Vagabond Dreams

What to order off Alex Chang's whimsical and bold menu at The Vagabond

Miami's history is as fast paced and glitzy as the luxury railroad that used to transport the snowbirds escaping the cold northern winters to the city's tropical paradise. It is built on the dreams of nomads looking for a chance to live the life of movie stars.

That's what makes the name and recent renovation of the kitschy '50s Vagabond Hotel so fitting: The iconic landmark highlights an era that is as important to the city as the historic district it was built in.

It's also becoming that the team behind the classic are wanderers themselves. Restaurateur Perez Miranda has run dining establishments located across the globe, including Venezuela, Italy, Tokyo, L.A. and New York. And when it came time to select a cook to helm the kitchen at The Vagabond Restaurant & Bar, Miranda knew up-and-coming chef Alex Chang—who's worked in the kitchens of renowned Animal in Los Angeles, Michelin-starred Pujol in Mexico City, Les Créations de Narisawa in Tokyo and In De Wulf in Belgium—would be a perfect fit for his vision.

Chang's eclectic contemporary vision comes across in a menu that is as whimsical and colorful as the hotel's modernist decor. Think of it as Mad Men meets Magic City. Imagine Don Draper and Ike Evans discussing business over a couple of bourbon milk punches ($12) at the disc-shaped island bar. The drink is made with Rittenhouse Rye spiced with vanilla and cinnamon, then acidified with citrus to curdle an egg white, resulting in a clarified whey. Crisp but complex, the cocktail is very easy to sip. But onto the dining room. As you sink into one of the bright teal couches, admire the Sputnik-style retro lamps that cast a soft glow while you peruse the menu.

Executive Chef Alex Chang, sweetbreads à la milanesa

The menu moves onward and upward in price and complexity, so start your dinner with an order of peanuts and chapulines ($6). Yes, those would be the crispy and savory bugs popular in Mexican cuisine. The crunchy starter gets a kick from Szechuan peppercorns and is just one indication of the imaginative flavors to follow.

The zucchini ribbon salad ($12) is more complex than it sounds, tossed in a green pipián sauce and topped with crunchy crumbled pistachios and aromatic fresh tarragon leaves. The buzzed-about beef heart ($13) is reminiscent of the modern art pieces hanging on the walls: A row of perfectly pan-seared meat—sliced carpaccio thin—cups a warm egg yolk like a crescent moon; it's all sprinkled with smoky shiitake mushrooms and chopped shungiku.

For traditionalists, the jerk chicken wings ($13), smoked over fresh allspice leaves and served with pickles, might be a go-to option, but poultry-wise, we strongly prefer the crackling buttermilk fried quail ($24), served on a bed of Carolina Gold rice doused with a silky bacon gravy. And even though the city is in a tizzy about the Ibérico marbled skirt steak with xato sauce ($22), opt for the sweetbread à la milanesa ($23), perfectly breaded and served with a pickled ham vinaigrette. We could have asked for another, but we're glad we went with dessert instead: The pistachio cake ($10) is a spongy spoonful of wonder, enhanced only by the dollops of fennel panna, roasted white chocolate sprinklings and shower of flower petals. It's the kind of dish that brings tears of joy to your eyes.

We were so consumed by the magic taking place before our eyes we didn't notice that in adjacent tables, patrons like the Chat Chow TV fam, local expert Leticia de Mello Bueno and the man himself, Lee Schrager, were also enjoying the scene. Did we mention it was only Wednesday?