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Restaurant review: Frustrating highs and lows at Dundee’s Vandal & Co

The Nashville hot chicken burger.
The Nashville hot chicken burger.

A recent trip into Dundee to see Paul Weller at the Caird Hall prompted some crucial planning with my friend India Fonda, a high-octane gal who doesn’t do casual and doesn’t do low-key.

India had left the choice of pre-gig meeting place to me, perhaps assuming I had a secret address book full of great places to eat and drink in the middle of town, all within a strict 60-minute time period. I wish!

Weller was on at 8pm sharp and I knew he played for two hours – so we needed some ballast before the show, and we needed it fast. A couple of celebratory cocktails seemed a good idea too, since it’s not every day a musical genius comes to town, and we already knew we had prime seats right above the stage.

From our panoramic eyrie, I can now confirm that Paul Weller doesn’t have a bald spot and he never lets a single immaculately coiffed Modfather hair get out of place, no matter how intense things get onstage.

Vandal & Co.

I’m quite the opposite, having more hair in my ears than on my head, but I have to say even my shaved head seemed in danger of losing its scant coverage from the pressure to find somewhere to eat in Dundee within minutes of the city’s major concert hall.

You’d think it would be easy, wouldn’t you? A rare visit from a rock icon, a packed Caird Hall and a whole load of people wanting to eat or drink before the show. I mean, there are even two huge restaurants/bars beneath the Caird Hall itself, even if one of them (the hopelessly beleaguered Brasserie Ecosse) seems to be closed, at least for the foreseeable future.

The other venue under the Caird Hall, the St Andrews Brewing Co, was shut on a Tuesday, as was the Italian Grill, mere steps from the Caird Hall entrance on City Square.

While I appreciate that hospitality is going through hell right now, wouldn’t you expect restaurants so close to a major concert venue to consider opening on a night when so many people are in town and looking to spend their money on food and drink before a show?

I realised that neither India nor I had been to Vandal & Co, the place that’s now occupied the former Castlehill restaurant site on Exchange Street for just over a year.

Vandal & Co

And, joy of joys, they were open, and they had a table for two and a special deal that seemed to be predicated on us drinking cocktails! Happy days!

It was great to be back in this space I used to know so well, and I have to admire the new owners for taking it on. Much as I loved Castlehill, I can now see why the site remained empty for over a year after Adam Newth left.

This is a difficult site to make work because of the odd and rather unwieldy layout of the space.

As a fine dining restaurant, it succeeded largely due to the excellence of Newth’s food, despite the rather difficult layout – now remodelled into a casual dining space, it still feels odd, the L-shaped room even more exposed by a somewhat thrown-together interior.

Inside the venue.

Seating is either at tables or booths and the design is that kind of cobbled-together aesthetic that I think is meant to feel like boho chic for world travellers.

Metal Ikea cupboards, bits of fabric hanging from the walls and an illuminated display of wine bottles sit arbitrarily against either bare walls or surfaces painted the colours of the interior of a Ryanair plane (This isn’t a diss on Ryanair by the way, as I used to fly with them weekly and loved the visual overload of the cabin interiors, mainly because they reminded me of Pet Shop Boys’ Go West video).

The staff are brilliant. Friendly, enthusiastic and helpful, this is a place where the waiting staff hugely add to the atmosphere of bustle and fun, and the owners should be thrilled that the public face of their restaurant is so welcoming.

Having said that, it was actually an interview given by the owners themselves to this newspaper that put me off coming here for so long.

Just before opening, owner Jonnie Armitage was quoted as saying: “The name Vandal & Co just came about from playing around with words and trying to come up with a name that was non-specific to the type of food that we wanted to sell.

“It’s very easy to name your restaurant after an Italian restaurant or an Asian restaurant but we feel that we’re going to offer more than one specific type of food. A lot of people have been asking what kind of food we will be serving, and we’ve been struggling to give an answer. In our minds, what we believe it to be is first and foremost a British restaurant.”

Some of the interior.

He continued: “If you look at the British culture, and the history of us as a nation, what we do is embrace different styles and trends of food. So, everything from British/Asian fusion and little bits of American thrown in, with burgers and wings. We’ve also got some French style food that we’ve put our Vandal & Co twist on. The style really is for the entire city to enjoy.”

Although the aim to offer such diversity is obviously admirable, so much of that opening salvo seemed to me to be an expression of a place driven more by management focus groups than a chef’s desire to express something cogent through the food.

In reality, it’s absolutely impossible to be all things to all people when offering a restaurant experience and, for me, the first thing I want to know about a new restaurant is what the style of food is and what they’re offering that no one else does.

