Bill Hader’s Stefon no longer works SNL‘s “Weekend Update” desk, but if the nightlife reporter were to visit Vandal (199 Bowery, 212-400-0199), he’d be sure to report back that “this place has everything!” A hidden entrance tucked away behind a flower shop. A breakdancing bunny rabbit. Positively eye-popping décor.
Fictional correspondents aside, Vandal’s very real celebration of global street art would feel at home at any of New York’s modern art museums — it was devising the menu to match that was the hard part. The approach that chef-owner Chris Santos and executive chef Jonathan Kavourakis took was simple: First, spend nine weeks traveling the world in search of popular street fare. Second, take a large selection of those dishes (44, to be exact) and use the best ingredients possible to reimagine them. What does that mean? Well, for starters, that a New York street-style pretzel is reimagined with Kobe beef and smoked aioli, the familiar charcoal essence here elevated by the luxe fixings.
“To be able to cook this kind of food was a dream for me. It’s not really ‘street food’ — it’s inspired by street food,” Kavourakis explains. He and Santos were invested in sourcing the highest-quality ingredients in order to refine the casual culinary experiences they’d had on their travels. “Typically, when you eat street food, you’re not getting the highest quality of product. You’re getting chicken thighs, or if you order the meat, it’s the scrapped meat that’s been stewed,” Kavourakis says.
At Vandal, grilled Chilean sea bass nests neatly inside tortillas; shawarma isn’t served sliced off a spit, but placed atop a salad alongside falafel croutons. There’s also a selection of pizza and large plates, including a two-pound whole lobster prepared fra diavolo–style.
“That’s the challenge,” Kavourakis says. “How do I take a taco that they’re selling for sixty cents that is delicious in Mexico, and how do I make it for New York?” The menu options span the globe, from the Midwest — Juicy Lucy burgers topped with American cheese — to Rome (cacio e pepe arancini).
The space itself, erstwhile home to the Finale nightclub, is equally expansive: 11,900 square feet, to be precise, accommodating 487 seats. Before diving into the menu, guests feel the watchful eyes of Andre the Giant thanks to a Shepard Fairey mural on the wall of the “secret garden” room. The work of British street artist Hush is also a focal point, along with pieces by Will Barras, Tristan Eaton, and Vhils, all of which, Kavourakis says, contribute to “a sensitive experience.” Somewhere, one imagines, Stefon smiles at that one.