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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Aqua

The Westin Tampa Bay 7627 Courtney Campbell Causeway Tampa, FL 33607(813) 675-8700 • aquatampa.com

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Located in the Westin Hotel, and on the water (as the name suggests), this restaurant manages to pack a few surprises ranging from sushi, which one might expect based on its affiliation with the H2O, all the way to flatbread, which has very little to do with water by my estimation.

The first surprise coming in the form of a California roll. And probably one of the best I’ve ever had, mostly because the crab wasn’t that canned shit. Or that fake crap either. Oh no, they go for the real deal and you can definitely taste the fingerprint of the ocean in every morsel. Along with fresh avocado, cucumber and flying fish roe.

The Tuscan flat bread was also a winner, proving to be more well balanced than one might expect, topped with artichokes, grilled onions, asparagus, and oven-dried tomatoes, all smothered in mozzarella and sauced with a bright, basil pesto.

Then the missteps waltzed in, like the brioche crusted mahi. The crust is so overpowering that I had to scrape it off, just so I could actually taste the fish. Also, the fregola couscous and spiced red pepper puree do little for the dish as well. That said, don’t miss the watercress and pumpkin salad to the side. That’s the real star on the plate. I recommend pealing off the crust and pairing up some of that salad with every bite and you’ll be a much happier camper. Or take the easy way out and just order the scallops.

The scallops where prepared in a dark, almost squid ink-like sauce, and paired up with a wonderful mound of spicy-ass Thai black rice. Me like.

We closed with a bowl of begniets, drizzled with ribbons of chocolate and dusted with confectioner’s sugar. They are nothing spectacular, but they do get by on the simple fact that they are fried dough. That said, if you are looking for more from your dessert, look elsewhere.

So I’m gonna go out on a rare, kind-hearted limb here and give it three knives, by in large due to my lowered expectations… and the fact that I had a few too many glasses of Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay, which I normally don’t even like as a grape. Who knew? But deep down, I really do want to give Aqua only two knives in my heart of hearts, because of the major miss on the mahi, the unintentionally cheesy Miami Vice decor and the service, which is slim shady, calling the soy sauce that came with our sushi “teriyaki” and not knowing a single alcohol they had at the bar.

3 teeth

Blue Dahlia Bistro

1115 E 11th St. Austin, TX 78702(512) 542-9542 • bluedahliabistro.com

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Just down the street from the painfully long line at Franklin’s Barbecue you’ll find a place that looks like it belongs in Berkley, CA with its granola vibe and granola-hipster patrons. Cozy, earthy, wood elements cover just about every surface with a large communal table in the middle, a la an LPQ (Le Pain Quotidien).

Unfortunately the food isn’t as good as an LPQ, which is disheartening that it can’t even best a global chain (granted a very good global chain), but Blue Dahlia isn’t a all-out miss per se, it just barely passes mustard. Speaking of which, the special frittata could’ve used some. Or habanero sauce, which is what I used to bring the gorgonzola, spinach, onion and peppers back from the dead. But even that wasn’t enough to mask the bad toast and lame salad they tried to pawn off with it.

The smoked salmon platter was also just okay, but I find it hard to fault a place in Texas for its lox when I’m coming from New York- #lowexpectations.

And the pomegranate lemonade, while also “just okay,” was not so okay because it was the compromise I was forced to make because they don’t have fresh squeezed juice. Not even the pseudo-fresh kind! We’re talking Tropicana! What kind of self-respecting, granola, Berkley-wannabe doesn’t have fresh juice?! I’ll tell you… The kind that’s “just okay.”

2 teeth

Ariel Sands

34 Shore Road Devonshire P.O. Box 334 Hamilton HM BX, Bermuda • +1 441-236-1010 • arielsands.com

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The hotel is owned in part by the Douglas family. As in Michael Douglas. As in the actor. As in why you’ll see photos of him and Catherine Zeta Jones on the walls around the hotel and all over the website. But don’t let that sway you into thinking this place is a Hollywood gimmick. It’s actually quite charming and dare I say, a bit understated. It’s also very authentic, with it’s colorful, icing-topped bungalows.

