Mecha Noodle Bar

1215 Post RdFairfield, CT 06824 • (203) 292-8222 • mechanoodlebar.com
 

This just might be the most happenin’ strip mall in America. You’ve got Brick + Wood, Milkcraft and then right next door to that you’ve got Mecha. And all three are so damn good that they all have a long, damn wait.

Wait aside, Mecha is like Mecca for ramen. Worth the pilgrimage for great food. The décor is pretty cool as well, marked by the simple touch of 2×4’s dangling overhead to connote noodles. They’ve also cracked the code between kid-friendly and adult crowds, but sadly this secret is out, so there’s pretty much a wait no matter when you go, unless you just happen to hit the seam between rushes.

For those of you visiting from Westport on south, you’re probably wondering how it stacks up to Kawa Ni. Quite well, I would say, although very different vibes. I’d say Mecha is much more casual and high energy, whereas Kawa Ni is more intimate and adult skewed.

The menu is more noodle-based than Kawa Ni though, but very tasty in its own right. We started with a pair of Thai Iced Teas and the roasted mushroom dumplings, which were excellent, particularly with the brown butter miso sauce.

For noodles, I went with the Pho Shore, which as the name implies is loaded with seafood and other goodies. Speaking of which, be very careful with the thai chili add on. I like heat and this kicked my ass.

Wifey was smarter (as usual) and put the heat control in her own hands, opting for the Veggie Ramen and Sriracha on the side. This was also very good and we will definitely be going back. At an odd hour.

A very, VERY strong 3 knives for Mecha. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that Milkcraft is right next door for dessert.

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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.

The Stubborn Mule

100 S Eola DrOrlando, FL 32801 • (407) 730-3400 • thestubbornmuleorlando.com
 

Something is definitely stubborn here and it’s not a mule. It’s the servers, who are apparently very stubborn about clearing plates, constantly bringing out dishes for the next course before ever clearing the previous, making the table crowded and unpleasant with all of the empty, eaten dishes. And every time we asked them to take the dishes back and clear the table first, they acted as if we had six heads. Is it just me? Honestly, you can tell me. I mean I know I’m stubborn- hell, I’m an Aires, but I think I was in the right on this one. Granted that’s a hallmark of stubbornness I suppose.

As for the food, it’s actually pretty tasty for the most part. My favorite dish being the Asian pork belly. Not light, but oh-so good. Essentially cubes of belly done General Tso style.

Other strong options are the mussels, the burger and the scallops, which are perfectly cooked and served over a bed of coconut rice with a dollop of Brussels sprout slaw on the side. The shishito peppers are also solid, but that’s a layup, to be fair.

The only miss prior to dessert were the fish tacos, served hopelessly bland and in dire need of hot sauce and salt to resuscitate them. On the upside though, at least they were salvageable, whereas the lava cake was absolute crap. So bad I think actual lava might’ve tasted better.

Don’t be fooled by the name, which is clearly trying to draft off the success of The Ravenous Pig. This place doesn’t hold a hoof to it.

Boca

43 Main StWestport, CT 06880 • (203) 557-0720 • bocawestport.com
 

Tucked away right off of the main drag in an alley adjacent to West Elm, is a bit of a sleeper with big aspirations. A two-story Italian ( I know they call themselves Mediterranean, but it’s mostly Italian), that is probably trendier than it needs to be, with staff that’s trying almost as hard as the décor. But what a view form upstairs! Overlooking the Saugatuck River. You could do worse my friend. Same goes for the food, because Boca is better than most of the Italian options in Westport, which admittedly isn’t saying a whole lot. It seems to be the one cuisine in town that isn’t nailed yet. Tarry Lodge is decent, but that’s really it (granted I hear good things about Filamente Trattoria, so TBD on that one). But if the owners of The Whelk, Kawa Ni & Jesup Hall ever decide to get in the game, count me in as an investor!

Until that happens though, Boca will have to suffice. And suffice is does with killer dishes like the lobster with soft polenta. I also found their mussels with fava beans to be damn skippy.

