The blocks between 79th and 81st Streets on Amsterdam are chockablock with restaurants but few good ones. A newcomer, Vai, whose focus is contemporary Mediterranean food, stands out for its exceptional quality at reasonable prices. Although Vai opened just a few months ago, the word is out. The night we were there, the place was jammed, although if you arrive before seven or after nine, tables open up.
The owner, executive chef, pastry cook, wine director and chief decorator is Vincent Chirico, who has spent time in the kitchens of Acquavit, Daniel and Jean Georges, and it shows. Master of his domain (a small kitchen that manages to smoothly handle a 58-seat restaurant), Chirico is a hands-on chef who also takes a personal interest in his guests and clearly has a loyal following.
Vai’s menu changes every week, but there are signature dishes, some of which we sampled as Chirico’s guest, as well as signature drinks that can be savored at a lovely 8-seat horseshoe bar or ordered at table. A house-infused cucumber martini with lime juice, for example, was light and refreshing and a great way to start dinner.
Among the standouts was a first course trio of heavenly marscarpone-laden Eggplant Mousseline – rich, and smooth – Garlic Confit (for those of us who adore roasted garlic) and cranberry been salad, accompanied by warm first-rate Italian bread by Mia. It was followed by an impeccably fresh Hamachi and Yellowfin Tuna duo perched on a bed of avocado bathed in a preserved ginger sauce that, surprisingly, was on the sweet side. It’s one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes. Another variation on the sweet seafood theme was a dish of pan roasted Sea Scallops with a creamy Parsnip Mousseline and non-salty Sicilian Capers.
We were fortunate to be in the hands of Anays, whose knowledge of the food and wine she was serving, and cheerful manner, added to the pleasure of the evening. Among her suggestions was a 2010 Relativity Pinot Noir, which paired well with one of the hits of the evening, a Charred Octopus dish and tiny golden nugget potato with a very spicy jalapeno pesto.
My favorite wine of the evening was a Spanish Lavia Monastrell Syrah 2005, full bodied and mellow. It went beautifully with my two favorite dishes, the buttery whole, deboned roasted Branzino, with Chirico’s amazing preserved lemon, chervil beurre noisette sauce, and his beef duo, a melting, fork-soft Short Rib and Filet Mignon with a confit garlic butter sauce.
Two outstanding desserts were the chef’s fantastic frozen chocolate mousse with marscapone and espresso (I spooned it up until the plate was clean), and a signature dish, passion fruit puree with vanilla marscapone, a kind of key lime pie in mousse form. It was a yin and yang dessert combo but if I had to choose one, it would be the chocolate-espresso mousse. And if you love dessert wines, as I do, there is an excellent Redento Moscato Passito 2004 to linger over.
There is much more on the menu that I have not yet tried, such as the Truffle Pizzetta, a salad of arugula, caramelized pear and speck, and Tagliatelle veal ragout. I have every intention of going back and working my way through the menu with my West Side friends. I suggest you do the same.
Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag
429 Amsterdam (Between 80th and 81st Streets)
Hours: Dinner 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday through Wednesday
5 p.m. to Midnight, Thursday through Saturday
Brunch Noon to 3 p.m., Saturday through Sunday
Monday Night Three-Course Wine Menu