Michael T. Regan
(CLICK IMAGE FOR LARGER VERSION)
"It's a nice place — if you can get in."There are plenty of nightclubs you could say that of, but Vango might be the only one where it has nothing to do with a linebacker-size bouncer. It does help to be strong, though. You could scour every square mile of Philadelphia without finding a door as massive as the one guarding this Rittenhouse newcomer. That includes banks. Memo to anyone looking to impress a date: Secure a firm stance before you try pulling this bad boy open, or you might get flung against the side of the building.
Vango is also one of the few nightspots in town whose culinary ambitions are on par with its hiptitude. Owner Dia Sawan, whose Byblos is still firing up Mediterranean faves and hookahs next door, has installed chefs Ricardo Castillo Gonzalez and Liem Tjie Hiong (replacements for Ashley Sherman, who was in turn a replacement for opening chef Michael Fee) to oversee a menu of "Japanese continental" cuisine.
Oxymoron aside, that description fits as well as any. Vango's offerings run heavily toward sushi, but are global enough to include tuna tacos, hummus and quesadillas.
They're served inside of a finely wrought space that shines with what may truly be a thousand points of light. Grey Goose vodka bottles converted into glowing lamps cover one wall in a vast grid. The deep red velvet covering another wall is dimpled with hundreds of golf-ball-size spots of illumination that glisten through the wide apertures of a postmodern Chinese wall screen. The bar is the center of attention, though, bathed in shifting colors by the countless hairlike strands of a fiber-optic chandelier.
Throw in Vango's chill lineup of DJs, and you've got a truly multisensory vibe. Happily, the taste end of the spectrum mostly lives up to the rest — though the Japanese dishes outshine their continental counterparts.
A misnamed list of "small plates" — the portions are bigger than you'd expect and the plates themselves are gigantic, especially when set on Vango's small tables — aren't the kitchen's strong suit, but have a few bright spots.
Quesadillas promising teriyaki chicken and jalapeños tasted a lot plainer than advertised, although it was hard to gripe about their unusually delicate texture. A mound of fried calamari came with a splendid spicy sauce, and the breading was flavorful, but I wished the overly chewy squid had been cut into thinner rings. Shrimp and scallop spring rolls featured a superbly thin wrapper mercifully free of excess grease, but the subtle flavors of the filling got clobbered by a bluntly powerful dipping sauce. The edamame, by contrast, were simply flawless.
Vango's sushi is a better all-around bet, especially since it's a relative bargain. My spicy tuna roll and yellowtail-jalapeño roll carried more than the typical cargo of fish, and for $5 and $6 I couldn't have asked for anything fresher or tastier. (The construction, however, could have been a tad tighter.) The crab tempura in a spider roll was bursting with creamy flavor. It was nice not to run out of pickled ginger, as so often seems to happen. And it would have taken a lidocaine shot in the tongue for someone to polish off the mound of wasabi.
The entrée list is eight deep, of which I tried two. A minimally doctored set of braised short ribs came with asparagus shoots as tasty as they were fat, but the flavorful wasabi mashed potatoes were unappetizingly cool. The ishiyaki eel bowl, on the other hand, was as close to perfect as a dish gets. Slender chunks of tender eel topped a bed of the best sushi rice I've ever eaten. Two varieties of flying fish roe were mixed in. The tiny black eggs of one popped against the teeth with every bite, setting up a wonderful contrast with the squishy orange eggs of the other. Thin slices of pickled ginger rounded out the heady medley of textures and flavors.
Vango's waitstaff is quick and responsive, and the bartender mixed up a fine caipirinha on one of my visits, but one area of service suffers from what may be an irresolvable tension: wine. As a nightclub, Vango offers the usual overpriced bottle service; next to the $250 bottles of gin are wine markups of up to 800 percent. Glass prices are more reasonable, but the choices are limited and generic. If Sawan could craft a wine policy better suited to eaters than scenesters, Vango's kitchen might attract more of them.
As long as they can open that door.
116 S. 18th St., 215-568-1020, vangoloungeandskybar.com
Hours: 5 p.m.-2 a.m. daily
Appetizers, $4-$9; Small plates, $5-$16; Entrées, $17-$36
Not wheelchair accessible. Reservations accepted. Accepts all major credit cards.