A recent trip to Dundee to see Paul Weller at Caird Hall prompted some crucial planning with my friend India Fonda, a high-octane girl who isn’t laid-back or low-key.
India had left the pick of the venue to me before the gig, assuming maybe I had a secret address book full of great places to eat and drink in the middle of the city, the all within a strict 60 minute time limit. I wish!
Weller was at 8pm sharp and I knew he had played for two hours – so we needed ballast before the show, and we needed it fast. A few celebratory cocktails also seemed like a good idea, since it’s not every day that a musical genius comes to town, and we already knew we had prime seating right above the stage.
From our viewing area, I can now confirm that Paul Weller has no baldness and never lets a perfectly styled Modfather’s hair go anywhere, no matter how intense things get onstage.
I’m quite the opposite, I have more hair in my ears than on my head, but I have to say even my shaved head looked in danger of losing its weak cover due to the pressure to find somewhere to eat in Dundee minutes from town. large concert hall.
You would think that would be easy, right? A rare visit from a rock icon, a packed Caird Hall and loads of people wanting to eat or drink before the show. I mean, there are even two huge restaurants/bars under the Caird Hall itself, although one of them (the hopelessly besieged Brasserie Ecosse) appears to be closed, at least for the foreseeable future.
The other venue under Caird Hall, the St Andrews Brewing Co, was closed on a Tuesday, as was the Italian Grill, a short walk 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 music 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 realized that neither India nor I had been to Vandal & Co, the place that now occupies 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 that seemed to be based on us drinking cocktails! Happy Days!
It was great to be back in this space that I knew so well, and I have to admire the new owners for taking it over. Although I loved Castlehill, I can now see why the site sat empty for over a year after Adam Newth left.
It is a difficult site to operate due to the odd and rather cumbersome layout of the space.
As a fine dining restaurant it has succeeded in large part due to the excellence of Newth’s food, despite the rather difficult layout – now transformed into a casual dining space, it still looks odd, the L-shaped room even more exposed by a little thrown together interior.
Seating is either at tables or booths and the design is that kind of DIY aesthetic that I think is meant to feel bohemian chic for world travelers.
Metal Ikea cupboards, scraps of fabric hanging from the walls and an illuminated display of wine bottles sit arbitrarily against bare walls or surfaces painted in the colors of a Ryanair plane interior (this is not a diss about Ryanair by the way, as I used to fly with them every week and loved the visual overload of the cabin interiors, mainly because they reminded me of the Pet Shop Boys Go West video).
The staff are awesome. Friendly, enthusiastic and helpful, this is a place where the waiters add enormously to the atmosphere of bustle and fun, and the owners should be delighted that their restaurant’s public face is so welcoming.
That said, it was actually an interview given by the owners themselves to this newspaper that made me wait so long.
Just before the opening, owner Jonnie Armitage reportedly said, “The name Vandal & Co just played with words and tried to come up with a name that wasn’t specific to the kind of food we wanted to sell.
“It’s very easy to name your restaurant after an Italian restaurant or an Asian restaurant, but we think we’re going to offer more than one specific type of food. Many people have asked what kind of food we will serve, and we struggled to answer. In our mind, what we believe to be is first and foremost a British restaurant.
He continued: “If you look at British culture and our history as a nation, what we do is embrace different food styles and trends. So everything from British/Asian fusion and American bites, with burgers and wings. We also have French style dishes to which we have added our Vandal & Co touch. The style is really for the whole town to enjoy.
While the goal of providing such diversity is obviously admirable, much of that opening salvo struck me as an expression of a place driven more by management discussion groups than a desire to a chef to express something compelling through food.
In reality, it is absolutely impossible to be everything to everyone in providing a dining experience and for me the first thing I want to know about a new restaurant is what the style of food is and what it offers than anyone else.
