Within a Banker’s Vault, Vine Reincarnates Classics

A bank vault would hardly seem the ideal place to have dinner. But restaurants these days are opening in the strangest settings–under bridges, in disused warehouses and parking garages–and especially in old banks. Downstairs at Vine, in the heart of the financial district, you can dine in vaults once owned by J.P. Morgan, which are secured by an impenetrable round door 2 feet thick, whose visible mechanisms look like the inside of a giant watch. Copper deposit boxes still line the walls, interspersed with frosted blocks of light, the whole thing resembling a Bruce Nauman installation. I imagined inserting an A.T.M. card in a slot and one of the drawers whipping open and delivering up a sandwich, like the old automats.

Vine’s bank vault is only for private parties, however. The main dining room lies above, on the ground floor at street level–and it’s not at all what I had expected from Wall Street. You’d think a restaurant in an 1898 landmark building directly opposite the New York Stock Exchange would be a leathery old place with mahogany paneling and dignified portraits, the sort of setting where a puff of cigar smoke and a handshake signal the transfer of millions.

“We felt that people who came here would have worked all day in one of those old buildings,” says Julie Menin, the owner of Vine. “We wanted to create something upbeat and relaxing, casual and modern.”

What they came up with is certainly modern, but the only aspect of the dining room that doesn’t feel like a Hilton hotel in Cincinnati is the view: The facade of the Stock Exchange, framed by 20-foot-high, steel-framed windows. The building, owned by Julie Menin’s husband, real estate developer Bruce Menin, is one of the first in the neighborhood to be turned into apartments. Ms. Menin also owns VineMarket next door to the restaurant, a grocery, cafe and catering service run by Nancy Hart, formerly of the Vinegar Factory. But the dining room itself has very little character. Its beech-paneled walls are dominated by blowups of wine bottles, candles, spoons and forks in bright primary colors. They look computer generated. The high ceilings are hung with 50′s-style light fixtures, the music is easy-listening lounge, and the well-spaced, generous tables are set with candles and little pots of grass. It’s pleasant, but you could be anywhere.

Vine’s bar, topped by an electric-blue counter, is large and comfortable. You could easily forget the money lost on Internet stocks over some too-contrived cocktails including “green tea,” “orange creamsicle,” “espresso pillow” and a white chocolate martini. Here, I’m afraid, readers of The Observer are on their own. But the wine list is exceptional. It’s not put together to impress with the typical astronomically priced vintages the owner can’t bear to part with (and generally doesn’t have to because of their cost). It’s priced so that people will choose interesting, good wines. The sommelier, who is also the manager (and formerly of Aureole), is incredibly helpful and knowledgeable. When asked to come up with something great in the very low two figures, his response was to thank us for the challenge. He rose to the occasion every time, starting with a notable Chorey-les-Beaune.

One of the friends I met for dinner one night showed up on a bicycle, and from our table I could see him, dressed in an Armani suit, locking the bike up on the street. Surreal–but what more appropriate way to work up an appetite for chef John Tesar’s modern, adventurous menu? The most outstanding first course was the sautéed skate, a glorious dish, the fish crisp on the outside, soft and moist underneath, served with a creamy celery root purée and porcini mushrooms in a dark mushroom emulsion (or “liquor” as it was called on the menu) that tasted as though hundreds of pounds of wild mushrooms had been boiled down to make it so intense. The chicken consommé was also delicious–crystal-clear but with a powerful concentration of flavor, floating with ethereal slivers of white truffle, potato truffle tortellini and tiny packages of cabbage, each the size of a fingernail, stuffed with foie gras.

The delicate pink tomato gnocchi provided the perfect foil for a seriously rustic sauce made with braised oxtails. Plump snails with Roquefort, walnuts and garlic arrived in a small white pie dish topped with puff pastry, the lid balanced on the side along with a tiny salad of frisée. It was an elegant presentation of an elegant dish. I loved the oyster stew in a creamy, light champagne broth laced with black truffles. The salad of green and white asparagus was the only first course that wasn’t outstanding–though still very good. Served with truffle oil, truffles, morels and tomatoes, it seemed ordinary in comparison with the ingenuity and elegance of the rest, put together perhaps to mollify a vegetarian.

Unfortunately, too much time lagged between the first and second courses (on both occasions I visited). And when they arrived, the fish dishes were disappointing. Perhaps the swordfish, poached in olive oil with a tomato compote, was supposed to be served lukewarm, but it still wasn’t very good, nor was the dull sea bass with spring onion ragout.

But for the most part, Mr. Tesar’s food is terrific, especially his sauces, which have extraordinary complexity and depth of flavor. I wanted to spoon up every mouthful of the glistening mahogany sauce that comes on the sautéed duck with caramelized pineapple, and the red wine bordelaise on the porterhouse. This steak, served for two but enough for four, was charred, juicy, meaty and well seasoned, with buttery truffle-scented mashed potatoes, crisp feather-light Maui onions and the coup de grâce –two marrow bones with tiny spoons for digging out the divine cholesterol. The lamb, twin mesas of rare chops with a garlic-and-herb potato pie, was good, too. These are classic dishes reborn, meat and potatoes reinvented with a flair that elevates them to another class. It’s food that you want to eat , both marvelous and satisfying. The flavors are familiar, but intensified and succulent.

It was hard to decide which was my favorite dessert, but I think the Meyer lemon tart was probably the winner, with lemon curd and lemon ice cream. The filling was light as a soufflé, with a vivid and deep lemon taste, on a delicate, crisp pastry. But I also liked the rich mocha hazelnut cake with caramelized bananas and malted milk ball ice cream, the thin apple tart and the plate of chocolate desserts that included a creamy mousse and chocolate crème brûlée. The desserts are also classics redone sumptuously. And to go with a glass of Croft vintage 1977 port, what could be nicer than a selection of perfectly ripened artisan cheeses from New York State?

When we left, a party was winding up at 55 Wall Street and the streets were as glutted as Times Square when the theaters let out. By the time we found a cab, my friend with the bicycle was already home–having worked off his delicious dinner, lucky fellow.

Vine

* *

25 Broad Street (at Exchange Place)

344-8463

Dress: Business

Wine list: Excellent

Noise level: Fine

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Main courses, lunch $18 to $28, dinner $23 to $29

Lunch: Monday to Friday noon to 2:30 p.m.

Dinner: Monday to Friday 5 p.m. To 10 p.m., Saturday 6 p.m. To 11 p.m.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor