October 27, 2008 | Insatiable Critic

I Did It My Vai

 The three cheese pizzetta with tomato and pinenut pesto is lush and just $9.  Photo: Steven Richter
The three cheese pizzetta with tomato  and pinenut pesto is lush and just $9.  Photo: Steven Richter

       While top whisks like Ed Brown and Daniel Boulud made big noise braving the upper west side, Vai slipped quietly into its modest, handsomely mirrored space on West 77th, quickly winning fans for its savory oval pizzettas – try the three cheese tomato and lush pastas. Our troop of five on tall stools at the big center table are wild about rigatoni with spicy sausage and the creamy truffled ravioli, two pastas priced at just $9.50 that could make this a recession hangout.

It’s dark indeed but sexy at Vai’s tall center table .  Photo: Steven Richter

            Yes, it’s dark in here but once we solve the menu hurdle, dinner by votives in the shadows seems almost romantic. Executive chef Vincent Chirico, late of Frederick’s, with partner Bennet Orfaly built the place, painted it and found the mirrors in New Jersey.

              With tables both tall and normal, hot music competing with a joyful clamor, and doors thrown open to the street on a mild night, Vai clearly wants to be a wine bar – with charcuterie and cheese plates ($16 for three cheeses, $19 for five) and more for the hungry. The kitchen creeps on a busy night but our cheerful server brings a giveaway of olive oil, chopped marinated tomatoes and eggplant-marscapone spread in a long divided platter to pile on toast, smilingly replacing it during the long wait. 

Lemon preserve and capers set off grilled calamari. That’s Boston lettuce behind.  Photo: Steven Richter

              At last, food arrives. We love grilled calamari with lemon preserve and caper sauce as well as clams roasted under a crust of andouille, chili and lemony breadcrumbs. The smallish sea scallops on fennel cream are good too but not much to eat for $14.  And Vai wants to play big time too with a chef’s menu and a flight of five wines for two to share at $75 each and a “small bite menu” with tastes of seven wines for $69.  Entrees served naked on the plate seem reasonable enough ($17 to $21, with a $29 rib eye) till the server insists you’ll need sides ($6). That big, nicely moist pork chop does look lonely.  But what’s listed as “baby” chicken is huge, juicy too, enough for tomorrow’s lunch, and an order of parmesan asparagus and a bowl of crispy artichoke chunks work for the table.

Chicken can be so boring but not this one, even naked on the plate. Photo: Steven Richter

             By dessert time, after two glasses of a Grenache Syrah (the least expensive red at $34), we’ve actually forgotten the wait. Nutella crepes would never be my choice – our guests seem to love them. The fig tart is just enough sweetness to frost a pleasant evening. The erratic pricing feels aggressive right now with the continuing market shock, but given all these options, it’s possible to choose an affordable supper.

225 West 77th Street near Broadway 212 362 4500