Oko Kitchen

6 Wilton RdWestport, CT 06880 • (203) 557-8404 • okokitchen.com

If you love The Cottage than you will, um, really struggle to like this place as much. As The Whelk is to Kawa Ni, they are sister restaurants, linked by the same chef, who, definitely upped the sushi game in Westport without a doubt. But if you’re going in with expectations that it is The Cottage in Japanese form, you will be disappointed.

Appropriately starting with the starters, I found the attempt at inventive edamame to be noble, yet messy and nowhere near as good as the ones at Koku in Armonk. Jazzed up with garlic, soy butter, gomashio (sesame salt) and shio kombu (a form of dashi). But net, net it’s a lot of pomp and circumstance without a lot of flavor.

Same goes for the shishito peppers, although the slightly better of the two, made novel with chickpea miso, guanciale and shoyu-koji (soy sauce).

For small plates, Oko didn’t wow much either. The deviled eggs with pork belly being the least wowiest and a far cry from two other versions in Westport alone- both Rothbard and The Whelk making far superior versions.

The sticky ribs fared much better, sauced with smoked maple, gochujang and sesame crunch. But the real winner of the smalls is the miso black cod, or as they call it “Torched Black Cod.” It’s cedar grilled and done in a madieira shoyu glaze with shitake and scallion and it…is…killer! As good as the one at Matsuisha in LA, the place that invented the dish.

But what about the friggin’ sushi? Okay, I get it. After all, it is a sushi joint, right? So, long story longer, it’s very good. The fish is fresh and the preparations are inventive without being gimmicky, for the most part- the one exception being the foie gras, which shockingly I would forego and just follow the omakase. Oh, and great news, this is more like it is in fine sushi restaurants in Japan, where you don’t even use or need soy sauce or wasabi, because the preparation is so wonderful on its own.

Speaking of wonderful, come dessert, you have to try the- okay, bare with me on this one… The soft serve. I know! What am I, like five years old?! But I’m not joking here. They take Dairy Queen’s invention to another level. Especially with the friggin’ Oko crunch!!! I mean, other than the miso cod it might’ve been the best thing we had. And that’s not just the killer gin cocktail talking (yes, they also have a killer gin cocktail).

It’s no Cottage, but Oko is definitely a strong three knives and the best Japanese in town. Give it a few more weeks to iron out the kinks and I’d imagine it will be a four or five.

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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.

Barcelona

971 Farmington AveWest Hartford, CT 06107 • (860) 218-2100 • barcelonawinebar.com

If the Bar Taco next door is anywhere near as good as the one in Westport, CT, then I’m not sure why you would go here unless, like the one in Westport, the wait for a table is just way too crazy long.

Okay, I lied. For brunch, there is one other reason I can think of, the DIY Bloody Mary table. Just pick your vodka (Tito’s), then choose your base mix. Sriracha, Horseradish, Chipotle or Black Pepper. Then load that baby up with virtually anything your heart desires. Bacon, cornichon, olives, celery, bell peppers, papadew peppers, marinated mushrooms, pearl onions, cauliflower, cheese, pickles… this could take a while. Seriously. The table is that bountiful.

But apart from the Bloody Mary’s and a couple other dishes, it’s a bit of a letdown. The sangria is so watery it doesn’t even pack the punch of grape juice. The meatballs owe an apology to the cow that died in vain.

Equally disappointing was the lamb chop with romesco and arugula. First they served it raw. Then they served it eh.

The pulpo (octopus) with smoked paprika is just okay, but if you know me and how much I like octopus, for me to be so tepid can only mean one thing, skip it.

Also located in the okay corral are the mixed greens with manchego & pistachios, the Brussels sprouts, the broccolini and much to my chagrin, the veggie paella loaded with eggplant, sprouts, peppers, asparagus and disappointment.

