Dublin's Vaso looks good on paper and on the patio, but we have reservations.
Bridge Park, the much-praised Crawford Hoying development alongside Riverside Drive in Dublin, is unabashedly courting millennials and empty nesters by building a walkable urban neighborhood equipped with a farmers market, beer-themed events, a coworking space and a store dedicated entirely to athleisure. Intermingled among the flower-lined brick walkways and parking garages are extensions of popular Columbus-based bars and restaurants—The Avenue Steak Tavern, Cap City Fine Diner and Bar, Fukuryu Ramen and Pins Mechanical Co. Call it CoNo, short for Columbus North. One thing that sets Bridge Park apart is its anchor, AC Hotel Columbus Dublin and its trendy rooftop bar and restaurant, Vaso. The presence of this Spanish tapas-themed venue makes the development feel not like another suburban playground, but like its own urban center.
Non-hotel guests can enter from a door off Banker Drive or walk through the hotel lobby and into the restaurant's own elevator, which has only two floor choices: one and eight. Any question as to whether Vaso is a food-forward establishment is immediately answered when the elevator doors open: a wall of sound and a giant bar in the center of the restaurant appear. Hordes of patrons—primarily Gen Xers and baby boomers—crowd around the bar, all with drinks in hand. Vaso feels a bit like the older, Miami-fied version of Brothers or Standard Hall, bringing the Arena District and the Short North to the Dublin treetops.
With a variety of seating options inside, including a few too many high-top tables and some awkward-for-eating couch situations, Vaso's intent is to provide access to the giant curved window overlooking Riverside Drive and the construction of downtown Dublin across the Scioto River. This time of year the view is lush but a bit lackluster, partially because of the uninspiring flat roofs of Vaso's neighbors and because the developing Dublin skyline is just not as dynamic as, say, the Columbus skyline. The window brings in plenty of beautiful light, but it also brings in the heat of the sun and does little to temper the sound of Vaso's patrons. The outdoor patio, which has the benefits of both fresh air and firepits, creates a much more pleasant experience. The din of the loud interior is replaced by speakers playing what I might call resort rock—soft, background rock ideal for patio drinking and wearing capris.
In most Columbus dining establishments, folks can walk in sans reservations and be able to find a seat at the bar. This is one of the wonderful things about being in the Midwest, and not, say, Manhattan. Vaso veers from this norm by being constantly packed (even on traditionally slow evenings) and by suggesting a dress code (though Vaso is reportedly phasing it out). In short, you need a reservation and might get sideways glances if sporting your athleisure.
Vaso is at its best as a bar and lounge. Cocktails are its forte, and it's refeshing to see Spanish sherries and amari getting attention here. The Madrid Old-Fashioned ($10), for example, substitutes whiskey for oloroso sherry and rum. Meanwhile, the citrus-forward sparkling sangria ($8) is a must. The drink can be served from a porron ($25), a Spanish glass vessel that allows you to pour sangria directly into a companion's mouth. Diners can opt for a plain old glass as well, but what's the fun in that? Also enjoyable is the frosé ($8), only available on the patio because that's where the ice machine resides. Served in a rocks glass with a well-meaning but soggy paper straw, these grown-up slushies go down quickly.
While Vaso's libations are solid, the service of them (and anything else) is a major weakness. During one visit, drinks were delivered after the first tapas arrived. And while the restaurant explains that dishes come out as they're finished (consistent with the tapas concept), no thought is put into ensuring that all six plates do not come out at exactly the same time. This leads to cold food and a too-crowded table. And in one instance, we had to flag down another server to ask for the check.
The food is only slightly better than the service. The menu consists mostly of shareable small plates in six categories, all ranging from $5 to $16. While not unusual for tapas pricing, the cost adds up quickly (especially with rounds of those frosés).
The paella for two ($25) could stand out as a traditional entrée. But everything that could go wrong with the classic Spanish rice and seafood dish did. Not only was the rice undercooked, but since it wasn't served in a paella pan, the dish lacked its customary layer of rice crust (called socarrat) at the bottom. Salty, dry shrimp and crunchy peas did not help the situation. The chorizo-stuffed squid was good, but did not save the dish. One of the more adventurous dishes is the pulpo a la Gallega ($14). Grilled octopus tentacles and rings are served atop a pile of potatoes and accented with dots of saffron aioli. Instead of being tender, the octopus was dry and, again, super salty. The dry and briny seafood trend continued with Vaso's fish taco ($12), which is served in a flour tortilla dripping with a tangy slaw.
Vaso fares a little better with its sea scallops ($13). Pounded thin and served ceviche-style with mounds of sweet cucumber salad and what tasted like bottled lime juice, the scallops were enjoyable, if sparse. But the gambas al ajillo, or shrimp with garlic ($13), seals the deal: Vaso is not for seafood. In this dish, banana peppers join overcooked shrimp, making the garlic seem nonexistent. While they're an interesting addition to a Spanish favorite, the banana peppers make it taste like a soggy Italian sub.
Vaso's toasts and sandwiches are simple and satisfying. The bocadillo de queso ($10) is likely the best thing on the menu. Essentially a quartered grilled cheese with honey on top, this sandwich would satisfy the pickiest of eaters. And the bocadillo de pollo ($11) features finely shredded chicken with a little spice. Both dishes feature greens soaked in a too-sweet dressing in the middle of the plate.
The albóndigas de cordero or spicy lamb meatballs ($13) are also a safe bet. While not at all spicy, these tender meatballs are full of flavor and are served on a bed of tomato sauce with peppers and olives, showcasing Morocco's influence on Spain's cuisine.
Despite glaring issues in service and food quality, Vaso remains incredibly popular. If you're looking for an enjoyable dining experience, Bridge Park provides plenty of options—Vaso just isn't one of them. But if you enjoy a sleek environment, a lively vibe to accompany your drinks and you don't want to make the trek to the Short North, Vaso is for you.