In the middle I’d peg the fig, goat cheese & honey bruschetta as well as the kale salad with walnuts, green apples and gorgonzola. Both are good, but come off a little too basic and/or simply lacking that wow factor, missing the boat on either texture, contrast or balance.

As for misses, steer clear of the crispy artichokes. They are overly breaded and underly sauced, netting out as unsettling balls of fried batter. We didn’t even finish a third of the dish. Fortunately my glass of red wine will help make up for the cholesterol bomb.

So, with more hits than misses, and the void that it fills in the Italian Westport scene, I’d say it’s a worthy stop. Especially if you’re in the middle of a Main Street shopping spree and you get the grumbles.

Rothbard Ale & Larder

90 Post Rd EWestport, CT 06880 • 203) 557-9666 • rothbardct.com

Rothbart is not a bar. Nor is it a restaurant. It is an Eastern European godsend filled with beer that flows like happiness dipped in gold and dishes that will have you thinking you’re in Prague, not Westport.

The setting alone couldn’t be more perfect really, with it’s castle-esque, basement dining room off the corner of an alley (of the charming variety). Which proves to be a living testament to just how good this place is, because it’s plenty busy for a place that isn’t that easy to find. In fact, the only reason we went there was because the wait was ridic at Bar Taco. And I’m so glad it was!

Beyond having kickass tripel beer on tap and in bottle, the bartender Adam is the perfect blend of sarcasm and wry- yet Johnny on the spot with his service and the recos.

Of the starters, I think I’d give it to the cannibal toast by a nose. Essentially a deftly balanced beef tartar spread over toast and over and out. We horked it down so fast I’m lucky I still have all ten fingers.

After that, an extremely close second would be the mussels, cooked in a beer-based broth that rivals any white wine version I’ve ever had.

The pretzel is also a solid option, but not by comparison to its predecessors. And truth be told, if it’s pretzel you want, then save yourself for the bratwurst platter. It is everything right with this world all on one cutting board. A beautifully charred brat, bursting at the seams with flavor. A ramekin of tallegio, a pile of cornichon, a dollop of grain mustard and last but not least, a pretzel roll that is every bit as good as the solo act, only with this dish you can doll it up into a bratwurst sandwich worthy of the gods.

The other starter I would giddily recommend is the deviled egg appetizer. Not quite as impressive as the ones over at The Whelk, but that’s a mighty high bar to be fair. These are topped with pickled pearl onions and trout roe and are hot damn delicious.

The only real miss for me is the chicken schnitzel. It’s really quite bland and lacking the accouterments to make it interesting. Essentially, it’s like ordering one gigantic chicken finger that covers your entire plate.

But getting back to the wowzers, be sure to get the salted apple pie as your closer. It is deceptively simple, yet magnificent in every metric imaginable.

This is not the place for the faint of heart, however. So if you’re on a diet and looking for a light bite, you really shouldn’t come here unless you’re willing to fall off the wagon. Hard.

The Schoolhouse

34 Cannon Rd. Wilton, CT 06897 • (203) 529-7751 • schoolhouseatcannondale.com

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I love New York City. I love it times infinity. For providing a virtually limitless array of culinary experiences ranging from dives to the exquisite and every nationality or cultural niche you could possibly think of. But the one thing New York can’t do is be a quaint, refurbished schoolhouse like something pulled right out of the show, Little House on the Prairie.

But as unique and charming as the Schoolhouse is, it’s definitely not what I would call dressy, per the classification on Yelp. Unless you consider a fleece and chinos dapper. That said, the place is still a class act from the service to the seasonal menu, which not only rotates based on the harvest, but by party. And what I mean by that is that the menu itself actually has the name of your party printed right on it! Nice touch.

Starting class off with a lesson in awesomeness, the parsnip and apple soup was superb- well, initially it was served a touch tepid, so we asked them to heat it up, but after that, it was sheer perfection. As were the mussels with cauliflower. Such a simple twist on a classic dish that not only made it unique, but brilliant to taste, as the cauliflower served as a blank canvas to soak up the delicious broth.

