Entries in Vitae (1)

Wednesday
Mar142012

Vitae

After nearly two unpublicized decades—working at the likes of Bouley, Gramercy Tavern, and various corporate gigs—chef Edwin Bellanco decided he was ready for his own place: Vitae, meaning life.

Based on an admittedly small sample—one visit—I’d say Bellanco was ready for his own place. The food was excellent, some of the best I’ve had this year in this concededly over-worked idiom, slightly upscale “user-friendly Euro-American fare.”

He’s allied himself with some serious talent: General Manager Emily Iverson came over from Lincoln. The striking modernest décor by Studio CMP cannot have come cheap.

Yet, there are perplexing blunders at Vitae, starting with the name. Google it, and you find it’s easily confused with several other restaurants with a similar (or indeed the same) name. Not until the middle of the second search page is there a lonely link to this restaurant, along with many others to the wrong ones. And with so much expense lavished on the build-out, why is the website out-of-date?

Vitae is clearly designed to appeal to the midtown business crowd, both at dinner and at lunch. That makes sense, given the location. But the proffer is a familiar one—“approachable contemporary cuisine,” “seasonable contemporary American,” etc. Those phrases, so often bandied about, don’t really entice the dining public these days (assuming, for argument’s sake, that they once did). They promise a blank slate, onto which the chef can write whatever he pleases.

There’s not a single thing on the menu—not one blessed thing—that will look unfamiliar to anyone who dines out frequently in Manhattan. The chef can therefore offer only excellence, which he absolutely does.

The menu, priced firmly in the upper-middle, is reprinted daily and is sensibly edited (both encouraging signs), with eight appetizers ($12–18) and nine entrées ($24–28; plus a Creekstone Farms ribeye, $45). Pastas, listed as entrées, are also offered as appetizers for $12; side dishes are $8.

There’s a thousand-bottle wine wall with about a hundred choices in a wide price range, from $30 to $1,050. The host offered to decant even the rather modest Cotes du Rhone we ordered (Alain Voge, Les Peyrouses 2009; $42).

The cocktail list is a mix of classics and house recipes. I don’t normally shoot beverage photos, but did here, to show how little $14 gets you.

 

A Painkiller (above left) was a great drink, but nearly all ice; while a bourbon sidecar (above right) tasted watered down and filled less than two-thirds of the glass.

 

Matters improved significantly when the food arrived, including warm, house-baked bread (above left), which we learn from Dame Greene is slathered in duck fat; and a bracing celery root soup as amuse bouche.

 

There’s a four-course “chef’s tasting” for $65. Everything offered is on the regular menu, but the chef sent out different items to each of us, so we wound up tasting eight dishes, far more than I normally would in one visit.

I loved both appetizers, the Poached Egg (above left) with sunchoke, bacon, and black truffle sauce; and the Seared Diver Scallop (above right) with cauliflower, golden raisin, cashew, and a Thai curry sauce.

 

We enjoyed both pastas, but we give the nod to the Chestnut Agnolotti ($12 as appetizer; above right) with prosciutto and parmesan broth. Ricotta Gnudi ($12; above left) are somewhat hackneyed. This was a decent version of the dish, with walnut pesto, chorizo, and parmesan.

 

Pan Roasted Cod ($24; above left) is bathed in a smoked razor clam chowder with fingerling potatoes. I admired this dish, although my girlfriend thought the chowder a bit overwhelming. Duck ($28; above right) was impeccable, with both the breast and confit of leg, endive marmelade, Brussels sprouts, and parsnip.

 

For dessert, a Chocolate Fondant ($8; above left) with Espresso Crème Anglaise and whipped creme wasn’t bad, but for sheer pleasure was surpassed by an Apple Tart Tatin ($8; above right) with Mascarpone. (The only other desserts on the regular menu are Crème Brûlée or a selection of cheeses.)

The décor is in my opinion stunning (better in person than the photos suggest), though just about anything that opens these days is criticized as outdated unless it’s distressed chic. At dinner time, they do need to lower the lights a bit; this isn’t an airport. The spacious, upholstered bar stools are the most comfortable I’ve experienced in quite a while.

The dining room was perhaps one-third full on a Friday evening, the predictable consequence of opening in a business neighborhood that doesn’t attract leisure diners. The staff was extremely attentive, the predictable consequence of not having enough customers to worry about. But this was only the first week in business, far too soon to pass judgment.

The chef is obviously talented. Let’s hope his business partners can operate a website and get the word out.

Vitae (4 East 46th Street, near Fifth Avenue, East Midtown)

Cuisine: Contemporary Seasonal American
Service: Attentive and experienced; impressive for a week-old place
Ambiance: A striking, modern, comfortable, somewhat upscale room

Rating: Critic’s Pick