In New York, there are nightlife impresarios and then there are nightlife kings.
The heads of Tao Group, the ubiquitous nightlife empire stretching from Las Vegas to Sydney, are kings. They basically invented the clubstaurant concept with massively successful venues like their namesake TAO and LAVO.
Wall Street money loves TAO Group, and it’s almost guaranteed you’ll find groups of second-year bank analysts, private equity VPs and hedge fund managing directors at any of its properties at any given time.
That doesn’t mean the food is good.
The new hot TAO clubstaurant is called “Vandal.” It serves nonsense items like a knish Reuben and something called the “banh mi’eatball slider.” Ryan Sutton of Eater just gave it a blistering, zero-star review.
The space is fascinating enough that if Vandal simply served competent brasserie fare, the entire endeavour would be somewhat civilized, a place for the cool kids to congregate and look at art. But what Vandal serves is not competent brasserie fare.
This is a good time to talk about Vandal’s banh mi’eatball slider. The name of the dish is a portmanteau of three trendy foodstuffs: the banh mi, a Vietnamese sandwich of pate, pork, pickled carrots and chiles; the slider, a tiny White Castle-style burger; and the meatball, an Italian-American symbol of thrift. Now here’s what you actually get: a single dense ball of spiced ground lamb, sandwiched within a slaw-stuffed baguette. The menu says the dish includes foie gras, none of which I detected. This two-bite travesty costs $8, which is more than what you ought to ever pay for an entire banh mi, a single meatball, or a solitary slider.
Brutal. Sutton, at least, has the courtesy to mention that TAO Group’s properties are popular, money-making machines, and that Vandal is constantly host to glamorous people like Hannah Bronfman and “Snap Packers” like Barron Hilton.
At Vandal, Santos smears beef tartare over a hot pretzel, resulting in hot mush. The menu is “inspired by street fare from around the world,” the restaurant’s website asserts, a statement that raises the question of what precisely is “street” about a two-pound lobster scampi that costs $68.
It should be noted that Sutton is a repeat offender in the business of bashing TAO Group. He wrote a devastating takedown of TAO Downtown in Bloomberg back in 2013 when it opened. He managed to get another TAO jab into this Vandal piece too.
Then there is the Tao juggernaut itself, a trio of hot spots in Midtown, West Chelsea, and Las Vegas, where the diverse foodways of the global East are diluted down to overpriced Red Bull, wontons, and Wagyu. Tao sells “Asia,” a bro-friendly bacchanalia where everyone is fluent in the universal language of loosened ties. I’ll take two Grey Goose sodas… no, make that three! The food ranges from awful to passable, but I’ve found that sitting on Tao’s candlelit staircase while overlooking the 24-armed Buddha statue is as surefire a way to impress one sort of date as cocktails at Bemelmans is another. Really, where else can New York diners pay gustatory tribute to the life of the humble Siddhartha in a way that would make both Lil Wayne and Michael Bay proud?