Comfort food, music on menu at new Vagabond
You can’t argue with success. Wisely, the owners of a reinvented Vagabond restaurant downtown aren’t trying. Instead, they started with their connection to the fabulous Mama J’s in Jackson Ward and then extended (and expanded) its Southern soul-food concept to their new venture.
They’ve also paired their comfort food — which includes a couple of Mama J’s favorites — with music. You’ll find bands and other entertainment in the restaurant’s firstfloor speakeasy four nights a week. (Plunky & Oneness even dropped by on a recent Saturday.)
On a recent rainy May night, Fried Green Tomatoes ($6) arrived warm on the inside and with a slight crunch on the outside from a delicate breading. A nicely tangy Sriracha aioli added some heat.
The Candied Bacon appetizer (five pieces for
$6) was bacon on steroids. Bacon times infinity. The royal wedding of bacon. Picture thick applewood-smoked bacon slices skewered and then baked with sugar, spices and maple syrup. The result was part-sweet, partchewy, part-charred, part-caramelized and part-melt-in-your-mouth.
The Fried Chicken
Bowl ($18) featured moist chicken breast fried delightfully crispy. (You can also order dark meat and choose to have it baked, if you prefer.) It was paired in the bowl with buttery red-skinned mashed potatoes, earthy collard greens, and chicken gravy.
The thing about gravy is that it’s a lot like pizza. It’s personal. Everybody’s got an idea about what makes a good one. For me, this gravy was a bit thick and floury. That said, the problem could have been with this particular batch because I’ve had Mama J’s gravy and been a fan.
Mustard Glazed Beef Ribs ($22) — also served with mashed potatoes and greens — were fork-tender, with the consistency of pot roast. A simple glaze of sugar, spices and mustard lent a sweet heat.
For dessert? Virginia Distilled Apple Brandy Bread Pudding ($7). It was much like an old-fashioned bread pudding, with soft and crusty bread baked in a sweet sauce. In this case, though, the sauce was Vagabond’s homemade brandy-infused salted-caramel mixture.
Vagabond complements its food selection with a menu of cocktails, wines by the glass, and bottled and canned beer. It also offers draft beer from Virginia breweries, including Trapezium Brewing Co. in Petersburg and Devils Backbone Brewing Co. in Roseland.
Today’s version of Vagabond came to be in September 2017 after the first version experienced a series of changes, including the exit of noted chef Owen Lane. That’s when Lester Johnson, who owns Mama J’s with his mother, Velma Johnson, came into the picture. He now coowns Vagabond with six partners, including those associated with Richmond restaurants F.W. Sullivan’s and Lady N’awlins.
Aesthetically speaking, they’ve kept Vagabond largely the same. There’s still lots of modern lighting, glass and wood, black and taupe. The highlight may well be a black staircase bathed in twinkly white lights leading down to the speakeasy.
Although Vagabond takes a number of cues from Mama J’s, it’s a separate venture and has a different vibe, by design. While Mama J’s groove is all neighborhood gathering place, Vagabond feels upscale and urban in keeping with its downtown setting.
Good food and an attentive waitstaff made my Vagabond experience a positive one, with just a couple of minor blips. First, the paper menus were rippled from water, and one was also stained with sauce. (It’s a pet peeve. Restaurants charging higher-end prices should attend to details big and small, including the condition of their menus.)
Second, it’s a bit loud, both from diners and the sound system, which played everything from hard rock to bluesy rock to happy jazz. There was some pop, too, including the old Looking Glass gem “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” about a sailor “whose life, love and lady is the sea.” (Everybody sing: Do-do-do-do-do, Do-do-DO-DO-DO!)
Is it hard to top an original in the restaurant business? Most certainly. Is Vagabond still worth your attention? Absolutely! After all, it took off from Mama J’s winning formula, which is a fantastic launch pad. Give it a try the next time you want a side of downtown Richmond with your chicken wings and cornbread.
Freelance writer Jo Lord is a former server at a variety of restaurants and a lifelong food lover. The Times-Dispatch pays for the meals in her unannounced visits to restaurants. Contact her at jlord@ timesdispatch.com. Follow her on Twitter @Jo_Lord_Copy.
The party-in-your-mouth Candied Bacon appetizer features thick applewood-smoked bacon slices skewered and then baked with sugar, spices and maple syrup.
With a nod to its Mama J’s roots, the reinvented Vagabond serves a variety of comforting Southern soul food, such as Mustard Glazed Beef Ribs with greens and mashed potatoes.
A delicate breading on the Fried Green Tomatoes gives them a slight crunch, while a Sriracha aioli adds heat.
Virginia Distilled Apple Brandy Bread Pudding features Vagabond’s own brandy-infused salted-caramel mixture.
In the Fried Chicken Bowl, moist chicken breast fried delightfully crisp is joined by mashed potatoes, collard greens and gravy.