May 29, 2000 | Insatiable Critic

Vine Connoisseur

Chef John Tesar's Wall Street gamble looks like it will pay dividends.

        It will take a lot of duck confit with sweet-potato hash to make a village in the canyons of Wall Street. But the bold pioneers behind Vine -- restaurant, market, carryout, and catering -- are game to gamble. After all, high risk perfumes the air on this corner just steps from the Stock Exchange. And the promise of a recent Thursday dinner suggests Vine could become a destination, too. For a time it looked like Wall Street, with its desolate stock of orphaned real estate ripe for residential conversion, might lure artists and the budget-strapped to create a new SoHo. Then Silicon frenzy and economic euphoria whipped up a demand for more office space. But trailblazing tenants were already moving into the rehabbed offices of the Exchange, Bruce Menin's 1898 landmark at 25 Broad Street, and at night they came home to yawning pavements and shuttered delis. So Vine is Bruce and wife Julie's perk for the tenants, and they've brought in a chef I've followed to unlikelier spots than this. 

        That first night, there is a corporate dinner in the handsome old bank vaults below, but we are only a scattered few in the dining room -- tall and cool with seats for 55 and bright abstract murals that are too naïve to seriously offend. Having championed chef John Tesar's global free-for-all since he first popped up with his silly but delicious Peking-duck pizza at 13 Barrow, I'm stunned at first and even a little disappointed. I loved his "fun food" at the inhospitable club Hush. Suddenly, Tesar has grown serious. Here, he floats tiny oysters in an aromatic puddle of truffled champagne cream and tosses tomato gnocchi with sweet peas and braised oxtail. His monkfish "osso buco" comes on the bone in a froth of foam. The dernier cri of foodie fashion, for better and worse: foam. Though I have to admit it's all delicious. 

        And the prices are grown-up, too, easily $75 per person for dinner. I'm worried. How many $58 prime porterhouses for two with truffle-scented mashed potatoes, sensational Maui-onion rings, and sauce Bordelaise can the neighborhood's bargain-seeking tenants float? As for transient pleasure-seekers -- we're investing $32 in cab fare. Service is tentative. The kitchen a bit slow and uneven. I know we all have to grow up sometime, but I leave still longing for Peking-duck pizza. 

        My guests for dinner a month later try to hide their grumpiness -- long detour, got lost, expensive parking. But even though the kitchen is still slow, Tesar's dazzle quickly disarms us all. His hand is surer, seducing us with the clarity of chicken consommé with potato-truffle tortellini, Napa-cabbage-wrapped packages of foie gras with floats of summer truffle, and a salad of exquisitely cooked lobster with braised fennel in a lush sauce Américaine. The service seems smoother, and the elegance of the space triumphs over the awkward art. Except for the debris a tumultuous market piled on the pavement, the frantic city feels blissfully far away. Eager to show off his French training -- the years at La Varenne, his stint in the kitchen of La Tour d'Argent -- Tesar doesn't need bizarre twists on the classics. Careful cooking, feisty flavors, and a smart balance of acid tang in his sauces make the sautéed skate on celery-root purée with porcinis, and the crisply seared sea bass with tenderest Maine shrimp and cockles, quite memorable. Swordfish poached in olive oil tastes uniquely juicy, its sweetness heightened by powerful tomato compote and a tangle of fried squid and shallots. There are enough wines by the glass at $10 and $12, and a thoughtful scattering of bottles priced at $40 or less. I like the Conn Creek reserve Cabernet ($38) so much, I order it twice. The Meyer-lemon-soufflé tart with lemon ice cream is delightfully assertive, though I suppose the tropical-fruit-sorbet terrine is more sensible. If it's a choice between the chocolate dessert trio and the chocolate soufflé in chocolate soup, I want both. 

        Lunch is lighter, more straightforward, less expensive, and the neighborhood has already discovered it -- there's a full house. Solo lunchers line the bar. I'm wild about sprightly octopus-and-baby-squid salad on mashed avocado with lemon-thyme dressing, and admire the perfect conch fritters in a pleasingly bitter mint-and-pink-grapefruit vinaigrette. But no way can I do justice to the luscious braised short ribs, a duo of alarmingly rich slabs on celery-root purée with a glaze of vinegar and red wine -- enough to feed two. The market next door with its steam table, its salad bar, and a couple of dozen steel tractor stools has opened, and at least half the eager serving crew knows which way is up. Perhaps it's all too much too soon for a stressed-out kitchen -- Tesar himself lives upstairs and only rarely gets to bicycle uptown "to see how the other half lives." Presumably Vine will gets its buds in shape soon. There's talk of opening a steakhouse in the cellar vault come fall. 

Vine, 25 Broad Street (212-344-8463). Lunch, Monday to Friday noon to 2:30 p.m. Dinner, Monday to Friday 5 to 10 p.m., Saturday 6 to 11. Appetizers, $10 to $18; entrées, $23 to $29. All major credit cards.