Vai stands out from the crowd on Amsterdam Avenue
The restaurant row of Amsterdam Avenue is dominated by the sort of Japanese fusion restaurant whose menu is dominated by eight pages of maki that feature mango, cream cheese, and tempura-fried everything. Their outdoor seating is a sea of blond ponytails and pink-and-purple-topped plates, and waves of clinking chopsticks and high-pitched laughter come rolling off like it’s high tide.
Between two of these sits a restaurant that looks from the outside like their plain older cousin. Vai’s (429 Amsterdam Ave., betw. 80th & 81st St., vairestaurant.com) awning is a neutral taupe, rather than striking black. Inside, the decor is limited to some spare arrangements in vases, rather than pebble-paved walls and lacquered cabinetry. Lighting comes from a wrought-iron chandelier and tabletop candles, not recessed neon. Despite (or perhaps, because of) this, it’s Vai that draws the diner, much as white space on a busy page draws the weary eye looking for a rest.
A rest can be found here. It’s an interesting room, designed in equal parts for drinking and dining in secret. It’s split down the middle by a low wall that backs a row of banquette seating; on one side is an enormously tall, curved bar flanked by a few convivial tables—the bartender can be seen handing drinks like the Pomegranate Gimlet over the top to those seated nearby. On the other are the tables shielded by that wall and a row of candlelit four-tops that hug the room’s brick wall. On that side, it’s as if the party were happening in a distant apartment as gracious staff pour wine and, in the case of one table recently, offer to cut unwieldy food for broken-armed patrons.
There are seats outside, of course, and right now they are the most popular seats in the house, so to speak. Large groups do well out there, where, unconfined by the two-party system that rules inside, they can be boisterous and merry directly next to a quiet table for two and neither will feel as if they’ve come to the wrong place.
The menu is divided into three times as many categories as needed, as is the norm nowadays, but each contains only two or three items, so the risk of option paralysis is low. In fact, the division makes it easier to build exactly the meal you want, rather than second-guessing yourself over and over again. Want to keep it light? Zero in on the Crudo, Vegetable and Sea sections. So hungry you could eat a horse? Head for the Pasta and Land sections, maybe with a stop in Warm Appetizers.
Nominally Mediterranean, Vai draws flavor profiles from around the world, with pickled ginger surrounding a tuna and hamachi crudo, jalapeno pesto supporting charred octopus and Spanish Iberico ham teaming up with piave cheese to surround roasted Brussels sprouts. The prevalence of cheese is decidedly Italian—every one of the vegetable dishes featured it, and then there was the burrata ravioli with parmigiano—and the antipasti that come to every table before ordering is an introduction to the lengthy, laid-back meals of Southern Europe.
If you take the tour of the menu, a number of similarly sculptural dishes will make their way to your table. In the smaller dishes, elements are piled semi-neatly in a corner of the plate, a swipe of this sauce, a swoop of another and a sprinkling of microgreens covering the rest of the territory, and until you dig through, it may be hard to tell whether you’ve got the Brussels sprouts or the pear and speck salad in front of you. Meat and fish mains are more easily identifiable, primarily because they are all presented in all their carnivorous glory, an enormous, bone-in pork chop or whole branzino splayed across the plate.
Unexpectedly, these repetitions never feel cloying. In stark contrast to the overwhelming aesthetics next door, Vai has found a formula that presents food well without dwelling on the details, saving the effort for the flavor profiles and seasonal variations that make the menu unique. In a sea of false fusion, its eclecticism feels like a comfortable lifeboat.
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