BY ELENA MANCINI
While most appreciate the high probability of finding an average standard of dishes offered by many restaurants throughout New York City, particularly when the meal is not a major wallet-leeching experience, the kind of culinary experience that Vai delivers is the of the caliber that people come to New York City to savor and boast about later. Its imaginative, innovative, expertly executed and deliciously exuberant in the flavor department. Here creativity and technique conspire to structure and combine ingredients, textures and cooking times not in the interest of culinary showmanship, but to exalt the palate. The appealing humility of the approach is also echoed in the decor, the tenor and the pricing of this charming and understated Upper-West side gem. Glass blown candle sconces on exposed brick with lush candle lighting throughout create a feeling of rustic warmth and well-being in a space that is otherwise quite limited. An attentive, but non-hovering service staff accentuate the welcoming vibe.
Opened in late 2011, Vai’s owner and Executive Chef is Vincent Chirico, a native New Yorker of Calabrian roots. Chirico’s previous stints include Jean Georges, Daniel and Aquavit. While Vai is Chirico’s first restaurant, happily Chirico does not seem succumb to the pressures of down economy, as other chefs, even of his caliber might feel compelled to do, by holding back his creativity and playing it safe with more commonplace dishes and ingredients. Rather, Vai is more an expression of one who desires to keep his passion for flavors vibrant and to never get too comfortable in his talent zone. Chirico is ever honing, experimenting and stretching himself as a chef and restaurateur. It’s also worth noting that Chirico also doubles as Vai’s wine director, pastry-chef and has designed the restaurant himself. The $64,000 question is whether Chirico ever sleeps. Joking aside, the result is an elegant harmonization of a restaurant’s many moveable parts.
Twenty to twenty-five percent of the seasonal, Mediterranean menu changes weekly to reflect what is optimally available in season and also to keep things interesting. An international wine list and seasonal artisanal cocktails punctuate the flair for quality and variety.
On to the dishes:
The best way to go about Vai is to opt for one of the tasting menus. Tasting menus are variously priced and range from $39 – $89 (five courses with wine pairings).
Absolute standouts in the the yellowfin tuna and hamachi duo (appetizer), sauteed sea scallop (entree), Alaskan king crab, the back bass and the Arctic char.
Prepared with a pungent ginger sauce and micro cilantro, the yellowfin tuna and hamachi duo exudes freshness and champions bright flavors and a smooth, silken even texture. Gorgeously plated, on a bed of sliced avocado, it’s a dish that rewards the palate and stimulates the appetite.
The Alaskan King Crab is regal in presentation and freshness. Grilled to perfection without being overcooked, luxurious sea flavors were preserved in every bite of the delicate meat. A toothsome consistency and a light sprinkle of Calabrian chili contrasted with a brown sugar butter sauce added to the dish.
The sauteed sea scallop with parsnip mousseline and capers is another example of Chirico’s culinary prowess. As with the Alaskan King Crab, the sea scallops and other seafood dishes such as the Maryland Back Bass and the Arctic Char champion a simple and sophisticated approach to preparing fish that is supremely fresh, allowing the original flavors of the primary ingredients to stand on their own and shine.
While this review devotes a great deal of attention to the sea food at Vai, one would be remiss to think that Vai caters to those with strong pescatarian leanings –although those who do will find themselves amply rewarded at Vai. Carnivorous indulgences can also be savored here, and not in lightweight fashion either. The beef duo consisting of braised short rib- filet mignon – confit garlic butter epitomizes this category. Sumptuous, perfectly rare, velvet-like filet mignon is accompanied by a rich, yielding, fall-off the bone short rib.
Vai offers many a prize in the dessert category as well. Supple and creamy passion fruit mascarpone semifreddo are among the must-haves.
If there are any missteps in Vai’s arsenal of killer dishes, it would be the burrata ravioli. Prepared with truffle cream and an 18month aged Parmigiano, the sauce is overly rich and buttery and overwhelms the the delicate pasta.
That aside, Vai’s original menu and refined cuisine strongly suggest that it has the makings of a destination restaurant. Its coziness and moderate prices corroborate to sweeten the pot.