10 a.m.- 8 p.m. Monday-Friday; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday
368 S. Jefferson St., Mason
(517) 676-2696, thevaultdeli.com
Picnic supply mecca
By MARK NIXON
Some of my fondest food memories revolve around picnics that began with a stop at the delicatessen. (Our favorite is Burritt’s Fresh Markets in Traverse City.) Now we have memories-in-the-making much closer to home — just 10 miles from our country abode — thanks to the Vault.
This is a solid little corner deli with high ceilings, wooden floors and narrow aisles that beg the customer to browse while waiting for an order. The building feels old, because it is. The space was originally a bank founded by the great-grandfather of co-owner Scott Robinson.
Scott and Jamie Robinson opened the Vault about eight years ago and — full disclosure here — I know the Robinsons, and I like them. They also own Darrell’s Market & Hardware, a godsend for home repair klutzes like me.
The Vault embodies the “hometown friendly” attitude of Darrell’s. The staff is in no rush, and neither should you be. Stroll the aisles to soak in the eclectic mix of take-home products, from Jamaican ginger beer and fried beet chips to cheese boards and gourmet chocolate.
And do yourself a favor: Don’t miss the actual vault. The deli’s namesake has been transformed into the Wine Vault, a browse-worthy array of wines, including several Michigan varieties.
Over the course of six visits, Judy and I noshed on various sandwiches and sides, as well as pizza and soup. On balance, I give the Vault’s sandwiches a B+. The Momma’s Turkey sandwich ($7.25) was one of the best. It has layers of smoked turkey, a thin slab of Havarti cheese (I detected dill) and lemon pepper mayonnaise on a crusty, herb-seeded bread.
Likewise, the chicken pesto melt ($7.95) earns high marks for the pesto’s garlicky goodness. This sandwich is served hot on a crunchy ciabatta roll, with slices of cool cucumber acting as counterbalance to warm ingredients.
Judy’s favorite was the chicken salad sandwich ($6.95), served on whole wheat bread. Instead of the shredded or diced chicken pieces found in many chicken salads, this one has knuckle-size chunks of roasted chicken, with just enough mayo to bind together the meat, redonion and celery. We made our order to-go, and at home Judy added slices of fresh avocado. Later, I realized the Vault offers avocado as an add-on ($1.50).
Every jewel has its flaws, and in our experience, the Vault had a couple. The Rollin’s Reuben ($7.95) reminded me of that old “Where’s the beef?” TV ad. The portion of corned beef inside was skimpy. OK, so I’m a snob when it comes to corned beef on rye. I expect the beef to be bulging outside the borders of the bread and yes, I expect to pay more for it.
But I decided to give Rollin’s Reuben another chance. On my final visit, I ordered the same thing but asked for extra meat ($2.50). I also asked for Dijon mustard instead of Thousand Island dressing. Jackpot. The beef bore the bulge, and the mustard was the proper tangy counterpart to the beef and lightly grilled rye bread. I should have asked them to substitute the coleslaw for sauerkraut, but this was still an A+.
The biggest disappointment was the gourmet pizza ($9.95). We ordered the Meats & Cheeses pie with add-ons of red onions and kalamata olives. There was nothing bad about the pizza; it was just so doggone ordinary.
The Vault is full of little surprises, and here’s one I didn’t see coming. Its upscale array of soft drinks is amazing. Try the Jamaican ginger beer ($2.25) if you like the full flavor and heat of real ginger. I do.
In the spirit of a true deli, the Vault has an array of cheeses, olives and cured ham. You can ask for samples. Note: Alcoholic drinks can only be consumed off-premises.
The best way to dine at the Vault is to grab a seat next door at Bestsellers Books & Coffee Co., also owned by the Robinsons. It’s a great place for people-watching or burying yourself in a book while munching on your meal.
