Like all chefs, Gregg Korney has a vision -- one that propels him toward zesty, high-octane taste sensations assembled from global pantries. Sometimes, his quest leads him toward the Mediterranean, with its Parmesan, porcini, and basil; other times, it turns him toward Latin America, with its passel of fiery peppers; and most often, it orients him eastward, to the lands of mirin, soy, and sweet chile glazes.
The result is an international road trip for the taste buds, one that Korney has been mapping out since his days as opening chef at downtown's Sushi Rock. He gave it a road test in 2005 during his stint as top toque at Hudson's Vue. And finally, last year he rolled it out for real at Velocity American Bistro, the comfortable, casual neighborhood bistro on Clifton Boulevard that he owns with his brother and business partner, Ken Korney.
As most local foodies recall, a fire put the brakes on Velocity less than two months after its 2006 debut, and it took nearly a year to relaunch -- which it finally did in May. Today, Korney's kitchen is again bursting with sassy-sounding dishes -- ranging from sushi and sashimi to sliders, spice-rubbed strip loin, and spinach gnocchi -- typically built from indulgent ingredients, tweaked with fanciful seasonings, and playfully assembled in cross-cultural combinations.
Velocity's dinner menu is both large and labor-intensive; nearly every dish boasts at least one housemade lagniappe or another, from chipotle ketchup and porcini dipping sauce to blue-cheese croquettes and English pea risotto. Adding to the options are almost a dozen daily specials. Recited at the table by our friendly waiter, the far-ranging roster -- complete with ingredients, sauces, sides, and all their accompanying adjectives -- quickly turned into a jumbled lobster-chile-Thai-soy-sweet-chipotle jojo for the ears. We have just three words for management: Print. It. Out.
We give the chef props for daring to take the road less traveled. At those times when his GPS is working just right -- as in a breathtaking watermelon salad, juxtaposing the juicy sweetness of ripe melon against the sharp salinity of Parmesan, the friendly fire of radish and mint, and the tang of mirin -- the results are as surprising as they are delicious. Still, a series of misfires -- mostly due to oversights on the part of the kitchen corps, but occasionally due to a redundancy in flavor notes -- knocked a few miles per hour off our recent tours.
There was nothing wrong with the crab-enhanced tater tots: crisp, golden, golf-ball-size orbs, enlivened by sweet-and-spicy chipotle ketchup, sweet mango chutney, golden raisins, and a sprinkling of pumpkin and sunflower seeds. But we had hoped the tots would play nicely with our pre-dinner 'tinis -- a Bombay Sapphire classic that proved too heavy on the vermouth ($7.50) and a flat-footed Mojito ($9), layered with minced mint that clung to our teeth with every sip.
The fault there rested not in the kitchen, but behind the bar. (Bartenders also oversee a basic wine list, including 15 whites and 25 reds by the bottle, and 13 wines by the glass). But the kitchen does have to take responsibility for other flubs, including the slightly off-target grilled-peach salad, featuring hard, flavorless, and underripe wedges of peach. Fortunately, the remainder of the dish -- a bouquet of precisely dressed leaf lettuces in a sherry vinaigrette, bundled up inside a sheath of nutty prosciutto, and topped with a slab of pungent Brie and a sprinkling of candied pecans -- was a nonstop delight.
More time in the deep fryer might have moved a starter of shrimp "corn dogs" -- three large skewered shrimp, enrobed in the classic corn-dog batter -- from good to great. While the exterior offered up oodles of sweet crunchiness, the interior remained undercooked and pasty.
The Velocity Roll -- an oversize sushi roll filled with tuna, asparagus, crab, and shrimp, served beneath a disheveled blanket of rice (more gummy than sticky), along with spicy mayo, diced tuna, and tobiko (flying fish roe) -- proved sloppily plated. Neither fork, fingers, nor chopsticks seemed up to the chore of transporting that mess to the mouth, and an overdose of rice made the flavors indistinct. The dish also had taken on a load of kitchen debris: A piece of onion skin clung to one end of the plate; a section of shrimp shell hid in another; and when we tucked into a forkful of rice, bits of sharp, impenetrable cartilage crunched beneath our teeth.
Among the mains, the towering Velocity Burger -- certified Angus Beef, smoked Gouda, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and rosemary-kissed aioli -- was a challenge to wrap our jaws around, but once we did, it offered up an array of savory satisfactions. On the side, long, limp laces of golden french fries made proper companions.
But grilled and sliced flank steak, ordered medium-rare, arrived nearly raw and proved surprisingly tough. A special of almond-crusted salmon, tweaked with ginger, coconut, and lime, elicited no more than a shrug, both for its uneven cooking -- dry on one end, nearly raw on the other -- and for the hard, flavorless mashed plantains beneath it. Then there was that pair of pecan-crusted pork cutlets on a bed of mashed sweet potatoes, with a tangle of Thai-chile glazed green beans underneath. While the meat was tender and the veggies properly done, the dish was hijacked by the cloyingly sweet glaze, and it wasn't the only time this sort of gaffe was committed. Considering that Korney has carved himself out a relatively unique niche with his signature fare, he employs a surprising amount of repetition, particularly the sweet-spicy-salty theme. After all, taking diners for a thrill ride is one thing. But boring them? That's reckless operation.