The winners, while sparse, could add up to a decent meal, though, if you played your cards (and ordered) right. For example I found the Mushrooms a la Plancha to be pretty darn tasty. Made with crimini, shitake and button. The Patatas Brava where also bravo, zazzed up with salsa brava and a garlic aioli. And since I’ve never met a charcuterie and cheese board I didn’t like, let’s throw that in too.

But if you’re like me and good isn’t good enough, your options dwindle further still, to only two dishes. The jamon and manchego croquettes and the chorizo with sweet and sour figs in a balsamic glaze. The latter being the best thing of the lot. And as you can see, we tried a LOT.

Bistro Bis

15 E St NW Washington, DC 20001(202) 661-2700bistrobis.com

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Located in George Hotel this is a great option for those who want convenience of location without sacrifice on awesome. The décor is very nicely done, as one might expect from the chain. Elegant and classic, yet somehow also modern.

As for the food, I kinda blame out waitress for getting us off on the wrong foot, claiming the steak tartar with quail egg and a porcini mushroom aioli, to be the best she’s ever had. Obviously she’s never been to Manzo in New York or Pastis in Cannes, because both of those destroy Bis’ very lame attempt at an Ultimate. As John Bender from the Breakfast Club would say, “Not even close, Bud!”

Now what she should’ve recommended was the seared foie gras over a hazelnut pain perdu with pickled rhubarb and spiced rhubarb gastrique. It was so friggin’ yum it almost restored my faith in Capital Hill… almost.

The other dish our waitress could’ve gone with was the octopus. My second fave of the night, perfectly charred and dolled up with chorizo, sweet peppers and spring onions placed over a bed of squid ink pasta and drizzled in a white bean emulsion. This is one of those dishes that sounds too complicated for its own good, but they somehow manage to pull it all together.

Another pleaser, not quite at the level of those other two starters was the frisee salad with applewood smoked bacon, duck confit and a poached egg dressed in an aged sherry vinaigrette. It won’t quite rock your world, but if it’s what you’re craving then you’ll definitely be happy.

For entrees, I tried both the sea scallops and the trout and I have to give it to the trout, no contest. Made in a classic prep with a twist they use capers, lemon, crisp ham and parsley brown butter and then accompany the fish with haricots verts and a pommes chateau. It was moist and flavorful and exactly what the doctor ordered. And yes, I have a doctorate in eating.

The sea scallops, however, failed to bring the zazz that one might expect from its preparation. Again, a twist on a common thai black rice dish, made with the additions of coriander roasted carrots, smoked shitake mushrooms and a ginger-port wine reduction.

I like what this chef is made of though, reaching for the stars and catching just enough to make me want dessert. But sadly I had to rush to catch the Acela home so I guess I’ll have to return for seconds, especially for the apple tart (pictured). Damn does that look good!

3 teeth

Bruno Pizza

204 E 13th St. New York, NY 10003(212) 598-3080 brunopizzanyc.com

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As a rule, it’s generally frowned upon to like your in-laws, much less love them, but when they find you gems like Bruno’s it’s kinda hard not to love the bejesus out of them. A “hot list” mention in Turkish Vogue (yes, there’s a Turkish Vogue), my mother in-law decided to give it a whirl. And then another and another, and before she knew it she was a dervish going back and forth to this restaurant five times in an eight week period. And while I had never even heard of the place myself, if it’s one thing my in-laws know- well, it’s probably diplomacy. But if there are two things, it’s food. So, I made it priority and grabbed wifey to head down for a bite.

The place is much hipper than most pie places, but the subway car-shaped dinning space with white on white box seats that double as a torture device and a music selection that does the same, it starts to make you feel like you’re in Guantanamo being forced to balance your ass on a cinder block whilst being exposed to shrieks and shrills that try to pass themselves off as music.

So already docking one star for setting, the food was going to have to do a ton of work to climb back out of the hole they were starting in. And my glass of wine wasn’t helping things either. Not because the wine itself was bad, in fact it was a very nice Syrah, but it was served in a glass reeking so heavily of the detergent it was washed in that it took away form the bouquet of the vino.

