March 12, 2012 | BITE: My Journal
Vitae: A Chef Plays His Resume
Chef Bellanco show off his impressive curriculum vitae with this lobster terrine.
I apologize all around. I would not have booked dinner at Vitae last Wednesday if I’d realized it was just the house’s third day. I confront two men at the counter in the window that I mistake for the maître d’s stand, announcing our group’s arrival. “Oh, sorry, you’re customers too.” Up the glass-enclosed stairway, someone is photographing the party space, and here we are, alone in the empty dining room with a choice of tables — a dubious beginning. It’s a soaring space, designed by Niels Guldager of Studio CMP, with a cove ceiling, and a chain-link fence motif that looks good inlaid in terrazza on the floor, but is bizarre on the walls.
Just another Big-eye tuna tartare with wasabi tobiko. Soy-lime emulsion is on the edge.
My friend Peter and I share a $14 cocktail, a tangy, woodsy, bourbon side car. I never had a sidecar before. I’m a dark rum fan. I could become a convert to bourbon. Sinatra crooning in the bar drifts our way. Warm squares of Parker House-inspired rolls arrive on a black iron pan — slicked with duck fat, I discover later. Then for each of us, an amuse — a demitasse of celery root soup with trout roe and chive, complex and delicious. I burst a crunchy fish egg with my tongue.
Here’s my half of a large portion of ricotta gnudi with walnut pesto and chorizo.
It’s too soon to write, I know. More apologies. At this point, the kitchen might get better. Or it might fall apart. But I’m excited to discover Edwin Bellanco, a chef I’ve never noticed who’s been around forever. I like most of what we’re eating. Big-eye tuna tartar with wasabi tobiko on puddles of soy-lime emulsion. Luscious ricotta gnudi with chorizo chunks, painted with walnut pesto in a parmesan fuzz. A delicate poached egg poised atop chopped sunchoke that I smash to scoop up with toast points and discover the saltiness of bacon below.
Under the poached egg and sunchoke lurks a lot of salty bacon. Okay, bacon is salty!
The Road Food Warrior is impressed that the house non-alcoholic brew is Kaliber, his favorite. It seems Emily Iversen, manager on board, noticed the affection for Kaliber by Guinness in her previous stint at Lincoln, where a bartender actually bought a six-pack and stashed it away for our visits.
Scallop cut to open up like a flower is Chef Bellanco’s homage to David Bouley.
There’s nothing dramatically original about this food. Certainly nothing chemically scary or challenging. That’s restful, comforting, like having enough light to read the menu and no screeching (at least till a few more tables get occupied). A seared diver scallop starter might remind you of Jean-Georges’ signature scallop with cauliflower and golden raisins. But then this delicious fat sea creature is parked in a Thai curry sauce. It’s slashed to open up like a flower, a trick Bellanco picked up in the kitchen of David Bouley’s, a chef he admires for his obsessions. Time stands still when Bouley takes over the range.
I’d rather have a slice of foie gras simply poached then this tortured terrine.
Now that a second table has filled up, the kitchen seems to be slowing. Or maybe it’s just that we’ve been recognized and the chef has sent out an extra course, almost everything we didn’t order. Elegant lobster terrine formed from shrimp-lobster mousse layered with purple Peruvian potatoes strikes me as pleasantly old fashioned, the shrimp toast alongside nostalgic too. (Should I take back what I wrote about nothing being original?) Chestnut agnolotti with prosciutto in a parmesan broth. A foie gras terrine with apricot preserves our companions are wild about. But I loathe the terrine’s gummy texture — it’s been pressed through a sieve — and the taste of Cognac is overwhelming. Like I said, third night out, the chef is entitled to a few flubs.
The $25 hanger steak with very good fries to dip into béarnaise is a deal for midtown.
It’s impressive that he’s committed to making his pasta in-house, even though, alas, the pappardelle with wild mushroom ragu is a tad sticky. Hanger steak is a deal for just $25, with excellent fries to dip, or not, into the béarnaise. Appetizers from $12 to $18 may seem a bit pricey, but entrées at $28 or less are remarkably reasonable. The four-course tasting is $65.
I’d like more of that excellent chowder with the pan roasted cod and smoked razor clams.
My only quibble with pan roasted cod — I want more of the lush, creamy chowder-like sauce surrounding the fish, smoked razor clams and fingerlings. It’s richly layered with cream, sweet from carrots and onion, salty from the clam liquor. Give me a pool, not a splash.
Enough beets for me already, although these with pistachios and goat cheese are fine.
If only the staff were as sure as the chef. We’ve been tended to by almost everyone, a round robin of servers. It’s late and a waitress informs us there are only three desserts available — crème brûlée, tarte tatin and a soufflé with a ten minute wait for the last two. We decide to pass.
Chef Edwin Ballanco counted the foot traffic outside before signing the lease.
At that moment the chef introduces himself, disappointed we’re not having dessert and to remind us, “It’s just our third day.” He’s so new, he glows. For a long time, Bellanco tells me, he didn’t think about making the leap to restaurateur. “I always just wanted to cook. I just wanted to get with the best chefs.” That drive brought him to Gramercy Tavern and Tom Colicchio, to Bouley, to Marco Canora. He spent a summer at the French Laundry, and several years running the kitchen at Morell’s in Rockefeller Center.
Then, turning 40, married with children, he realized it was time for a place of his own. He found an investor and this spot on East 46th. “I went outside and counted how many people went by at noon.” He rejected downtown. “I’d have to make it on dinner alone. Maybe just weekends. I feel I can make it in midtown on lunch – he’s got a short rib burger on the menu — and early dinners.” Settling in took months more than he imagined. “Permits can take forever, getting gas. Nothing is a slam dunk in New York.”
He feels the neighborhood is full of law firms and plenty of other businesses. “People are coming in. They like the cocktails and they stay for dinner. I’m between Grand Central and Rockefeller Center. What could be better?”
4 East 46th Street, between Fifth and Madison. 212 682 3562. Lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 am to 3 pm, dinner from 5:30 till 11 pm. Small plates, cheese, charcuterie and oysters available at bar between lunch and dinner.
Text and photos are by Gael Greene, copyright 2012. All rights reserved.