The first dish served on Miles Thompson's five-course tasting menu during the Vagrancy Project's residency at Allston Yacht Club on a recent Monday was called "Oyster." But it was so much more. The 24-year-old chef had encased a raw oyster inside a translucent oval of rosy kimchi gelée
and placed it on top of a bed of crushed dashi gelée redolent of fish and earthy soy sauce. He then added a soft, pink mound of pied de cochon, a few rounds of pickled radish, some crunchy agretti and slender scallion slices.
"People say I'm crazy all the time. That I'm too young to do what I'm doing," says Thompson who left a high-profile job as executive sous-chef at Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo's acclaimed seafood restaurant Son of a Gun to start the Vagrancy Project as a pop-up series in his living room.
But talk of crazy hasn't stopped the blogs from buzzing. After rapturous write-ups on various food blogs and websites, Thompson scored a semi-permanent home for Vagrancy at AYC, Charles Kelly and Bill DiDonna's cozy Echo Park restaurant.
Every Monday and Tuesday night through Labor Day, Vagrancy takes over the restaurant with Thompson's fantastical brand of cooking paired with cocktails by mixologist Nathan Oliver (Ink, Harvard & Stone, Church & State). Fond of jazz and music analogies, Thompson is calling this a "residency" rather than a pop-up and says that it's phase two of a business plan that he hopes will lead him to phase three: his dream of opening his own restaurant, which he plans to call Cottage.
Turning a pop-up into a brick-and-mortar restaurant is not a new idea. It's the scope of Thompson's ambition that's noteworthy. He imagines Cottage as a 28-seat, tasting-menu-only restaurant — perhaps with a bar like the one at Providence, where diners have the option of ordering a single dish.
"I like the freedom of à la carte, but I love the formality of a tasting menu. I love building them — the commitment to crafting something and living with it is amazing," says Thompson, who is small and intense with coffee-brown skin and liquid green eyes (he was also an actor, landing a role in Miranda July's 2005 film, "You and Me and Everyone We Know").
Thompson, raised in South Salem, N.Y., began washing dishes at a local restaurant at age 13. In 2007, the self-taught chef moved to L.A. and immediately landed a job as lead line cook at Nobu L.A. ("I gave a really good interview," says Thompson of his meeting with chef Alex Becker.) From there he moved on to Animal and Son of a Gun.
He left the latter because "I needed to do that. I was hungry to create," says Thompson, who briefly worked with revered pop-up chef Craig Thornton before starting Vagrancy. "I loved working there. They taught me a lot about restraint in food and management."
How restrained it is to serve a $175, 21/2-pound Stemple Creek Ranch bone-in rib-eye steak on the bar menu is another matter. But the buttery meat goes well with Oliver's Classic Frisco Rittenhouse 100 Benedictine, a bottled cocktail that he has created for a company called Bottle Service that he is in the process of launching. In a clever twist on the company's name, Oliver shows diners how to pour and garnish the drink by themselves.
"I never thought bottle service would be me making my own drink," jokes Oliver, 27, about what customers say.
The juxtaposition of Thompson's serious food — including a clever dish of John Dory on a black-bubble bed of miso tapioca "risotto" in aromatic candied shiitake butter — with the unpretentious familiarity of his staff and the laid-back atmosphere of AYC makes for a playful dining experience tailored for lazy summer nights.
"I really like Miles and Nathan," says AYC's DiDonna. "I hope we've done everything we can to give them a leg up, although I'm not sure they need it."
Vagrancy Project at Allston Yacht Club info
Vagrancy Project at Allston Yacht Club
Where: 1320 Echo Park Ave., L.A.
When: Seatings at 6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays. Bar seating from 7 p.m.
Price: Prix fixe menu $70 with optional $50 beverage pairing