And then suddenly Bruno went on a tear, opening with an Ultimate Brussels sprouts, every bit as good as Ilili, but without the fried guilt, which so many other restaurants are doing now, loading up the sprouts with bacon and other goodies to the point where they are more like French fries than vegetables. But not Bruno. They let the sprouts shine through, with just the right amount of pizazz to make them special. Pizazz courtesy of apple butter, shishito peppers and puffed black rice.

As for the pies themselves, both were outstanding and both were served up on a whole wheat crust, shockingly enough. But not your typical, earthy, over-powering whole wheat. This is done in such a subtle way that you get all of the good and none of the bad, leaving you with a crust that rivals some of the best you could ever name.

The first of the pies was the Tasso Ham topped with smoked blue cheese, thinly sliced Fuji apples, sage and shallots. It’s excellent, but being the heat-seeker that I am, I found that it needed crushed red pepper to give it balance.

On the other hand, the Mushroom pie doesn’t need a thing other than your mouth, and is the best shroom pie I’ve had since Oenotri in Napa, CA. Topped with a blend of locally sourced fungi ranging from shitake to cremini, paired with a decadent béchamel, chives and chiles.

And to finish off, while the options are slim, they prove to be all you need. A refreshing duo of gelatos of which we opted for the Meyer lemon variety. But Bruno doesn’t do anything expected, serving it up with freshly sliced kumquats, mulberries, lemon curd and meringue brittle. It was so much more than we expected, capping the night on the highest of highs.

If you fashion yourself as a pizza connoisseur, then you need to hop your bones in cab and head to Bruno’s, presto!

4 teeth

Emmer & Rye

51 Rainey St. Austin, TX 78701(512) 366-5530 • Emmerandrye.com Emmer-and-Rye-2015-Austin-restaurant-grain-salad_142903

Born from a French Laundry graduate and found on many a Best of Austin list, Emmer and Rye makes you earn your experience before you even arrive, proving to be quite the trek from the heart of town, located on the far fringe of the booze district, which makes it especially fun to walk to, passing a Mardi Gras-esque scene to get to your grub. But as off-putting as the journey is getting there, the setting is really quite lovely. Somewhere between chic and quaint, the décor nails it with rustic details like an herb garden out front, mixed with more contemporary elements like clean white subway tiles contrasted against oiled bronze hardware.

As for service, I’d like to say that it was great, because they were definitely friendly and accommodating, but when it came to their recommendations they seemed a bit out of touch. Also, while the dim sum cart concept starts off charming, it quickly turns extremely annoying because they are constantly interrupting you every two minutes, making it impossible to carry a conversation. Someone needs a rethink methinks.

Worse still, the intrusive dim sum went a miserable 1 for 4, the worst dish being the lamb tartar with green cherry tomatoes and charred fennel oil. It sounds as good as it looked with it’s beautiful crescent-shaped presentation, but texturally it was very chewy and it didn’t boast the kind of flavor one would hope. For more impressive raw flesh, try the Bison tartar at Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis. It rocks the wool off of Emmer & Rye’s. Then there were two completely unmemorable dishes in the middle and thankfully one resounding winner, which was not only the best dim sum of the night, but the best dish of the night. A green strawberry soup served in a meyer lemon sabayon. It might just be an ultimate for strawberry-kind.

As for things ordered off of the menu, I’ll work from high to low with the peak being the red fife spaghetti ‘Cacio E Pepe,’ made with Challerhocker cheese and chicory. Aptly referred to as an “adult mac & cheese,” it lives up to the description quite handily and deliciously.

After that I’d go with the soft polenta adorned with fermented mushrooms, fresh shiitake and mint marigold spuma (Italian soda). It’s definitely good, but I’m not sure if soft polenta is even capable of being bad.

I felt similarly about the burrata toast with straciatella, kale, mustard frill and black butter. A convoluted, self-indulgent chef’s (Kevin Fink) attempt to make something unique out of a dish that would’ve been every bit as good, if not better, had he just kept it simple.