Although it might sound like it, this isn’t snobbery because I’m very happy going to a place that focuses primarily on one thing and does it brilliantly – The Cheesy Toast Shack and Jim’s Delhi Club are very good examples of this. There is nothing better than enjoying a meal – however simple – knowing it’s been cooked with a love and passion emanating from a deep understanding of a particular cuisine.

As it turned out, my preconceptions about Vandal & Co were half-right. This is a place that does some things very well, while others seem like an afterthought or an attempt to appear cool. Thus, while trying to make their world a global village, I feel that this place needs to find some real roots and cook what they’re good at, simplifying the menu and losing some dishes that seem gratuitous.


The food

My first visit with India happened to be on Tuck In Tuesday and so we benefitted from a great deal of two burgers for £15 and two cocktails for £10. This is one of a number of deals this enterprising place offers, including Monday Bites and Bowls (any bite and bowl dish for £15) and Wednesday Steakout, where you can get two steak frites with a bottle of wine for £35.

Rishi Sunak would probably send the boys round if he knew about Tax Free Thursday, when you get 20% off your food bill and, again, a cocktail for a fiver.

This is great stuff and shows a restaurant that’s keen to be full and to keep their customers happy. This was apparent on both nights I ate here – coincidentally both Tuesdays – when the place was jumping when others nearby were either closed or deathly quiet.

The Nashville hot chicken burger.

The burgers India and I had were great; India’s vegetarian Jackass 2.0 and my Nashville Hot Chicken both cooked nicely and presented well, mine including well-marinaded buttermilk chicken, a spicy Vandal sauce and a sriracha slaw. India’s choice saw the ubiquitous jackfruit as the main element, along with similar accompaniments to mine.

The cost of both burgers normally would have been £23 so the £15 special deal was great value. Along with three cocktails and a glass of Pinot Noir at £9, our total bill was £39, which seems pretty reasonable to me.

Loaded fries.

A second visit a few weeks later was less successful because David and I decided to explore the menu a bit more. This drove the prices up and, sadly, our satisfaction down because what we ate was decidedly frustrating.

My Cajun calamari tasted good but I’m afraid there just wasn’t enough of it – eight very thin pieces of squid, albeit in a good spicy batter, bunged on some bagged salad and served with tartare sauce for £7.50.

Bang bang cauliflower.

David’s bang bang cauliflower just wasn’t bang bang cauliflower, at least not as we know it. Here, five massive florets were coated in something akin to spiced chip shop batter and served, inexplicably, with raita. The veg itself was cooked al dente but it just was too heavy and too cloying a taste from the batter to be enjoyable – and the addition of raita was a cross-fertilisation too many.

My main of chicken katsu curry was fine, the crispy chicken served with a good sauce and well-cooked rice (£14).

David’s main course was a disaster.

I felt bad because I’d encouraged him to order the tofu ramen (£14) so we could get an idea of the scope of the cooking here. What arrived was visually unattractive, something the yellowing, wilted piece of pak choi plonked on the side as garnish only drew attention to.

Katsu curry.

The greyness of the dish sadly didn’t conceal any hidden depths of flavour; or rather it did, but the taste of the ramen broth was strangely sweet and felt as tired as the browning pak choi garnish looked. He left most of it.

We’d asked for sparkling water but there was none so we were brought three glasses of soda water with lime and I was shocked afterwards to see that these were £2.50 each. Two glasses of wine increased the bill by £15, making it a total of £71.

Days later, we would eat a superlative lunch at the Palmerston in Edinburgh where our bill came to £56.10 for food and wine of vastly superior provenance and quality.


The verdict

Believe it or not, I quite liked Vandal & Co but found it intensely frustrating. Here’s somewhere that’s trying to give Dundee what it needs – a diner-type venue open every day, serving a greatest hits of simple but good food. It’s popular and there’s good reasons for that.

However, with so many duds on our second visit, I feel this place needs to look at their menu and work out exactly what they’re trying to be, because consistency is what keeps customers returning.

Until then, my advice to diners would be to stick to the excellent deals on things like burgers, which are not only good value but also cooked and presented with some flair.
Vandal & Co’s slogan is “Made with Purpose”, a jargonistic meaningless phrase when customers are actually looking for food made with conviction and consistency.
This is a place that is definitely an asset for Dundee but could be a whole lot better.


Information

Address: Vandal & Co, 22–26 Exchange Street, Dundee DD1 3DL

T:07359 073171

W: www.vandalandco.com

Price: Bites and sides from around £5; bowls from £13 and main courses from £12

Scores: 

  • Food: 3/5
  • Service: 5/5
  • Surroundings: 3/5

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