The UWS has a new destination dining restaurant. Not somewhere you go for a quick bite. Not somewhere you eat because you don’t feel like schlepping elsewhere. Somewhere you go when you have the time and inclination to spend several hours reveling over a wonderful meal. That’s when you go to Vai.
This Mediterranean inspired small plates restaurant is the brainchild of Chef Vincent Chirico.
Did I say chef? I meant chef, owner, sommelier, interior designer, pastry chef, and probably dishwasher if he had his way. Chef Chirico has worked at such restaurants as Jean Georges, Daniel, and Aquavit before opening this restaurant, and his years in top kitchens have led him to doing almost all the work himself. Though this puts a lot of pressure on him, it also means that his vision is always executed perfectly. The atmosphere here is elegant and romantic, with candlelight and modern tableware – perfect for a date or dining solo at the bar.
Though the bread(the only food item not made in house) is unremarkable, the spreads brought with it are anything but. Roasted Garlic Confit is as tender and mild as roasted garlic, Eggplant Spread is creamy and earthy, and Cranberry Bean and Fried Garlic Relish is toothsome and hearty.
Pear Martini with Pear Infused Vodka, Pear Puree, and Fennel
This drink tastes more indulgent than it really is – thick, creamy, and sweet. It almost tastes like a smoothie – refreshing and energizing but also incredibly light. The kick of vodka is a very good antidote to the naturally sweet pears, and the cocktail has enough booze to really pack a punch.
Hamachi and Yellowfin Tuna Duo served over Avocado with Preserved Ginger Sauce
This is an example of Chef Chirico’s classical training. He takes a classic dish – tuna tartare – and prepares it perfectly, then puts his own stamp on it with the hamachi and preserved ginger. The fish (which is delivered 6 days a week) is pristine. The hamachi is so fatty and unctuous that the tuna seems clean and light by comparison. The avocado adds a buttery richness, and the sauce is tangy and slightly spicy, adding brightness to the dish. An outstanding and perfectly prepared version of a classic.
Seared Scallop with Parsnip Mousseline and Capers
The star of the meal. I have never had a more perfectly cooked scallop – a thick, charred, salty crust concealing a scallop that was still barely translucent in the center. That is how a scallop should be – medium well done at most, so that it is warm all the way through but not totally opaque. The capers added saltiness that contrasts with the scallop’s natural sweetness, and the parsnip puree is smooth and hearty, adding depth to the dish.
Charred Octopus with Arugula Jalapeno Pesto, Calabrian Chiles, and Roasted Fingerling Potatoes
Whereas the previous dishes are subtle and layered, this dish is an in-your-face flavor explosion. Octopus is MADE for the grill. The hearty, rich meat works well with crispy, blackened skin. This eggplant is tender and mild, enlivened by the herbal pesto and those fiery Calabrian chiles. The chiles really pack a punch – if you aren’t into heat, ask for less of them on your dish. Also, stop reading this blog.
Duo of Beef with Filet Mignon and Garlic Confit Butter and Port Wine Braised Short Rib
The steak here is well cooked – thick and cooked to a perfect medium rare with no sinew or gristle. Though the accompanying butter is unnecessary, it is a satisfying piece of meat. But the short rib is above and beyond. Braised for hours in port wine, it has an incredible sweet-tangy-deep glaze on the outside of meltingly tender meat. I can not imagine a better way to make short ribs. This is a must order.
Passion Fruit Semifreddo
Tart, creamy, and sweet. A multi-layered tasty way to end the meal, with the bright, sour taste of passion fruit colliding with the sweetness of white chocolate.
Almond Pot de Creme
Tasting more of toffee than almonds, this is sweet, buttery, and very decadent. Also, every table gets a portion of this.
Vai is spot on. The prices are right, the wine and cocktail lists are excellent, the service is enthusiastic but not annoyingly so, and the food is just fantastic. This is a serious restaurant – the food is expertly prepared in exciting ways, and the experience is one that is leisurely and inviting. Nowhere on the UWS is quite like this, which is why I say get on a train, a bus, or a pair of sneakers. Whatever you have to do, get yourself to Vai.
*Note: My meal was paid for by the restaurant. I was not paid or required to write a review, and my opinions are my own and, I feel, impartial.*