Changing of the Guard

There was a time when the restaurant in the International House Hotel at 221 Camp Street was going to feature Korean food, complete with in-table grills. The local chef who was being considered for the venture was enthusiastic about it, but the hotel ultimately went in a different direction, instead opening a Spanish-influenced restaurant, Rambla, in the space adjacent to the hotel's lobby in 2008. The restaurant is operated by Ken LaCour and Kim Kringlie, who are also partners in the Northshore restaurant the Dakota, and formerly ran Cuvée a few blocks away.

Rambla has gone through a number of changes recently, including the departure of chef Philip Lopez, who opened his own restaurant, Root, late last year. Though Lopez was taking Rambla in a promising direction, he'd been in charge of the kitchen for less than a year, and left the place a bit unsettled. Enter Scott Vagnier, whom LaCour and Kringlie chose to right the ship.

Vagnier told me that he started waiting tables when he was in college. He later studied law, but discovered that his true passion was in the restaurant industry. There was never really a question that, when he took over, Rambla would suddenly abandon its roots as a tapas restaurant. Vagnier observed that with a menu influenced heavily by Spanish and French cuisines, there's a natural connection to the foundations of our native Creole cooking. It's a connection that he intends to foster.

Vagnier's real love is wine, and the list at Rambla reflects his interest in lesser-known varietals, or in wines that challenge a patron's expectations of what a well-known grape can be in the hands of an avant-garde winemaker. He used a sauvignon blanc made by the Scholium Project as an example. Vagnier described it as full and round, more akin to a red wine in taste and aroma than the sauvignon blancs to which most folks are accustomed. He also mentioned a wine called D66 made by Orin Swift Cellars, which used French grapes and new-world techniques to produce a Grenache about which Vagnier raved. Raved, not raves, because Rambla has already sold out of its allotment of D66; Vagnier said he wants the wine list to be fluid, and he's serious about it.

He also wanted to find someone to head the kitchen to match the feel of the restaurant. He chose Nicholas “Nico” Bardo, who was the sous chef at Rambla when Vagnier arrived. Bardo is, for his 28 years, well traveled. He has cooked in Spain and California, and has staged at the famed modernist restaurants Alinea in Chicago and the Fat Duck outside of London. He has not changed the menu dramatically at this point; the charcuterie is still available, as are the patatas bravas and the bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with Spanish blue cheese, but there's definitely an evolution going on.

Vagnier told me that Bardo will be using a frequently changing tasting menu to depart from the regular menu, and those dishes which prove the most successful may very well find their way to full-time status. The idea was to offer a tasting menu that was more than just a sample of regular menu items. Vagnier pointed to a cheese course on a recent tasting menu; Bardo took five pieces of the semi-soft Spanish cheese Idiazabal, and topped each with a different herb or micro green. The dish was finished at the table with a toasted grain consomme. That same meal featured black-truffle fritters served over rice with a truffled-yogurt dipping sauce. The use of rice was a nod to the fact that truffles are typically stored in rice to control moisture, and Vagnier said the combination worked.

One of the highlights of a recent meal I ate at Rambla was much less ambitious. I started my lunch with a roasted cauliflower gratin made with goat cheese and chives. The dish remined me of my grandmother's cauliflower au gratin, which she made with a bechamel-based cheddar cheese sauce. At Rambla, the sharpness was provided by goat cheese, and the roasted cauliflower retained a good bit of texture. The chives were used sparingly, and didn't overpower the dish.

The crust on the pork and olive empanadas was perfectly flaky, and surrounded a lean filling in which the olives were – like the chives in the gratin – used in in moderation. The pies were served with a sweet pepper rouille, and were so good I ate three of the four on my plate before I remembered I should have taken a picture.

Vagnier said that none of the restaurant's current employees have been there more than five months. That's not often a good sign, and I'm sure there will be some growing pains. But Vagnier obviously has a love for what he does, and he's been given a great deal of latitude by LaCour and Kringlie. In Bardo he has a chef who appears capable of consistently preparing both classic dishes and more imaginative items. Vagnier is taking the long view with Rambla, and I'll be interested to see what it's like in another six months.

Rambla is located at 217 Camp Street, and you can call (504) 587-7720 for more information.

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