Being a bit of a recluse, I normally prefer takeout. Already I’m thinking of next spring — before the mosquitoes are in full bloom — and a certain picnic table I know that’s close by, perched on a hill above a small stream. All we need are silverware, plates, an ice bucket to chill the chardonnay — and a quick trip to the Vault.Gimme that bread
By GABRIELLE JOHNSON LAWRENCE
When Mr. She Ate and I started dating, I asked him one of my litmus test questions: What’s your favorite Thanksgiving side dish? Thanksgiving is my Super Bowl, and if he would have answered with mashed potatoes, it would have been over. The tasteless but quintessential item does nothing for me. Instead, he threw me for a loop. “Sandwiches,” he said. After I giggled for an hour, I probed this topic more deeply and thus uncovered his deep and abiding love for everything sandwichy.
It was with great pleasure that he accompanied me, several times, to the Vault Delicatessen, even though Mason is a bit out of our typical restaurant circumference. On our first visit, he chose the advertised special, the Sergeant Pepper Jack sandwich. Grilled deli-style chicken — and a lot of it — bacon, thick slices of pepper jack cheese and crisp Romaine lettuce served on three-cheese bread and slathered with red pepper mayonnaise. The breads here are thick, grainy and flavorful, unlike the virtually translucent “bread” found at so many delis in the area. The bacon was well prepared, not wobbly with fat or burned to a crunchy and unappetizing crisp. He upgraded his side item from the side salad to potato salad for an additional $1.25, and he was happy he did. The potato salad was made with our preferred redskin potatoes, and the mustard dressing was tangy and refreshing.
When I’m visiting a new restaurant, I generally try a basic menu item to get my feet wet, in the hopes that they will do the basic items well. I chose the Momma’s Turkey sandwich, which features sliced smoked turkey, havarti cheese, lettuce, tomato and lemon pepper mayonnaise on herb-seeded bread. This sandwich was, unfortunately, uninspiring. There wasn’t anything special about it except the mayonnaise, which was obviously full-fat. Stay away from me with your Miracle Whip, and that goes for margarine and Splenda as well, while we’re at it. If I’m going to eat something, I want it to be the truest version of itself.
My side salad was another story. With not a leaf of wimpy iceberg lettuce to be seen and house-made croutons, I was happy to munch on vegetables. This side salad is the real deal.
I had that in mind on our next visit, when I tried the Veggie Salad. I was blown away by its excellent simplicity. A bed of mixed greens, heavy on the baby spinach, was topped with chopped cucumber, tomato, green pepper and those killer croutons, and on the side was a scoop of hummus. Vegetable quotient, met. Healthy protein source in the form of hummus, satisfied. My taste buds and previously-growling stomach, satiated. This is what I mean when I encourage restaurants to focus on the basics. A vegetable salad with hummus doesn’t need bells and whistles. Fresh, dark green vegetables with something as simple as house-made croutons blew me away.
The Mr. didn’t fare as well with his meats and cheeses pizza. The pizza was thin-crust, which we like, but was soft and lacked texture, which we hate. I’d suggest keeping the pizza in the oven a few more minutes, but honestly, I question why the deli even offers pizza. The sandwiches and salads are much better than average. There is no need to muddle the menu with “gourmet” pizza. I think I’m going to start calling my breakfast “gourmet” oatmeal, because I guess you can just stick that word anywhere now if you want to make something sound fancier. And don’t get me started on “artisan.”
But back to the Vault. The deli has an adorable arrangement with the bookstore next door — owned by the same people — which has a connected dining room. The deli staff will deliver your order to you as you peruse Bestsellers and wait for your lunch. There is also a small selection of retail items for sale in the deli, including Tate’s Bake Shop cookies (which Ina Garten, my hero, always writes about), locally-produced maple syrup and various candies and sodas. If they started selling loaves of their bread, I predict they’d be a hot item. It was the highlight of many of our visits and would make some absolutely killer Thanksgiving stuffing. Stuffing, by the way, is an acceptable favorite side dish in my book. Especially if it’s “gourmet” oyster stuffing.