While the The Vandal’s transgressive nomenclature may suggest a self-consciously edgy bar, don’t go looking for graffiti, urban decay or rebellion of any sort. Its menu — a brief card, chockfull of locally sourced and pickled ingredients — is of the moment; it turns out the name was just something that evoked timeless cool for owner Joey Hilty. And he liked the way the letters go together.
The Vandal has not one, not two, but four menus — breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner — all of which overlap, though none, of course, are the same. The kitchen serves everything from ham and egg on a biscuit and a pretty straightforward cheeseburger, to spaghetti with shiitake and caviar. While the offerings grow somewhat in sophistication as the day progresses, there’s no hard line of demarcation between the simple, easily palatable foods of the morning and the more substantial, intricately plated dinner entrees. Whenever you dine, you’ll be able to try The Vandal at its simplest or most complex.
The kitchen is run by Bar Marco alumna Csilla Thackray, a young North Hills native who proclaims her Hungarian roots both on the website and in some of the dishes, such as chicken with spaetzle and a fruit chutney. No, chutney is not particularly Hungarian, but cooked berries with meat and dumplings surely is, and that brings us to another point: Thackray is comfortable in a number of cuisines, and like most post-fusion chefs, she doesn’t make a big deal about mixing cultural influences.
The dining room is small and intimate, a warm blend of herringbone hardwood floors, gleaming subway tile and a raw concrete wall, but we snagged a sidewalk two-top on a late summer evening ideal for people-watching. Here, our first starter was a glorious baked ramekin of ricotta served with perfectly toasted slices of sourdough, and for once the bread portion was sufficient to the rest of the plate. This was filled with tasty things to augment the bread-and-cheese: slices of ripe Roma tomato, zesty pickled carrots and pickled black radish that was both funky and strangely (in a good way) redolent of Brussels sprouts. The ricotta was lush, with a bit of browning on top and a creamy richness that was somewhere between really good butter and molten brie.
Alas, everything that was successful about that dish was missing from the next. We ordered it on the basis of its intriguing ingredient list — eggplant, heirloom beans in the pod, long shavings of Old Gold cheese, hazelnut and parsley — unsure if it would be a cooked dish or a cold salad. As it turned out, every element was egregiously undercooked and underseasoned. Fresh beans, plucked from the vine at the peak of ripeness, may need little or no cooking, but these were tough and starchy, while the eggplant supplied a rubbery reason this vegetable is typically fried, grilled or roasted into submission. It was hard to reconcile this near-inedible dish with what came before and after.
In an era of high-concept mega-burgers, The Vandal keeps it (relatively) simple: burger, cheddar, thin crisp pickles and butter lettuce on a brioche bun. The menu mentioned marrow and tomato mayo, but the former was apparent only as a savory bottom note, the latter as something akin to Thousand Island-esque “special sauce.” Still, it was a great burger, tender and meaty and with condiments that complemented the excellent patty. Accompanying fries had an ideal balance of fluffy interior and crispy exterior. In a town full of good burgers, The Vandal’s ranks among the best.
A dinner entrée, prawns were served head-on, a dramatic presentation that can compromise texture since the head can release digestive juices after harvesting. Indeed, a couple of the shellfish were soft, even as the rest were plump and briny. Roast corn, cut from the cob, was suitably summery, especially with lightly cooked, petite, sweet banana peppers and tiny tomatoes. A cognac sauce tried to pull the elements together, but didn’t add all that much of its own.
Chicken over spaetzle with crispy confit, chard purée and huckleberry-and-ground-cherry chutney hit a nice note between heavy pasta and light summer fare. The spaetzle were wonderfully lumpy and tender, the chicken moist and flavorful. There was too much sweet, jammy chutney for our tastes, but since this was served on the edge of the plate, it was easy to customize the amount in each bite.
The Vandal is an undeniably ambitious little restaurant. If not every experiment worked, the rest showed that even the seemingly simple is intricately special.