So after a myriad of mediocrity I decided to skip dessert in favor of one last spoonful from the bowl of green strawberry soup. So good.

2 teeth

Redfarm

529 Hudson St. New York, NY 10014(212) 792-9700redfarmnyc.com

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I think there should be a law mandating that places take reservations. I mean how absurd is it that by 6:30 pm you could already have a 90-minute wait? Oh sorry, that was Spotted Pig around the corner, which we gave up on and walked right in to Redfarm, who also doesn’t take reservations mind you, but at 6:30 pm it’s nowhere near as bad as The Pig. By 7:30, however, you’re fucked, so still try to get there early if you hate waiting, which you will if you try to do it at their minuscule bar that’s smaller than most powder rooms.

As for the dining room itself, it’s also pretty small, yet they manage to pack a lot of farm-like fun into it, with wooded beams and pipes overhead adorned with hangers carrying everything from chopsticks to plants to menu highlights. And while there are a few smaller, more intimate tables along the sides, most of the seating is taken up by large communal tables in the middle, so not the best place to discuss your brilliant start-up idea that’s gonna make millions.

Fighting the vibe of the décor, unfortunately, is the very rigid staff, who demands you order everything at once, which zags greatly from the dim sum norm. And my other big gripe with service is that there is zero thought put into the chronology and flow of your meal. Meaning, they bring you the dishes without any semblance of rhyme or reason. Some starters came after dim sum. Some of the dim sum came after our entrée. Heavy dishes came before lighter ones. And it definitely effects how you enjoy each dish.

So to help you forget about such annoying things, I recommend one of two cocktails, either the Le Club Hot with jalapeno infused tequila, smoked sea salt and cucumber- It’s spicy, smoky and goody. Or the refreshing Shiso Cucumber, which is a bit more typical with the whole gin and cucumber combo that you now find at every restaurant under the sun except McDonald’s, although it’s probably coming soon considering Taco Bell just started serving booze. Granted they do zazz it up a bit with shiso leaves, agave and lemon. The one drink to avoid, however, is the Bee’s Teas. It ain’t the knees. It’s disgusting. Made with chamomile infused bourbon, fig and basil. And while it may sound pretty good to you, it tastes like one of those herbal tonics you get from your acupuncturist, which are more painful to drink than falling off of the table and landing needle-side down.

Among the edible winners of the night, the best thing we had was a starter that actually came fourth, and should’ve been first or second, the kumamoto oysters with yuzu and meyer lemon ice. They were phenomenal! I could’ve downed a dozen of those without batting an eye.

My second favorite thing of the night might’ve been an Ultimate the more I reflect on it. The crab and eggplant bruschetta was just awesome. A twist on the typically boring crab toast, this one is served slightly warm and very complex with its nuanced blend of flavors and textures coming from things like kohlrabi slaw.

The waiter’s resounding recommendation, however, was the weakest dish we had, the spicy crispy beef (pictured). A total miss for me. And while it checked two out of three boxes, spicy and crispy, it left out the all-too-important third box, beefy! I felt like the little old lady from the Wendy’s commercials long ago. Where’s the beef? Because all I tasted were fried clusters of batter in Szechuan sauce. Tisk! Tisk!

Another dish I loved was the egg roll stuffed with Katz’s Deli pastrami, served with a spicy Asian mustard. Granted it’s probably the inner Jew in me talking, but oy was it good!

One of the most interesting dishes was the shitake, corn, jicama and roasted red pepper dumplings served with a chive shooter that when used as a chaser made each and every bite explode with contrast, not only of texture and flavor, but even temperature.

For our entrée, Wifey and I split the sautéed lobster, egg and chopped pork, which is easily enough for two people, and that’s about the only thing easy about it. Eating it is not. It’s messy as all hell and there are droves of chipped shell pieces in almost every bite, make it a bit hard to enjoy without looking like a Neanderthal. That said, the favors in the dish are very good, especially when you combine the egg, pork and lobster all in one bite, which is also easier said than done.

