No More Tangoing, But Loads of Dulce de Leche

“It’s Charles Rennie Mackintosh meets the Clash!” said my companion, looking around the bar at Vandam where we were waiting for our table.

The décor of this corner restaurant is nothing if not dramatic. The backlit bar has dark wooden shelves excavated from an old library in Maine, eggplant mohair banquettes and old leather-seated chairs with slatted backs acquired from the Pentagon as if they were Viking artifacts. The dining room is decorated with thick cement columns, stained glass, wrought-iron window frames and bulbous metal ceiling fans that look like propellers designed by Rube Goldberg.

“They are probably taken from some old tango parlor in Argentina,” said my friend. “American restaurant designers are like the British with the Elgin marbles. They plunder abroad and bring everything over here. There are probably more authentic French bistros in New York now than in Paris.”

The walls of Vandam’s dining room, which was designed by Jeffrey Cayle, are hung with photographs of South American scenes, including some evocative soft-focus, black-and-white pictures of old buildings that could be in Havana or Buenos Aires. Potted palms add a debonair note. Despite the fact that it is large and spacious, with high ceilings and an open kitchen, the dining room has a feeling of intimacy.

When we left to go to our table, my friend gave the waitress at the bar $20 without bothering to check the bill. When she failed to return with the change, he asked our waiter to see what had happened. A few minutes later, the waitress appeared, looking surprised–and a little miffed. “Here’s your change,” she said. “Eighteen cents.”

“Twenty bucks for a whisky and a glass of wine! I guess I must be really out of touch,” my friend said, apologizing and pulling out his wallet for a tip.

The last time we were here was in the early 80′s when it was J.S. Vandam, a popular bistro where we often ended up pushing back the tables and dancing after dinner, and where the cocktails were certainly not eight or nine bucks apiece. But one of the owners died, and it became the Falls and then Buddha Bar. Now Buddha Bar partner Frederick Lesort has reopened it as a restaurant again, with photographer’s rep and ex-model Ray Brown and Allison Sarofim, who developed the French-Latin menu with Argentine chef Fernando Trocca.

At the next table, three muscular guys with short haircuts and open-necked shirts were having an argument. “It says Argentinian beef on the menu,” said one of them. “It’s not legal.”

“Yes it is. You couldn’t get it for a long time,” said one of the others, “but now you can. It comes with chimichurri.”

“Fried pork rind!”

“No, that’s chicharones.”

“In Argentina, chimichurri is used like ketchup.”

Actually, as I tasted later, chimichurri is a spicy sauce made with herbs, onions and olive oil. It was delicious on the char-grilled rib eye, a juicy, perfectly cooked piece of meat with good flavor that was served with excellent fries.

The three men, I realized after a while, were chefs, and they were checking out the interesting South American food produced by Mr. Trocca, who had one of the top restaurants in Buenos Aires before moving to New York to open Vandam. His cooking is elegant, with unexpected combinations of textures and tastes and unusual ingredients. It is also firmly based in classic French tradition. To go with this food, the wine list, which the chefs were perusing intently, offers an interesting selection of lesser-known Spanish and South American wines. Fascinating old postcards of Spanish bullfights decorate the covers of the menu and wine list–which is a little confusing, since in this setting gauchos would make more sense than matadors.

For starters, there was foie gras dusted with yucca, which does not sound like a dish you’d want to try more than once, but it was marvelous. A delicate creamy slice was served on caramelized mango and topped with a dark, rich balsamic vinegar sauce, sprinkled around the plate, as in an artwork by Jean Tinguely. A napoleon made with the lightest of pastry was filled with a creamy brandade of cod scented with lemon and sage. I also liked the airy polenta soufflé topped with a ragout of wild mushrooms.

Mr. Trocca also makes a refreshing ceviche of Diver scallops seasoned with cilantro and lime, mixed with avocado. As a special one evening, there was a brochette of lightly charred shrimp with a piquant corn salsa. You can also start with a trio of small dishes from the tapas menu, which included on this occasion Chilean oysters, lightly spiced crab cakes and a tuna tartare which was marred by slightly muddied spices.

His use of Latin ingredients in classic entrees is subtle and doesn’t draw attention to itself the way it does in some so-called fusion cooking. The quinoa (a tiny, bead-shaped, ivory-colored grain) and tamarind sauce were perfect foils for meaty, rare duck breast. Herb-crusted rack of lamb went perfectly with a gratin of South American root vegetables. Chilean sea bass was cooked en papillote with plantain leaves and a light coconut broth. Red snapper–pan-fried so that it was crispy–was garnished with a tropical slaw made with mango and jicama.

Desserts included a passion fruit napoleon that tasted as though it had been made just minutes before, molten Venezuelan chocolate cake with cinnamon ice cream and an espresso tart with crème anglaise. But my eyes lit up when I saw there was also dulce de leche flan! I used to love that dark caramel that is sold in various forms all over Latin America. I used to make it at home by boiling an unopened can of condensed milk for a couple of hours. When you open it (not, as I discovered to the detriment of the kitchen ceiling on one occasion, before it has cooled down), you have a rich caramel that you can’t stop eating by the spoonful. Our young waiter beamed when I exclaimed about it.

“Where are you from?” I asked him, thinking this must have been one of the treats of his childhood.

“France.”

Across the way, an Argentine with slicked-back hair and tiny glasses, in the company of three blond women, was tucking into the dulce de leche flan. How nice it would be, I thought, if we could now push back the tables and dance the tango.

Vandam

* *

150 Varick Street, at Vandam Street

352-9090

Dress: Casual

Noise level: Fine

Wine list: Interesting Spanish and South American wines

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Main courses $19 to $26

Tapas menu: Monday to Saturday 5 P.M. to 2 A.M.

Dinner: Monday to Saturday 6 P.M. to midnight

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor