Com­fort food, mu­sic on menu at new Vagabond

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - CULTURE 2 - BY JO LORD Spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent

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.

GRACE HOLLARS/TIMES-DIS­PATCH

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.

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