The only slacker in first period was the salad with squash, goat cheese and pecans. It was bit over-dressed and comparatively, a bit underwhelming.

For the main event, we covered three different options on the menu with the branzini going to the head of the class. Best entrée of the three by far, served over a creamy celery root puree, along with roasted beets that made this dish an A++.

The NY Strip was cooked perfectly, served over mashed potatoes, with caramelized onions and broccolini, but having just had the transcendent beef tenderloin only days before at The Inn at Pound Ridge, I couldn’t help but find myself wanting more from the Schoolhouse strip. I also felt similarly about the duck, not that I had just eaten that at Pound Ridge too, but I did find myself craving more oomph, especially in light of such previous highs such as the soup, mussels and the fish.

Before class was dismissed, we stayed for extra credit, ordering the chocolate soufflé for dessert. And while very good, it is served with a completely unnecessary chocolate dipping sauce, because the soufflé itself is plenty ooey-gooey and chocolaty all by its lonesome. Also, I found the homemade vanilla ice cream served with it just okay.

All in, when you take into account the novel experience, culinary craft and the fact that even the misses were still pretty solid, it’s hard to give The Schoolhouse anything less than four knives, but to be fair, I am grading on a curve.

4 teeth

Lunch

1980 Montauk Hwy. Amagansett, NY 11930 • (631) 267-3740 lobsterroll.com

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If you’re watching The Affair on HBO, this is the place that the lead actress, Ruth Wilson, works at as a waitress. And while there is significantly less drama in the restaurant than on the show, the place is better than the tourist trap you might think it is, and I’m not just saying that because it’s an icon of the Montauk-Hampton scene. The lobster rolls (pictured) are solid and the beer on tap is on point.

The setting is also on point. Still charming as all hell with its authentic, 50 year old beach shack vibe, located on the side of a sparsely settled stretch of road with nothing around you but dunes and their bright blue sign. And while I can’t say that the name is a tour de force of creativity, it goes nicely with the no frills personality. Which in turn goes nicely with flip-flops, board shorts and a bushel of mussels.

They have droves of other seafood food options as well, although I haven’t had any of them, always opting for the tired and true. And if someone in your party is bringing down the party, rest assured they have burgers and chicken, etc… for those who don’t dig the oceanic bounty.

3 teeth

Little Drunken Chef

36 E Main St. Mount Kisco, NY 10549 • (914) 242-8800

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Well, the fact that the chef is a self-proclaimed drunk explains a lot. And considering this place got four stars on Yelp, I’d say the chef isn’t the only one who’s plastered, because you’d have to be shit-faced to think this place was even worth three, much less two. And yet both times we have tried to go here there has been a 45 and 20-minute wait respectively. The second time we powered through it with a few drinks at the bar, which also had a wait to be seated. We haven’t had this hard a time getting a table in Westchester since Bedford 234, but at least that meal proved worth it.

So back to the bar, where we were eventually able to squeeze in and get the only highlights of the night, the drinks. Figures when you take into account where you are. The two drinks we had were the sake cucumber concoction and the Drunken Manhattan, which is far less inventive than the sake (my reco), tasting like your run of the mill Manhattan, but served in a martini glass as opposed to a lowball. Oooooh!

Then miracle of miracles happened, our table was ready in under 20 minutes. And lucky us, we scored a drunken, jovial waiter who went on to swoon about roughly 75% of the menu, which is always a worrisome sign, made only more worrisome by the fact that not one single recommendation was even just okay, much less good. I think he was just ecstatic to have a job and someone to talk to.

Starting with the Tossed Goat Salad, the kale is overdressed, the Drunken Goat (that’s the actual name of the cheese, which is available at any Whole Foods, but aptly chosen for its name) is shaved so thin you can’t even taste it and the chunks of peach aren’t even ripe! On the plus side, at least they didn’t screw up the candied pecans. But the rest of the salad should definitely be “tossed.”

