu at the (very crowded) bar area.