The Vault

2112 Bull StSavannah, GA 31401 • (912) 201-1950 • vaultkitchen.com

 

The name doesn’t scream Asian fare, but once you discover that it’s a stunning renovation of a former bank, it all makes total and complete cents. Get it? No seriously, whoever did this renovation deserves a ferocious high five, because they didn’t miss a trick, from the safe deposit box art on the walls, to the bar made up of the same. To the private dining room inside the safe, to teller cut windows and nickeled bathroom floors it is a smile everywhere you look.

Speaking of smiles, the service is delivered with big ones. Regrettably, however, the servers are bit off with the recos and even worse with clearing the plates, leaving us with more of a grimace.

The food, on the other hand, will have those corners spreading ear to ear. In fact, considering my expectations walking in, I couldn’t have left too much happier. My greatest joy coming in the form of an Ultimate Tuna Tartar (pictured) served over a bed of seaweed with a layer of avocado for creaminess, masago for saltiness, spicy mayo for heat, sesame seeds for texture, all topped with crispy crab for fucking awesomeness!

Also worth its weight in gold is the lemon coconut soup with shrimp, mussels, ginger, lemongrass and red curry. It’s perfect on a “cold” day (I use quotes because cold is obviously relative in Savannah) and just perfect in general. Might even be an Ultimate soup, still ruminating on that one.

The embarrassment of riches continued as Vault even served up one of the best stir-fry noodle dishes I’ve ever laid chopsticks on. The Nickel Noodles are a clinic on proportions and balance as the wide rice noodles hold up handsomely to the overloaded goodies within, like beef and shrimp, scallions and onions, bell peppers, egg and basil. Yummity Yum!

And making it rain in the Asian-Mex category were the FICO Fish tacos (see, it’s not just me with the money puns). Jazzed up with mango, cabbage, daikon, chipotle sauce and kimchi dressing.

But then, just like the market, things leveled off. The roasted duck dumplings, while very good, were decidedly more of this earth. As was the grilled calamari. And then, just like the market, things started sliding in the other direction, with a doughy miss, the steamed BBQ tofu buns. Which is crazy when you read what’s in them (spinach, shitakes, Szechuan glaze, Sriracha) – and yet all you taste is bun, bun, bun. Hard to believe the same restaurant made this.

Another pair of misses, per the aforementioned poor recos, are the desserts, which came highly recommended by the waiter compared to the lure of a trip to Leopold’s Ice Cream. Well, learn from our mistake and go to Leo’s. The key lime cake tasted like something you’d get on a plane and the pecan pie was way off balance with a meager dusting of pecans across the top and the rest all goop, whipped cream and crust.

Transgressions aside, The Vault is still a gem, albeit one knife shy of a diamond.

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Momofuku Nishi

gou232 8th Ave.  New York, NY 10011 • (646) 518-1919 • momofuku.com

David Chang is a master of the impossible, so it only makes sense that he would create a veggie burger that tastes imperceptibly close to its meaty alternative, hence the name Impossible Burger (pictured). It is deception on a bun. Edible hocus pocus. The patty made predominantly from soy bean, it somehow even takes on the texture of meat.

As for the burger itself, it’s only amazing that it’s vegetarian. But as a burger itself, it’s just okay, coming off more like your classic simple cheeseburger (granted the new version now has truffle mayo and gouda) that isn’t as good as other veggie burgers like the Gouchujong at Cinnamon Snail or meat burgers like the Shack Stack at Shake Shack, The Bash Burger at B&B or my personal fav, The Black Label Burger at Minetta Tavern.

Beyond the novelty of the burger, however, Nishi is very hit and miss. The kimchi is just okay as is the beet salad with avocado and a dusting of nuts.

The only other hit you can chew would be the pistachio bundt cake for dessert. It’s far from epic, but it’s a solid choice if you want to end things on a sweet note.

That said, if you really want a hit, do yourself a Gin & Julius to drink. It’s like an alcoholic creamsicle. It’s also like really friggin’ yum and after two or three you won’t have your mind on your money or your mind.

