“Let’s see … we could get a bottle of Screaming Eagle, unfiltered, for $900. Or a magnum of 1921 Pétrus for $15,000.” My companion looked up from the wine list. “And there’s a Pomerol for $1,350. From 1945! It has to have been astonishingly well kept …”
“Anything in the low two figures?” I asked.
Not a lot, but some. For there are more than 1,400 entries on the wine list at Veritas, a small restaurant in the Flatiron district near Park Avenue, with prices ranging from $18 for a bottle of Muscadet to $25,000 for a magnum of Margaux from 1900. The extraordinary wines come from the private cellars of two of the restaurant’s owners, Park B. Smith and Steve Verlin, who decided that having accumulated more wine than they could ever drink themselves, they would share them with the dining public. Considering what the wines are, the prices are extremely reasonable.
I asked for a glass of house white as an aperitif. To my surprise, the sommelier recommended one of my least favorite varieties, a California chardonnay. “Just try it,” he said, noticing my hesitation. He poured out a taste. Beckman Vineyards. I found it delicious, with none of the cloying sweetness that often turns me off this wine.
It is hard to get into Veritas, a tiny restaurant that only seats 65 and is serious about turning tables. If you come at 7 P.M., you better be out by 9 P.M. (I think they’d relent if you ordered a bottle of Pétrus.) We were lucky, for there had been a cancellation, and they had seated us at one of three tables at the front window, by the small stainless steel bar. The décor of the dining room proper is spare and understated: white-washed brick walls on one side, celadon on the other, with high ceilings, brown leather chairs and banquettes. Hand-blown Italian glass vases placed in enclaves in the wall add a splash of color, and there are candles on the tables. It all feels very low-key and discreet, the right setting for sniffing wine, holding it to the light and rolling it on the tongue–and, as Evelyn Waugh once put it, “ringing it on the palate like a coin on a counter.”
The food is, of course, designed to go with serious wines, so you won’t find any weird spices, obscure Latin root vegetables or bizarre, attention-getting combinations. Dinner is no bargain at $62 for three courses, but that’s hardly an issue if you’re dropping a couple of hundred bucks on a bottle of wine.
“Here’s an ‘amuse,'” said the waiter bringing over a couple of small plates and setting them down before us. “Enjoy!”
“Brandade!” exclaimed my companion, who was still working his way through the wine list. “An odd thing to begin with; it doesn’t tease the tongue.”
He was right. I preferred the fresh anchovy we were served on another occasion, twined around a dollop of eggplant caviar. But there aren’t many misfires on this menu. The chef, Scott Bryan, who is also a partner, has worked with David Bouley, Eric Ripert and Gray Kunz, and this is obvious in his cooking. I first discovered him around a decade ago at a restaurant on the Upper East Side called Soleil, where he was turning out vivid, bold Mediterranean food. From there, he went to Alison on Dominick Street and then, with partner Gino Diaferia, he opened Indigo, a bistro in the West Village, and Luma (currently Siena, serving Italian food) in Chelsea.
Now, with chef de cuisine Christina Kelly, his cooking has become lighter but equally focused. His lobster soup, a light, lemony broth flavored with wild tarragon and tomato confit, is green and herbiferous. His Asian sensibilities, via Gray Kunz, are evident in the tuna tartare, which is diced and mixed with cucumber, osetra caviar, mint, scallion and soy sauce, a wonderfully complex dish. I liked it much more than the gravlax, topped with panna cotta–which was too bland for the fish–and dotted about with a lemon coriander vinaigrette that did nothing much to perk it up. His seared foie gras takes you in a completely different direction, matched with a tart rhubarb compote, lush pistachio oil and a mellow 20-year-old balsamic vinegar. It’s a daring mix, and it works.
I particularly like what Mr. Bryan does with salads, whether it is green and white asparagus with summer truffles and chives, or plain lobster salad, served with a few spears of asparagus, fava bean purée and a simple dressing of olive oil and sherry vinegar. The spring vegetable salad (an antidote to summer? It was close to 100 degrees outside, after all) was wonderful. The vegetables–chanterelles, favas, artichokes and white asparagus–were tossed with baby leaves of mâche in a dressing that made them taste like fresh pickles. They were served with a California goat cheese, Humboldt Fog, that was at its peak, melting just under its ash rind but firm and creamy white in the middle.
My companion’s seafood risotto, although perfectly cooked, was overloaded with butter. I was disappointed in the sautéed skate, which was greasy and arrived on orzo mixed with pistou, surrounded by a frothy and cloyingly rich saffron cream sauce. Halibut, with baby artichokes, was a little dry under its crust and the basil lobster broth didn’t have much character. But the seared salmon, rare in the center, with sautéed Asian greens and light curry nage (not too heavy on the curry so as to overpower the taste of wine) was remarkable, with clear but complex flavors. If you need pepper, you will be brought the heaviest silver pepper mill you’ve ever seen–”invested with gravity,” as my friend put it.
Mr. Bryan’s roast chicken is one of the best I’ve had anywhere, cut in chunks with a crisp, burnished skin and juicy flesh that has that “farm-raised” taste. It comes on a bed of thin, crisp sliced potatoes with baby tomatoes. The other outstanding dish at Veritas is the lamb trio, which consists of perfectly seasoned and cooked grilled chops, roasted saddle, a heavenly lamb shank daube and potatoes seasoned with chèvre.
The chocolate soufflé here is really more of a molten cake, dark and seriously chocolatey, with chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream making it an all-American dessert. The rhubarb tart was good, too, with an interesting sour cream-black pepper ice cream, and the chilled red fruit soup was as sublimely refreshing a dish as you could wish for on a hot night. But nothing matched the praline parfait surrounded by a glistening, smooth reduction of clementine oranges with clementine sorbet.
To go with dessert, you can get a 1967 Sauternes for $950. Or a Trockenbeeren-auslese riesling 1976 for $400. On second thought, I’m more in the mood for a nice Italian moscato. At $15, the price is right. And another of those chocolate soufflés, waiter, please.
* * *
43 East 20th Street
Noise Level: Fine
Wine List: Huge (more than 1,400 bottles), exceptional and reasonable
Credit Cards: All major
Price Range: Lunch main courses $18 to $21, prix fixe $29; dinner prix fixe $62
Lunch: Monday to Friday noon to 2:15 P.M.
Dinner: Monday to Saturday 6 P.M. to 10:45 P.M., Sunday 5 P.M. to 9:45 P.M.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor