When a couple dined at a high-end establishment in the chivalrous days of yore, it was not unusual for the gentleman to be handed a menu with prices and the lady to be given one without. The idea was that because he was paying, she needn't let numbers get in the way of her preferences. My wife and I recently experienced this two-menu treatment, and I didn't mind at all. "The Maine lobster salad with mango sorbet looks good," she said ($28). "I'm more in the mood for a caesar," I said ($15). Just kidding, but upon my telling some folks about this practice, the words sexist and anachronistic popped up. The latter is inarguably true, the former very possibly; my hesitation to deem it so comes from dating during the times of feminism and postfeminism and noting through it all the infrequency — rarity, really — of a woman reaching for the check. Yet while most people would agree it would be wrong to return to this ritual, we thought it kind of neat as a novelty.
It happened in South Beach at Vita Restaurant and Lounge — or shall I say the new Vita. The original venue, run by the same people as Mynt (located across the street), was consistently busy, with a bubbly crowd warming up for a long night of clubbing. Old movies were shown on a white wall that backs the courtyard bar, a DJ would spin lounge music into the night, and the food was excellent. "Ingredients are topnotch," declared this paper's review of the contemporary Northern Italian cuisine ("Fresh and True Italian," July 1, 2004), "and combined with simple, direct, nothing-too-much perfectionism." Those weren't my words, but I could easily reapply them to the contemporary French-Italian Mediterranean cuisine at the resuscitated Vita, now owned by two Frenchmen who have already tasted success via their Le Bâoli restaurant in Cannes.
A black-and-white Rogers/Astaire affair was being projected on the aforementioned wall in the 100-seat outdoor garden when we took our table among the lush tropical foliage (which makes this the loveliest of alfresco spaces). That's not the only Vita feature that remains. The DJ booth is still indoors to the right of the entrance — and a DJ too, who spins on weekends from about 10 p.m. till closing. The rest of the room features a lengthy bar, white-clothed tables, tall chocolate-brown banquettes, and not much else.
The waitstaff has of course changed, and for the better. Service was surprisingly strong and knowledgeable for such a young establishment (opened just a month ago). The waiters can get too chatty at times, but that's just a consequence of their energy and enthusiasm. The new duo of chefs likewise shows a sure hand — Federico (from France) and Christophe (Sardinian) proving to be well schooled in the ways of clean, pure cooking. Their menu comes rolled diploma-style, a culinary CliffsNotes of nine appetizers, nine pizzas, six seafood entrées, four meats, and three pastas. The wine list is framed within a regular binder and is mostly stocked with popular French, Italian, and California labels, many of the bottles in the $60 to $70 range (with the now-standard three-time markup). High rollers might want to roll with one of a half-dozen vintage Pauillac wines, which include a 1982 Mouton Rothschild ($2,742).
You can tell how good the food is going to taste just by looking at it. Pea soup arrived vibrant green, a clue to purity that was confirmed with the first spoonful. This is not a mix of mirepoix (onions, celery, and carrots), stock, thickener, and peas, but a purée of the sweet legume unencumbered by base distractions. However, other flavors are included by way of earthy alfalfa sprouts centering the soup and, evenly spaced around the wide rim of the bowl, six cleanly fried mussels — each topped by what was supposed to be "almond foam" but what appeared to be evaporated white bubbles.
Another satisfying start came via three cups of baked, herbed ricotta "tortini" holding paper-thin shavings of raw asparagus dressed with bright basil vinaigrette and a teeny dice of tomato. Vita's vegetable cuts, as well as its white-plate presentations, are clean and meticulous.
There are few rustic dishes other than the wood-fired-oven pizzas. We eschewed the froufrou toppings (prosciutto di Parma/truffle oil; roasted garlic/goat cheese; ricotta/Gorgonzola/smoked and fresh mozzarella) for a basic Margherita — red sauce, fresh mozzarella, and basil gingerly applied to a thin, mildly charred crust.
Pappardelle glowed yellow, like ribbons of egg yolk and nothing more. The wide strips of pasta were impeccably cooked and absolutely delectable with just ripe tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, basil, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Risotto — a nightly special showcasing grains cooked to the bite and a-swirl in porcini cream spiked with cubes of the nutty mushroom — was also topnotch.
A 24-ounce branzino flown from the Mediterranean required just as little fanfare with equally fulfilling results. Deboned and butterflied, it is presented with grilled skin side up, the fresh flesh facing down and savorily bronzed from a searing in butter. It was pretty much a perfect piece of fish, headily matched with sauce vierge ("virgin sauce," so called because none of the ingredients is cooked), a finely minced salsalike mix of tomato, cucumber, garlic, and basil perked with olive oil and vinegar. I'll return to try the pan-seared tuna with candied lemon and coconut sauce.
Steak aficionados are privy to only two picks: filet mignon with herb butter sauce, or a $50, 20-ounce, bone-in cowboy steak with peppercorn and porcini sauces. Then again, thick, juicy red slices of duck breast in a pond of honey-Marsala wine sauce should more than satisfy anyone aching for red meat. An accompanying salad of bean sprouts and orange sections is the sort of buoyant cuisine that won't weigh you down on the dance floor once the DJ gets going. (Earlier in the evening, the music is Sade-soft; in fact Sade was played during our two visits.)
There are also entrée samplers for two, meaning small tastings of all fish or meat items with mixed salad on the side. And speaking of sides, there are a half-dozen very basic ones available à la carte, including mashed or roasted potatoes, grilled asparagus, and the sole unsatisfying sampling of our sojourns: salty sautéed spinach.
(Spoiler alert for the ladies: Reading the following sentence might take away a modicum of menu suspense.) Prices are high — starters $17 to $28; all but two main courses $32 to $39 — in keeping with other chichi Mediterranean restaurants nearby, such as Casa Tua, La Marea at The Tides, and Ago at The Shore Club (see sidebar).
Desserts are mostly cocoa-based, with chocolate fondue, chocolate fondant, and white chocolate mille-feuilles being three of the limited choices. The last brought raspberries and same-size dabs of white chocolate freshly layered between delicate wisps of the crispest phyllo dough circles you'll likely encounter — and a scoop of vanilla ice cream alongside. The rest of the endings comprise an assemblage of three cheeses and walnut salad, a plate of fruit salad, and iced Irish coffee: a tall sip of chilled chocolate, coffee, and whiskey topped by almond-infused whipped cream. The proverbial cherry on top is the return of Vita as a vital player on the South Beach dining scene.
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