Gaonurri

1250 Broadway – 39th Fl. New York, NY 10001 • (212) 971-9045gaonnurinyc.com

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As they say in Korea, “holy fucking shit is this place good.” Okay, so it’s a very loose translation, but the meaning is still the same. From setting to service to sumptuous this place is firing on all cylinders. And not only is it physically head and shoulders above the rest of Koreatown, it’s figuratively superior as well.

Oddly located atop an office building in Herald Square, you have to enter through the lobby and take the elevator to the 39th floor. And it is there that you will find yourself surrounded by stunning views of Manhattan and a décor that lives up to the view.

The food also lives up to the hype starting with the spicy fried calamari salad tossed in a honey gochujang sauce and served over mixed greens with a light pear dressing. It’s fantastic, but even better is the Japchae with mushrooms. It’s made with stir fried glass noodles and mushrooms, of course. But these aren’t your garden variety shrooms. Well, technically I guess they are, but there is something about the sauce they’re cooked in that makes them taste almost like velvety, silky, beefy medallions. Best thing of the night and the most enjoyment you can get from mushrooms without them being of the psychedelic variety. An Ultimate fo sho!

Both the braised black cod and the braised short rib are also wicked good, served with a bowl of rice along with an assortment of kimchi and things.

And finally, for dessert, we split the deconstructed Snickers bar because we weren’t going anywhere for a while- get it? It’s advertising humor. Okay, never mind. Jokes aside it was very inventive, airy and fun to eat, because depending on how you reconstructed it you could make it taste like seven different candy bars. But with just the right ratios of each, bingo! Snickers baby!

Mad props to Gaonurri for living up to the hype and exceeding it with the best Korean food I’ve ever had by far.

5 teeth

BCD Tofu House

5W 32nd St. New York, NY 10001 • (212) 967-1900 bcdtofu.com

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I have no idea what the BCD stands for, maybe it’s Bargain Cuisine Delectables? Probably not, but whatever it is, ya still gotta love Koreatown for its bountiful spreads of food at a fraction of the price you’d pay anywhere else in Manhattan. It’s almost as if they don’t realize that there are sandwich shops all around them that are charging more for a tuna on rye- no chips, no drink- than the three course bento-paloozas the Koreans are doling out. So shhhh! Let’s keep it that way.

But cheap is only one reason to love the Tofu House. Good is the other. Especially in the winter with a bevy of fiery soups that manage to stay hot longer than Madonna. Offered in a range of spiciness from mild to medium to hot and finally very hot. I went with just “hot” and I found it to be perfect. Plenty of kick, but just up to that threshold where flavor ends and pain begins, without crossing it. Very hot would’ve probably rendered all of the goodies in the soup imperceptible to taste.

As for the goodies of which I speak, I opted for the dumpling soup, which as one might guess is loaded with dumplings. But also bulgogi, veggies, tofu (after all, the place is called Tofu House), and if you so desire, a raw egg, rice, peppers and kimchi. Plus a fried smelt on the side.

And speaking of dumplings, another worthy get as an appetizer are the fried veggie pot stickers.

Service is very friendly and attentive and the décor is rather basic. Not the point of this place though really. The soup here is the focus. So if you’re cold and looking for a bowl to warm you up, this should do the trick, even if you’re a White Walker.

4 teeth

Barn Joo 35

34 W 35th St. New York, NY 10001 • (212) 564-4430 • barnjoo35.com

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So apparently the second time’s a charm, because this one is SO much nicer than the one on 19th street. A décor that is cool, yet also warm and inviting with its raw wood tones. Which paradoxically somehow works, just like their modern twist on Korean classics such as bulgogi tacos.

Speaking of which, the tacos are actually just okay by comparison to the much more impressive kimchi pancakes mixed with bacon. Whoa nilly! They’re sure to have you clamoring like the dog in the Beggin’ Strips commercials.

They even offer their BBQ with a fun zag, done the way of the Japanese, over a hot stone as opposed to the usual Korean MO. We opted for the duck and it was a solid good.

Also good is the price of sake. Downright reasonable if you ask me. What isn’t reasonable, however

Last but not least, for dessert we ordered the churros with vanilla ice cream and I know what you’re thinking. Tacos? Churros? Is this place Mexican or Korean? I believe it’s the latter, but then again, they were some pretty impressive churros, so go figure.