Come dessert we decided to lighten things up a bit (while also still getting dessert, because I’m a very weak man), opting for the key lime pie with key lime sorbet, which is good, but not great. The pie itself is a little too sweet for a key lime, so lucky for them, the sorbet is tart and refreshing enough to balance things out. The key (get it?) is to combine both so that it tastes like a key lime pie actually should. Or, if that’s too much work for you, then I recommend heading to The Dutch in Soho, instead, for what I would say is the epitome of Key lime pie perfection.

3 teeth

The Ultimate Tofu

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Unless you’re a vegetarian or vegan you probably don’t think it’s possible to swoon over tofu. And to be fair, the degree of difficulty is most certainly steep being that it’s basically a flavorless curd brick. But to some, it’s also a blank canvas. Here are two masterpieces painted on that canvas…

Sushi Roku – Santa Monica, CA

In the midst of such a tempting menu filled with stone-seared kobe beef and baked lobster rolls its hard to pull your eyes away long enough to notice the seared tofu appetizer, much less bother to even give it a second thought. But for those who do, I promise you will not be sorry.

Marinated in a wonderfully savory miso sauce and draped in a blanket of shitake mushrooms, the tofu takes on such a substantial flavor you’d almost swear you were eating meat. And this isn’t like when you get “chicken” or “meatloaf” at other places that are a poor man’s version of the original. This dish makes no apologies about being tofu. And then smacks you upside the head for having been prejudice in the first place.

Momofuku Ko – New York, NY

If no one told you there was tofu in this dish, you would never know it, swearing on your life that it was creamy cheese inside those perfect pockets of pasta. But being wrong never tasted so right. And the sweet corn ragu they smother it with will have you dancing like a giddy school girl on prom night- and that’s not just the increased estrogen levels talking either. It’s just that mind-altering good.

Momofuku Ko

163 1st Ave. New York, NY 10003 (212) 500-0831momofuku.com

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If I could give it 6 knives I would (which I suppose I can, it’s my blog after all, but that would require I go back into photoshop, add more categories- it’s a process). And I would give it this rating mostly because the level of difficulty was so high, having to live up to such massive hype and ballooned expectations. So, for it to not disappoint is a feat in itself.

This is not to say that Ko is flawless by any stretch, but it’s faults are simply overshadowed by its screaming successes. For example one nit would be the décor, or the lack thereof. It is as basic as basic gets. A lot like Pearl Oyster bar back in the day, before they expanded. Primarily a wood bar with twelve uncomfortable stools. But to be fair, it’s also part of its theme, and charm. It’s the lack of expensive real estate and lavish decor that allows them to offer a world-class meal at $100 per person.

The other nit, was the service. While they are extremely friendly and helpful, the first time I went they were a touch too aggressive with plate removal and a bit overwhelming at times with the delivery of courses. Sometimes placing  4 and 5 at a time in front of you. Which, if you become aware of it, and I was, detracts from the experience. Fortunately upon my second visit they must’ve gotten the message from my Yelp review (kidding!) and were significantly better about it.

But with nits aside, it is definitely an experience worth every last penny. And one I will HAPPILY return for (and did), regardless of their minor transgressions.

Now for the things that rocked my world. Of the dozen or so courses between both outings, these are the ones that reached god-like status (many of which are Ultimates):

  1. The Cajun inspired crawfish soup with orange and brioche
  2. The soft boiled egg with caviar served along side fresh baked sourdough and radish butter (also Ultimate bread & butter)
  3. The agnolotti with tofu and sweet corn (Ultimate tofu dish)
  4. The honeydew melon cold soup with avocado and macadamia nuts (Ultimate cold soup)
  5. The shitake mushroom soup amuse bouche
  6. The Halibut with ??? – sorry, I was tad inebriated on sparkling Saki by this point

So, that’s it. Stop reading and start clicking away online to get a reservation. It’s a pain in the ass trying, but your mouth will kiss you for it.

5 teeth