Although it may sound, it’s not snobbery as I’m very happy to go to a place that mainly focuses on one thing and does it brilliantly – The Cheesy Toast Shack and Jim’s Delhi Club are very good ones good examples. There’s nothing better than enjoying a meal – no matter how simple – knowing it was cooked with the love and passion that emanates from a deep understanding of a particular cuisine.
It turned out that my preconceptions about Vandal & Co were half right. It’s a place that does some things very well, while others seem like an afterthought or an attempt to look cool. So while trying to make their world a global village, I feel like this place needs to find real roots and cook what they know how to do, simplifying the menu and losing some dishes that seem free.
My first visit to India was on Tuesday so we got two burgers for £15 and two cocktails for £10. It’s one of many offers at this enterprising venue, including Monday Bites and Bowls (any platter of bites and bowls 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 over if he knew of the existence of Tax-Free Thursday, when you get 20% off your food bill and, again, a cocktail for five.
This is a great thing and shows a restaurant that cares about being full and keeping its customers happy. This was evident the two nights I ate here – coincidentally both Tuesdays – when the place was hopping while others nearby were either closed or deathly silent.
The burgers India and I had were great; Indian Vegetarian Jackass 2.0 and my Nashville Hot Chicken are well cooked and well presented, mine including well marinated buttermilk chicken, spicy Vandal sauce and sriracha salad. India’s choice saw the ubiquitous jackfruit as the main item, with accompaniments similar to mine.
The cost of the two burgers would normally have been £23 so the £15 special was great value. With three cocktails and a glass of Pinot Noir at £9, our total bill was £39, which I think is quite reasonable.
A second visit a few weeks later was less successful as David and I decided to explore the menu a bit more. This drove up the prices and sadly our satisfaction went down as what we ate was decidedly frustrating.
My cajun calamari was good but I’m afraid there wasn’t enough – eight very thin pieces of calamari, albeit in a nice spicy batter, stuffed over bag salad and served with a sauce tartar for £7.50.
David’s bang bang cauliflower just wasn’t a bang bang cauliflower, at least not as we know it. Here, five massive bouquets were coated in something that looked like spicy batter and served, inexplicably, with raita. The vegetables themselves were cooked al dente, but the taste of the batter was too heavy and cloying to be enjoyable – and the addition of raita was cross-fertilizing too much.
My main of chicken katsu curry was good, crispy chicken served with a good sauce and well cooked rice (£14).
David’s main course was a disaster.
I felt bad because I encouraged him to order the tofu ramen (£14) so we could get a sense of the breadth of the cuisine here. What arrived was visually unattractive, something the yellowing, withered piece of pak choi laid to the side as the garnish only caught the eye.
The dullness of the dish unfortunately did not hide any depth of hidden flavor; or rather it was, but the ramen broth tasted oddly sweet and felt as tired as the browning pak choi filling. He left most of it.
We had asked for sparkling water but there was none so we were brought three glasses of sparkling water with lime and I was shocked afterwards to see that they were £2.50 each. Two glasses of wine increased the bill by £15 to a total of £71.
A few days later we were eating 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.
Believe it or not, I liked Vandal & Co but found it extremely frustrating. Here’s a place that tries to give Dundee what it needs – a restaurant type place open every day, serving the greatest hits of simple but good food. It’s popular and there are good reasons for it.
However, with so many duds on our second visit, I think this place needs to look at their menu and figure out exactly what they’re trying to be, because consistency is what keeps customers coming back.
Until then, my advice to diners would be to stick to the great deals on things like burgers, which are not only good value for money, but also cooked and presented with some flair.
Vandal & Co’s slogan is “Made with Purpose”, a meaningless jargonistic expression when customers are actually looking for food prepared with conviction and consistency.
This is a place that is definitely an asset to Dundee but could be much better.
Address: Vandal & Co, 22–26 Exchange Street, Dundee DD1 3DL
Price: Bites and sides from around £5; bowls from £13 and mains from £12
- Food: 3/5
- Performance: 5/5
- Surroundings: 3/5
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[Frustrating highs and lows at Dundee’s Vandal & Co]