Most of you have heard me gush on about The Vox Kitchen in lil Saigon. It is one of our favorite restaurants and honestly, we can’t get enough of it. Recently, a sister restaurant opened in Fountain Valley, and GEM Dining is set to become one of the most sought-after dining spots in OC, at the rate it’s going. We first came for a media tasting, and then I returned with a friend to try some more dishes. Reservations are a must right now and waits can be upwards of 45 minutes, especially on weekends.
After you’re seated, you may notice the string of lights directly above you. Our server tells us that this is to mimic the feel of street dining in Saigon, where electrical wires run across the city. The open kitchen offers another experience, as you can see and feel the buzz of a well-orchestrated team at work.
While perusing the menu intently on our initial visit, we were presented with some Cajun butter, and two logs of baguette, to enjoy. The Cajun butter is crazy good, and you will find it hard to resist, but I implore you to do control yourself. There is so much on this menu to taste so you don’t want to get prematurely full.
I won’t lie, any time there’s crudo on the menu, I know it’ll be hitting my table. Hamachi Crudo ($12.50) is a tantalizing offering of yellowtail sashimi with bits of yuzu sorbet, lemon, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. The sorbet lends a pleasant sensation in my mouth with the temperature, but also, the fragrant aromas that hit the palate.
We love Beef Tendon ($8.50) and the one here is sensational. The texture of the tendon is perfect, and while the scallion gremolata isn’t as popping in flavor as I’d expected, the spicy citrus hoisin takes it across the finish line. Since I am not a big fan of hoisin, I was thinking I won’t like it, but it is this very condiment that takes this dish to a whole new level.
Singapore Soft Shell Crab (14) is perfectly executed and the accompanying Singaporean chile sauce does its job in bringing a southeast Asian pop to this dish. The crab is crispy on the outside, with a soft center, kissed by a chile sauce that is spicy sweet and tantalizing on the palate.
During your meal, several carts will come around offering freshly shucked oysters or a selection of teas for your enjoyment.
A card on your table will be stamped if you decide to partake in it — dim sum style.
We loved the Butterfly Pea Flower Tea which imparts a beautiful blue hue which was used in 粽子 (Chinese glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves, typically eaten during Dragon Boat Festival) when I was growing up in Malaysia.
Perhaps one of the most surprising items we ordered was Pork Jowl ($8). The grilled pork jowl dances in my mouth both in flavor and texture. The honey glaze doesn’t overpower, and the cucumber salad balances perfectly. My mind immediately thought it would be fantastic in a banh mi, so I sandwiched the pork and cucumber slices between some of the bread and voila…. It was remarkably satisfying. An absolute must-order!
Mapo Mushrooms ($8) was one of the first things to catch my eye. Maybe it was the ‘mapo’ or maybe it was the crispy rice, but regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed this. The roasted mixed mushrooms — shimeiji and shiitake — is enveloped in a slightly numbing sauce and topped over a cube of crispy rice. The textural components in this dish are insane and since it is a vegetarian item, it can be enjoyed by all.
I am so surprised that Bone Marrow Elote ($12) isn’t overly heavy. I’ve been staying away from bone marrow because of how it sits in my stomach later, but the roasted bone marrow here is absolutely delightful when paired with the fresh grilled corn. If you’re down to experience a bone marrow luge after eating the dish, you can get a soju shot for that purpose.
Mushrooms & Wagyu ($15) is absolutely stunning. The A5 wagyu is so tender it practically melts in my mouth. Garlic slices permeates throughout, and the maitake mushrooms add another level of umami to the entire dish. I was longing for some steamed white rice to soak up all the gorgeous sauce embodied with garlic and soy.
I loved the pork jowl appetizer, and was intrigued by the Pork Jowl Nasi Goreng ($15) as this is the style of fried rice I grew up eating. It wasn’t doused with kecap manis (Indonesian sweet soy) which I appreciated, as it tends to leave an overwhelming sweetness, which I find cloying. The flavors were on point, however, the pork jowl lost the unctuous tender consistency of its appetizer counterpart during the stir-frying process.
I can never say no to salted egg yolk, so when I saw Salted Egg Yolk Crab Pasta ($24) on the menu, I was sold. The al dente pasta possesses a lovely chew and they don’t skimp on the super lump crab either. The salted egg yolk cream is unctuously decadent, but I would have liked a little more sauce. After taking a few photos, and not eating fast enough, the pasta started clumping together, making it a tad difficult to eat.
I had mentioned to one of the managers that I love the clam stew at Vox, and he suggested Miso Clam Chilean Sea Bass ($29). The bacon miso broth was stunning on its own, but add to that plump clams and the most perfectly executed piece of Chilean sea bass, and the result is shockingly astounding. I would suggest sharing if you want to partake in other dishes, but if you’re not into sharing, then this is the dish you’ll want to order. We’ve ordered this twice, and it is one of my favorites on the menu.
I’m not one to visit restaurants when they’re so new, but GEM is ready. Service is attentive, and food stellar, albeit the noise level can get overwhelming when the dining rooms are full. However, the menu is enough for you to want to keep coming back. I know I will!
Fountain Valley, CA 92708