Next came the jamon and manchego croquettes four ways. And sadly 75% of them sucked about five different ways by my count. The only one rising to an “eh” was the chutney, but I suppose that’s to be expected since Indian is the closest in to the chef’s comfort zone.

As the night progressed, the losers kept coming and I’m not just referring to the clientele lined up outside still waiting for a table. I’m also talking about the pulled pork buns, served with a hint of chimichurri. Not with actual chimichurri, mind you. Just a hint. That hint being in the description on the menu, yet nowhere to be found in the dish itself.

And for an entrée, I highly recommend the paella for none. I tried the Paella for one and it might very well be the worst form of Spanish torture since the Inquisition. Overcooked rice, overcooked chicken, overcooked scallops, overcooked mussels and a sprig of chorizo- granted I’m not entirely sure it was honestly chorizo, but it was definitely a sausage of some kind.

Now I know I get dramatic sometimes and take things to extremes, but to have had to wait 20 minutes for this performance should be punishable by death. I’d rather wait in line at the DMV! Seriously. And the worst part is that I had to actually pay for the mistreatment of my mouth! But what’s crazy about all of this is that I have actually been a long time fan of the “Little” franchise, going back to its humble beginnings as just a Kebab Station. Then a Spice Market. That said, I’ve noticed that the further they step away from their bailiwick, the more the seams start to show, because Crepe Street is a bit of a pass, especially compared to places like Good Food in Briarcliff. But never has anything been as bad as this place, which if allowed, I would like to rename “Little Big Mistake.”

1 tooth

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

Midyeci Sehmus Usta

Şehit Uğur Öztop Cad. Gündoğan, TK 48965 • +90 535 9492313sehmususta.com

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This is not just a restaurant, this is a movie in the making about a kid who comes from nothing and manages to build an empire… out of stuffing mussels with rice. Okay, so maybe it wouldn’t be a great movie, but it is truly inspiring to see what this man, Sehmus, has managed to achieve since 1981, when he first started selling midye dolma (stuffed mussels) out of a street cart. A head-scratching concept to say the least, because shellfish from a barrel on wheels sounds like the recipe for E.coli if ever I heard one. In fact, back when my wife and I first visited Bodrum together nearly 15 years ago, she tried to get me to try the mussels from one of the street carts and I looked at her like she had seven heads. Granted they were all very pretty heads, but seven nonetheless. That said, after trying a small sampling of three, I immediately ordered another dozen. And every year the number has grown exponentially to 24, 30, 40- even 50 pieces in a single order. Praise be Sehmus! I have seen the light!

And I’m not the only one. Somehow this mussel man (see what I did there?) managed to assemble a family owned and operated network of street carts stretching from Izmir all the way to Bodrum and everything in between. A veritable army of street vendors all carrying a product so consistently great they could give Penn Tennis Balls a run for their money. Too obtuse? Penn used to have a long running ad campaign about how “amazingly consistent” they were. But I digress.

Which brings me to today. Finally, the man, the myth, the legend, has decided to settle down, planting roots with his first brick and mortar restaurant, located in Gundogan, serving up mussels in every way shape and form. In fact, the menu almost reads like that scene in Forrest Gump where he goes on and on about all the ways you can cook shrimp.

But fret not, because the dolma are still the best on Earth. And if you’re not close to Gundogan, that’s okay too, because the army of street vendors is still on the march.

One caveat, however. The rest of the menu doesn’t quite hold up to the dolma. The midye casserole is just okay- be sure to ask for it aci (spicy) and without cheese (one of those rare dishes that’s better sans). Another zag from expectations is that I much preferred the fried calamari over the grilled variety, which is rare for me. And last but not least, the seafood with rice was also a big snoozer. But hot damn are those dolma good! So go for those, some raki or Efes, and eat so many you turn yourself into a dolma. Sage advice if ever it existed.

3 teeth