3 teeth

Grit & Grace

535 Liberty Ave. Pittsburgh, PA 15222 • (412) 281-4748gritandgracepgh.com

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This was the best meal I had in Pittsburgh, not that my time there has been of any impressive duration that you should ever misconstrue my minute sampling as extensive. But in those four short days I managed to pack in a few highs and lows, with Grit and Grace taking pole position.

The winning performance of which I speak takes place in a narrow, subway car-shaped dining room decorated with a minimal contemporary touches so as not to distract you from the small plate army about to descend on your table. From dim sum to sandwiches and then sum, Grit & Grace fills your plate with anything goes. But that’s what makes this place a blast, especially for larger parties so you get to try a little of everything. And per the list below, you will soon see, I truly mean everything.

So, listing them in hierarchical fashion, here we go…

The Brisket Sandwich: It’s all you could ever hope for in a sandwich. Moist. Beefy. Contrasting textures and brightness from the kohlrabi slaw and pickled red onions. A little kick from the horseradish cream and thousand island sabayon. All on a wonderfully fresh baguette that would make any Frenchy proud.

The Mortadella Bun: No. Not a sandwich. A bun. As in dim sum. As in get some. Because this is definitely the best Mortadella sand- er, “bun” I’ve ever had. Loaded with the additions of chicken thigh meat, kimchi and bread & butter pickles, then sauced with coriander mustard and chili aioli. It’s definitely not your usual suspect, but hot damn does the road less travelled taste good!

Pot du crème: I’m normally not a huge fan of the Pot, but then again, I had never eaten at Grit & Grace before. And now I’m a changed man. Probably an Ultimate in the category since the competition is all but non-existent in my eyes. And note to Crème brulée, eat your crème out, ‘cause you’ve got nothing on this.

Lettuce Wraps: Okay, not exactly the sexiest of names, nor is it much of a looker to be honest, but look deeper… and open wide, because the duck confit piled on top of these leaves is loaded with flavor, along with even more kohlrabi (of the fermented persuasion), peanuts and cilantro.

Pork belly bites: Anything that starts with the words “pork belly” is already halfway to the promised land by default. Which can be both a blessing and a curse, because it’s that much harder to stand out in land where the bar is pre-set to high. Nonetheless, these “bites” had a favorable showing, glazed with orange, chili, garlic and a nice kiss of ginger.

Roasted octopus and mussels: This was the most conflicted dish of the night, being both good and bad at the same time. The octopus itself being the good, done nice and tender, as are the potatoes, which soak up the lemongrass broth like a champ. On the flip side, the mussels are the Bad. Tiny and overcooked, tasting like shriveled up wads of mollusk.

Carrot salad: In the midst of such culinary wizardry, it’s a bit hard for salads to make a lasting impression, but I do have to say that this one has a nice Asian kick to it.

Tomato salad: Conversely to the Carrot Salad, this one takes a decidedly Mexican approach to its flavors, which, while good, didn’t fare quite as well with the overall theme of cuisine.

Kimchi: It’s fine, but to present it as its own dish is a bit remiss. It’s a gloried condiment to be fair and that’s all you should use it for, to add some nice kick to the other dishes you find lacking.

Meatballs: I’m not sure if these were the ones normally served with ramen, but perhaps they should’ve been, because by themselves they were a tad underwhelming.

Pastrami sandwich: I wanted to love this one so much more than I did, but compared to the Mortadella bun or the Brisket Sandwich it’s an ugly stepsister. But not for a lack of trying, with accouterments like broccoli rabe, roasted garlic aioli and provolone cheese whiz you’d think it was Philly’s second coming. Sadly though, it’s just a false alarm.

Short ribs: Like the pork belly, this is another one of those dishes that usually has me at “hello.” And when you place it on a biscuit smothered with friggin’ béchamel, you’re definitely going for broke. But that’s what happened. It broke. They pushed this little dish so far, it overshot decadent and landed right splat on the face of “I wish I hadn’t done this.”