But posh it isn’t, so should you choose to stay here, don’t expect anything glorious. Scratch that. Don’t expect anything glorious from the hotel. The restaurant, however serves up a glorious codfish and potato breakfast (pictured). It looks bizarre, no doubt, but somehow it all just works, especially when you mix it all together into a crazy delicious mush complete with spicy tomatoes, avocado and onions.

Unfortunately that was the only meal I had here though, so I can’t speak about much else on the menu. But even so, l will say that it was the best meal I’ve had in Bermuda, both trips combine (which includes a dinner at the widely acclaimed Four Ways), and all meal occasions considered. But don’t just take it from me, take it from the highly aggressive sparrows that will try to steal it right off of your plate should you dare let down your guard between bites.

Oh, the ocean view from the restaurant is mighty impressive as well.

4 teeth

 

Untamed Sandwiches

43 W 39th St. New York, NY 10018(646) 669-9397 untamedsandwiches.com

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Move over No.7 Sub, there’s a new game in town, just 10 blocks North, packing some serious skill between two slices of bread. But like No. 7, the ingredients list reads like a basket in an episode of Chopped, sourcing and mixing with reckless abandon. This place is undoubtedly destined for franchise greatness, so get in on the ground floor before it goes wide.

The bread alone is simply magnificent, a mini rustic Italian hero with great crunch on the outside, and just the right amount of air on the inside so as not to overpower the mastery of the innards.

As for the masterful innards of which I speak, let’s begin with the most masterful of them all, the Sheemakers Bounty, made with charred broccoli, fried almond butter, pickled raisin jelly and cress. Yes, a surprise vegetarian underdog takes the pole position. But don’t be thrown by the notion of broccoli in sandwich form, because the only thing crazy about it is how crazy good it is.

A close second for me would be the Nettle Neck. Once again, a road less travelled, like the Sheemaker, but I assure you these are the shiznit, contrary to the popular vote. The Nettle is made with braised lamb neck, walnut nettle pesto, gruyere and both pickled and charred onions. The tenderness of the neck meat assimilates with the other ingredients on the sandwich so well, it’s like utopia on a hoagie.

After that I’d go with The Butt (insert joke here), garnering its name from the headliner ingredient, cider braised pork butt. The pork is then accompanied by broccoli rabe, pepper jelly, sharp cheddar and Dijon. And while the thought of sinking your teeth into the backside of Wilber might be off-putting to some, for me it was kickass. No ifs ands or butts. Sorry… I had to.

In fourth, the Carla Bruni was almost as delicious as its namesake is beautiful. Loaded up with Ciambotta style (Southern Italian stew) braised vegetables, goat cheese, olive spread and basil. Again, a solid showing from the vegetable contingent, but compared to the Sheemaker, the Carla Bruni is more like Carla Hall.

After that, the sandwiches become a little more mortal, but not just because they are more mainstream and not for a lack of trying. For example, the General Zapata offers nice heat from its pickled jalapenos, but the chicken tinga, queso fresco, pickled onions, etc… all blend a little too much into the bread, making for an unimpressive takeaway. But even less impressive was the highly touted Hot Goldie, after all, we’re talkin’ short ribs here, backed by a sweet and sour cabbage saw and black pepper aioli. But pound for pound, it is the least flavorful sandwich of the lot.

And while the sandwiches are definitely more hit than miss, sadly I can’t say the same about the sides. Skip every last one of them. The jalapeno cheddar grits were neither spicy nor cheesy. The “spicy” broccoli rabe was also suffering from absent heat. The collards with bacon were bitter and bland. And the roasted carrots, while easily the best of the bunch, were nothing more than you might expect to find at a Dig Inn.

Yet with all of the transgressions on the sides, if I hold them to their true intent, to make sandwiches that think outside of the bun, the box is hella checked. After all, their name isn’t Untamed Sides. That said, someone really does need to crack a whip on whoever was making them, because they cost this place five knives.

4 teeth