With the home-mortgage crisis and federal bailout still fresh in our memories, a mention of the word "bank" can generate ambivalent or negative feelings. But some experienced Silicon Valley restaurateurs hope to produce purely positive vibes at one such place: the 1925, Beaux Arts-style Crocker Bank building in San Mateo. In the latest of its transformations, they created the fine-dining spot Vault 164 earlier this year.
Owner and general manager Brad Goldberg has incorporated some of the structure's history into the restaurant design. A teller booth stands inside the entrance; a vault door turned on its side makes another showpiece; and an old safe now serves as the hostess stand.
Still, the atmosphere at Vault is overwhelmingly modern. Interior pillars are clad in shimmering tiles; giant Mondrian-style shades cover the lights; one wall supports an artfully composed multimedia display. A dark color scheme and billowy drapes suggest a swanky supper club. With its modern American cuisine and casual fine-dining atmosphere, Vault 164 offers a fresh alternative in the high-density dining zone of downtown San Mateo.
Goldberg and much of his team were previously at Billy Berk's in San Jose, and the menus are similar, though Vault 164's has fewer dishes overall and is more refined. At dinner, the focus is on steak, seafood and a few other options, while the lunch fare is geared toward sandwiches, burgers and salads with just a handful of
Burgers are a good bet. Options include 6- and 10-ounce versions. The Vault 164 Burger ($10/$13) arrived on grilled brioche, a nice touch. Our 10-ounce choice was cooked exactly to order -- medium with a pink blush in the middle -- and topped with white cheddar and grilled peppers and onions. Ancho-guajillo barbecue sauce was served on the side, though I would have preferred it already on the burger in the amount the chef deemed best. Burgers come with a choice of fries, Brussels-sprout slaw or Caesar slaw. The last seemed intriguing -- a basic Caesar salad with the romaine shredded -- but I regretted not choosing the fries.
Though the lunch menu offers a top sirloin steak, the dinner menu includes several cuts. The steaks are presented nicely, with creamed spinach inside a baked onion and with potato and your choice of bernaise or brandy peppercorn sauce, or both if you desire. Potatoes au gratin were delicious; so were both sauces.
For those with banker salaries, the 10-ounce Filet Mignon With Sauteed Lump Crab ($42) is a good option. A filet is typically a worry-free piece of meat, but this one had a 1-inch chunk of gristle in the middle; otherwise it was well-cooked and well-seasoned. The crab was too highly seasoned, making it difficult to appreciate the natural sweetness of the meat.
Scallops served on a bed of risotto ($26) were nicely presented but overcooked -- not to the point of turning rubbery but too far to be truly enjoyable. The risotto with mushrooms, arugula and tomatoes was the saving grace of this dish. Chicken Contadina ($14 lunch/$19 dinner) had a flaccid crust and not much flavor, but the accompanying potatoes and especially the cipollini onions were remarkable.
I was seated in different areas of the restaurant on each visit -- once in the high-ceilinged, somewhat clangorous main dining room and once in an area just off the main room and more conducive to conversation. I had the same server both times; he was friendly, knew the menu and the specials well, and warned us of a very large party being seated nearby so we could place our order before they did, which we greatly appreciated.
Patrons have a choice of still or sparkling water, which Vault 164 does itself. Although we asked for still, on one visit the bottle had the bitterness, but not the bubbles, of carbonated water. Generally, though, this is a good place to drink; a recent Cocktail Chronicles column in this newspaper's Eye section explored the creative list available here. There are also interesting beer selections and a healthy list of wines by the glass. The bottle selections favor Napa and France, but some choices come from places off the beaten path, such as Amador and Lake counties.
The menu's strength is in the appetizers and shared plates. The kitchen proves it's possible to make Brussels sprouts not only edible but tasty. The Brussels sprout chips, dusted with lemon salt, are light, crunchy and addictive.
When we saw flatbreads delivered to the next table, we quickly changed course, ordering the Applewood Bacon and Cambozola choice ($12), highly recommended by our server. The flatbreads have a crisp yet pleasantly chewy crust, and the smoky bacon and creamy, mild blue cheese were balanced by sweet caramelized onions.
The deep-fried crab cakes were tall and almost pure crab with no unnecessary filler. But they were also a bit plain. The accompanying aioli studded with mustard seeds made them shine.
If dramatic presentation appeals to you, Baked Alaska ($10) is the way to go for dessert. A dense, rich fudge brownie, topped with coffee ice cream and encased in meringue, is set aflame and brought to the table. It was good, though not necessarily memorable. The Key Lime Brulee ($8, and really a Key lime tart with caramelized sugar on top) was tremendously tangy and generous in size; it easily could serve two or more.
Vault 164 is a nice addition to downtown San Mateo. It's a good spot for a pre- or post-movie dinner with drinks. Although main courses can be a bit of a gamble, a meal designed around drinks, shared plates and appetizers is bound to please. In fact, you can bank on it.
Email Jennifer Graue at email@example.com.
164 S. B St., San Mateo
The Dish: Modern American cuisine served in a contemporary, casual fine-dining setting.
Prices: Appetizers $6-$14; lunch mains $9-$19; dinner mains $12-$42; dessert $6-$10; cocktails and wine by the glass $8-$12, wines by the bottle $25-$225.
Details: Housed in a historic bank building that was previously a billiard hall, Vault 164 has undergone extensive renovations to achieve its sophisticated, contemporary feel. The menu is more casual at lunch (think high-end sandwiches and burgers) but is spiffed up for the dinner hour.
Pluses: Solid selection of appetizers; creative cocktail list; pleasant staff.
Minuses: Dining room can get noisy. Main courses don't always live up to the standard set by the appetizers.
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Saturday 5-11 p.m.; Sunday 5-9 p.m.
Restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously. The Mercury News pays for all meals.