Soba noodles with crab: Remember that kimchi I mentioned? Save it for this dish. It’s crazy bland and in dire need of some kimchi lovin’, which is the worst name ever for a Korean porno.

Peach cake: Speaking of worsts, this was the most unfortunate of recommendations from our server and easily the lowest point of the meal. Dry, bland and unworthy of the term “dessert,” bringing no joy and only caloric guilt in its wake.

Other than that final transgression, the service really was excellent and the wine choices by the glass, while minimal, were fantastic. I had one white and one red and both were much better than your average bear.

So now that you’re done reading my novel about Grit & Grace (I told you we tried everything) you can certainly see that there are some land mines to be avoided. But with so many highs and two Ultimates, I find it hard to dole out anything lower than a quad.

4 teeth

Fire Belly

Madison Eats • 1107 Broadway New York, NY • (917) 727-2169 • https://www.facebook.com/SLKBBQ

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I wish I loved the tacos as much as the name. Granted, one could argue that a “fire belly” isn’t exactly what you want after eating, because we all know the next stop and that train, and there are few things on this Earth worse than a fire bung hole. So now that you’ve thoroughly lost your appetite, let me tell you all about what you will miss.

I opted for the taco trifecta, my name, not theirs, comprised of bulgogi (beef), crispy spicy shrimp and veggie. All served on a soft tortilla and all topped with a vital kimchi kick. The best of the three for me was the shrimp. Good heat. The batter-fried prep kept the shrimp nice and moist and the shrimp were also pretty decent in size. Not that krill crap you tend to get in shrimp salads and popcorn shrimp orders.

Second up would be the veggie taco. Nice flavors poking through, but to be fair, you really only taste the kimchi. And lastly, the biggest miss of the trio, the bulgogi. Such a shame too because of all three tacos this was the one I was most excited about. Reason being, way back when I was a kid, I used to help out busing tables at a pan-asian restaurant. I was very friendly with the family who owned it and at the end of my shifts the owner would always make me my favorite dish… bulgogi. Well, this is no bulgogi. More like something else that starts with bull. It was dried out, chewy sinew.

So 2-1 is the score, which would probably put us at a three knifer under normal circumstances, but when you compare it to the likes of something like Korilla, I have a hard time going over two.

2 teeth

Wolfert’s Roost

100 Main St. Irvington, NY 10533 • (914) 231-7576WolfertsRoostIRV.com

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If I gave out knives for effort, the Roost would earn a resounding five, because I really do appreciate the inventiveness in almost every dish. I also dig the understated vibe, which feels a little reminiscent of The Cookery in neighboring Dobbs Ferry, especially with its kitchen utensil chandeliers and abysmal acoustics. But sadly Wolfert is no Cookery when it comes to culinary greatness. I’m getting ahead of myself though, so let’s go “back to the start” as Chris Martin would say.

Upon entering we came prepared, BYOBing a nice bottle of Caymus Conundrum and a French Bordeaux. What we weren’t prepared for was having to send up a flare to get our waitress’ attention. But once we caught her eye, we ordered about a third of the menu, partly out of fear that we may never see her again. Well, fortunately she returned with three very impressive starters. The best of the trio, and of the entire meal, would be the wild mushroom bruschetta. As seen on Yelp (and above), this dish deserves every last ounce of adulation. But it gets high with a little help from its friends, taleggio and the fried egg on top.

The other world-rocking small plate was the bloomin’ broccoli. I assume paying homage to the Outback Steakhouse, the battered and fried floret is not only bloomin’, it’s boomin’ with flavors both savory and sweet thanks to the brilliant accompaniments of Humboldt Fog and apricot jam. The former already being one of my favorite cheeses on Earth, perhaps I’m a little biased.

The third app was also pretty good, the spaghetti with pork ragu and piave (yet another favorite cheese), but because it was done as a torta, the pasta was a bit on the crispy side, which I like in a textural way, but don’t actually love.

Now, before I move on to the entrees, or “big bowls” as they are referred to on the menu, I want to dispel a crazy misperception you might find in other reviews, this notion of meager-sized portions. Now, I’m not exactly sure what passes for a small plate for some of these people, but I’m guessing these were the same people fighting Bloomberg to keep Super Big Gulps in the city. It’s either that or they went with the tasting menu, which are supposed to be small portions, you neanderthals!

