Challenging Space and All, The Vault Excels

Hi Neighbor expands to finer dining with a subterranean restaurant helmed by the always-excellent Robin Song.

Squid a la plancha with summer melon. Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane

The more-or-less unanimous opinion about Trestle, the Hi Neighbor Hospitality Group’s Jackson Square restaurant with a $39 prix fixe, is one of awe. Costco is known for keeping prices supremely low by leveraging vast economies of scale, but apparently that restaurant can profitably offer patrons two options each for three courses at the same price point for what you might pay for a single entree elsewhere. It’s impressive, and it should probably shame a couple other kitchens around town into action.

Hi Neighbor is impressive, generally speaking. Having closed Russian Hill’s beloved Stones Throw, it still operates the homey, beery Fat Angel in the Fillmore and the much-larger and more cocktail-centric Corridor near Civic Center (which, having recently turned three, makes it a rare survivor from the wave of 2016 openings in and around Mid-Market).

Now the group has made a move away from the casual, value-driven end of things. In the basement of the big brown box at 555 California St., blocks from a co-working space with the same name, comes The Vault, which tucks contemporary California cuisine with notable Northeast Asian accents into the regional capital of power-lunches. The Design District’s absurdly good Niku Steakhouse — which is much, much pricier than The Vault — does something similar with the staid idiom of steakhouses.

Unquestionably, The Vault inhabits a challenging space. It also has a few pretentious trappings, mostly catering to the egos of financiers — like liquor lockers exclusively for people who work in one of the 52 floors upstairs — but they’re grafted on and don’t obtrude into the experience of diners who don’t routinely ski at Vail. Nothing about The Vault is tacky, but given the constraints of a mostly-below-street-level FiDi location, there are probably few practical alternatives to a sober decor. And sober it is. While Roman villa-sized bouquets enliven the windowless space — a hallmark of Trestle’s ambience — the gray walls are sort of drab and the glass panes in the door to the private area in the very back seem to reflect a cosmic abyss back at you. Although the lighting is impressive, definitely position yourself where you can see other humans.

I didn’t find the restaurant excessively loud, but there appear to be acoustical effects where it can be hard to hear your server or vice versa. Worse, the entire front half feels like a semi-used overflow zone. I can’t imagine wanting to be seated there during dinner, and that’s not because my well-starched contrast collars exude corporate-raider bombast. (During lunch, there’s daylight, so it feels dramatically different and more like a lounge.) Overall, the booths in the back half feel sexy while the front opens onto a quasi-underground hallway that might as well connect two airport terminals. That’s too much corridor, not enough Corridor.

But chef Robin Song brings to bear the upscale-good times aesthetic he forged at Hog & Rocks and later improved upon at Gibson, and the result is quality dishes with the occasional grin of ostentatious showmanship, accented by Tyler Groom’s cocktails. It’s fun. Parker House rolls with salted, house-cultured butter — possibly the best type of bread ever invented — arrive warm, playing off a raw seafood platter full of halibut crudo, oysters with an appealing cucumber yuzu granita, shrimp cocktail, Ft. Bragg uni in a chawanmushi custard with roe, and a generous chilled lobster salad. The uni’s texture varied widely across visits, but it’s otherwise elegant and spot-on — and that it’s exactly one dollar cheaper than the entire Trestle prix fixe should not be lost on you.

Balance typically prevails except where excess makes more sense. Beef tartare comes with cornichons to brighten the fat, while comté-stuffed tortelloni have so many buttery morels you almost want to pocket them for later. Smoky, tender squid a la plancha was among the best of the small plates, presenting of strips of various melons in a way that didn’t conquer the rest of the plate the way melon does, and the butter beans and a wealth of herbs project contrast. Meanwhile, the Iacopi Farms artichokes clearly involve a lot of prep (and waste, arguably) since you’re dipping only the tenderest sections of the hearts into a superb ricotta-and-ramp dip, and the quinoa atop a Moroccan-spiced carrot dish was another fine touch. A dish of peas with avocado and mozzarella is really a showcase for yuzu kosho, the peppery, fermented condiment that tied it together. With a glass of dazzling Cardedu Nùo Vermentino, you’re set.

There were a few blips. A dirty martini was, as a friend put it, “Folsom Street Fair filthy” — although you do get a sidecar, so it’s really two drinks. The kitchen’s worst mistake was inexplicably coating a 28-day, dry-aged Flannery ribeye in truffle butter. Why gild that lily like this? Flannery is the closest thing America has to A5, so it’s a waste of perfectly marbled beef. “Never underestimate the crassness of the financial super-elite,” may be the lesson to draw from that.

Seventy-dollar-per-ounce Tsar Nicouli osetra notwithstanding, The Vault hasn’t entirely moved away from Hi Neighbor’s spirit. Separate bar and happy-hour menus have a bunch of good deals, the best of which is a burger oozing fiscalini cheddar, bread-and-butter pickles, and a fairly low-key tomato vinaigrette. Its two patties are Flannery beef, too, but blowing In-N-Out’s style of burger out of the water feels like a more legitimate use. Eat it over the fries to catch the drippings if you can.

The Vault, 555 California St., 415-508-4675 or thevault555.com

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