Open 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday for lunch, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday for dinner. Closed Sunday. AE, CB, MC, V.
Prices: Lunch entrees $3.95 to $5.95, dinner entrees $11.50 to $14.95. Typical dinner for two with wine, tax and tip, about $48.
Like a fair damsel imprisoned in a forbidding castle, Le Vagabond sits waiting to be discovered in one of those flat, gray, concrete office slabs that seem to sprout overnight in the rich soil of suburban Maryland, architectural reminders that 1984 is just three years away. But walk through the restaurant door and suddenly it could be 1884. Abruptly, blissfully, it's quiet. Warm woods take over, and soft lighting, and white linens and fresh flowers, and, from a tape, the reassuring, civilized strains of Vivaldi or a Tchaikowsky concerto.
This is a place, obviously, with ambition. It shows on the menu, with half a dozen or so daily specials in addition to nine regular entrees, plus a different full-course ethnic dinner each week on a rotating basis. The whole enterprise is a tall order, if it's to be pulled off well. And, in spite of a few disappointments along the way, it is.
What's the formula that makes Le Vagabond click as well as it does? There's skill and intelligence in the the kitchen, of course. But perhaps more important, there's a feeling of commitment here. The owner is on hand in the dining room every night, watching, circulating among the tables, monitoring the food and service. When he asks the usual "How is everything?" you get the feeling it's not just a routine, that e actually wants the feedback. The waiters are pros--quick, skilled, and with enough knowledge of what the chef does that they can discuss the dishes with some authority. (It's odd how often that's missing, even in the best of places.)
The caring at Le Vagabond is obvious in the crusty, hearth-baked bread, virginal little "epi" loaves that have never experienced the inside of a refrigerator or plastic bag, handled with respect and served only while still perfectly fresh--something of a headache for a restaurant, but a treat for the customer that's becoming rarer and rarer these days. A complimentary caviar salad makes just the partner for the bread.
A standout among the appetizers is gravlax, delicate, subtly flavored slices of raw salmon home-cured to a flavor somewhere between sashimi and lox and served with a pungent dill sauce. The house pate, light and well-balanced, is commendable for what it isn't: it isn't over-fatted, or over-salted, or over-spiced, it won't wake you at 3 a.m., and it makes another fine companion for the noble bread.
The tender, mild little shrimp in the big bowl of Scandinavian shrimp cocktail are treated to an equally mild, eggy sauce, just the thing for allowing the delicate flavor of the shrimp to reach you undisguised.
Onion soup is done well, with lively onions that have the natural sweetness that comes from browning in a pot. And it's prepared with understanding and restraint--no excesses of cheese, sugar or sherry to over the honest onion flavor. You may not be so lucky with the soup of the day. On one visit we were treated to a first-rate mushroom soup, dense with diced rather than pureed mushrooms, which gave a delightful chewy texture, blended with just enough cream to add flavor and a touch of thickness. Again, well-placed restraint. But another visit featured a flat, bland clam chowder with barely a hint of seafood flavor, and a third try turned up a potage St. Germain that was over-rich with cream and under-flavored by peas.
The broiled fish specials have been consistently fine. One night we were served a perfectly fresh grouper done only in butter; another time an exemplary trout in grand marnier sauce, with the liqueur applied very sparingly, so that the orange flavor complimented but didn't overpower the trout's subtlety. Romanian mixed grill is simple and impressive: pink, succulent lamb chops that are the best possible advertisement for Le Vagabond's roast rack of lamb; lean, moist pork chops; and mititei, a skinless Romanian sausage that's vaguely like a mild beef version of kifta kabob.
Veal danoise comes as a surprising bump in Le Vagabond's smooth performance. Although the cream-based sauce, laced with bacon and paprika, is smokily robust, it can't camouflage thick, rough-textured, somewhat dry meat. At these prices it's not too much to expect thin, pale, velvety-moist medallions of veal.
Tournedos choron are slices of beef filet in a tomato-flavored bearnaise sauce. Good meat, but, to us, a dull dish. It's up and down with the desserts, all made on the premises. One night a silky, deep-flavored chocolate mousse cake, really a memorable creation, was presented alongside a wet, limp-doughed tart, tired from sitting too long on the cart. Later that week the tarts were flawless. So watch and select carefully.
Le Vagabond is not inexpensive, but with salad and vegetables (both very good) included with the entrees, the cost of dinner here tends to be somewhat lower than at comparable places elsewhere. There's added economy in the rotating ethnic spacials, since they also include appetizer and dessert; with tax, tip and modest wine, two of these complete dinners would total just under $40. Wine prices, too, are more han fair, and there's a good smattering of solid, inexpensive Romanian and Bulgarian selections. (No half-bottles, unfortunately.)
How does it all balance out? Overlook the flaws. This is a fine place, with a fine spirit. The suburbs need more Le Vagabonds.