Getting back to the Big Bowls, this is where things fell apart. The fried chicken everyone raves about is almost as puzzling as the portion size comments. We only ordered a half portion and it was easily enough for three people, granted that might’ve been due to the fact that it sucked wind. Soggy on the outside, dry on the inside and flavorless all over. If you want truly great fried chicken try ABC Kitchen in New York, Highball & Harvest in Orlando or Son of a Gun in LA. This, on the other hand, is a cock-a-doodle-don’t.

The other big bowl of blah was the Korean-ish baby back ribs. Once again a dish ruined by Sahara-like dryness, which was such a shame, because the flavors on the outside were actually pretty decent (kimchi and gouchujong). Fortunately the third bowl, the Short Rib Pho somewhat redeemed Wolfert, because thankfully it was served in a broth that kept it moist. But as good as it was, it was no consolation to the damage done.

Pressing on and trying to put the past behind us, or more accurately trying to put dessert in front of us, we went with what was essentially a chocolate chip cookie and ice cream and a caramelized banana and ice cream dessert. I don’t recall the actual names of either, but both were good, not great- which is indicative of the experience as a whole. Good, but not great.

3 teeth

Cinnamon Snail

Chelsea, Midtown West- New York, NY 10001 (862) 246-6431cinnamonsnail.com

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It’s pretty rare to see something get a FULL 5 stars on Yelp. And even more rare when there are over 400 reviews to back it up. Well, here are five knives to go with them.

Granted I was VERY skeptical the first time I stood there in line, but as soon as I got a peek through that window at one of their Gouchujang Burgers (pictured), my skepticism was washed away by a tidal wave of salivating anticipation.

This burger, topped with kimchi and sriracha, is a spice lover’s dream! And as far as veggie burgers go, easily the best I’ve ever had in my life. By a wide margin. And man is it filling. You won’t even miss the beefy absence for a second. Even the bun is exquisite. Just awesome.

But a one trick pony they are not. The maple pecan rice crispy treats are also killer! Probably the best rice crispy treat I’ve ever had.

There are few misses however. Their créme brulée donut pales in comparison to The Doughnut Plant. And while some of their other sandwiches are solid, nothing is at the level of the burger. Also, one small gripe. They charge $3.00 for squirt of lemonade that is essentially served in a small coffee cup. One of the cheapest beverages to make on the face of the Earth. That said, it wasn’t bad, but definitely not worth the money.

Consequently, I’d gladly pay double for the burger, because it is THAT good.

5 teeth

Momofuku Ssäm Bar

207 2nd Ave. New York, NY 10003(212) 254-3500momofuku.com

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While I didn’t actually eat AT Ssäm, I did eat FROM there, thanks to a little site called trycaviar.com. For those of you who know seamless.com or grubhub.com, it’s basically the same thing only instead of trying to offer a ton places they focus on quality vs. quantity. Which means you can order delivery from some pretty awesome places… like Momofuku Ssam Bar. So, here’s what we ordered:

We went with three mains and three sides and shared everything. Of the mains the only miss was the pork shoulder wrap. It was bland by comparison to it’s brother from another mother, the lamb wrap. It was moister and much more flavorful than the pork. But both seemed to be adorned by the same Korean/Thai accouterments (I know it’s supposed to be Korean, but the use of peanut feels more Thai).

The other main was also pretty special. Apparently a dish so popular Momofuku serves it at more than one of their restaurants. It’s made with sausage and rice cakes and it’s packing some serious heat (pictured). Highly recommend.

And since we’re talking highs, the spicy potatoes are a must. Best I’ve ever had. Blows away the typical small plate you tend to find at every tapas restaurant from LA to Madrid.

The broccoli is also good, but compared to the potatoes they are at least two flights down from Heaven. And same goes for the bean salad granted it might be three flights down.

So a strong 3 knives for Ssam and a weak 5 for trycaviar.com, because while it is definitely awesome it is also pretty friggin’ slow. Meals take, on average, over an hour for delivery. So if you’re famished, trysomethingelse.com.

3 teeth