Classic withstands a hiatus
Vat & Tonsure reopens after a decade, and the time doesn't tell
Rare is the restaurant that can get away with being staunchly indifferent to the times. Currency is everything, the movers, shakers and marketers will tell you. You've got to stay hip and sexy to survive in the always-shifting restaurant business. Unless you happen to be a classic.
It seems that the Vat & Tonsure earned classic status during its hallowed run a decade ago. It was a clubby place that catered to suits at lunchtime and culture hounds by night, characterized by co-owner Rosemarie Quinn's homey cooking, a steady supply of good wine and ultraeducated, often imperious waiters.
It was likable because it didn't actively try to win you over. Being forced to close when the old Fox Theater was demolished to make way for the looming Fox Tower helped canonize the Vat.
And now the Vat's back, original bar, paintings and severe wooden booths intact in a comely, if plain, storefront mere blocks from its former location. The menu is pretty much the same as before, a couple of veteran waiters have returned, and opera once again pours out of the sound system, occasionally jolting diners with particularly intense arias. So: Is it a classic still?
The Vat undoubtedly has lured back many of its loyal customers, an older set that drives the 6 p.m. dinner rush. And it's very likely that it attracts a new crop of Reedies following in the footsteps of grads who spent thousands of hours theorizing at the old place. Certainly, the music, unfawning waiters and decidedly Spartan cooking set the Vat apart.
You won't find another menu like the Vat's Ñ so old-fashioned it could have been plucked from a 1950s time capsule Ñ anywhere else in town. Whole Cornish game hen. Sherry roast pork. SautŽed prawns. Pork or lamb chops.
These no-nonsense entrees include a vegetable (broccoli on every visit thus far) and choice of salad, but no starch. No pasta, potatoes or rice are in sight at the Vat; bread and butter arrives only by request. It's a restaurant that would make Dr. Atkins proud. Be sure to tell your dieting friends.
Of the half-dozen or so entrees, bet that at least a couple will be scratched out with pencil on any given night. Quinn's trademark game hen is a delight and a terrific bargain. For $13.95, you get the moist little bird in its entirety (plus veg and salad, don't forget), a right pleasant meal reminiscent of Mom's cooking.
SautŽed prawns are as minimalist as it gets: firm, buttery and piquant. Alas, as they're served with shells and feelers still attached, you have to do a bit of work to get to the flesh. Both chops Ñ lamb and pork Ñ are succulent and served in pairs so you won't go home hungry.
As for the greens, the heap of buttered broccoli, while not mushy, could stand to be more al dente. An appetizer of whole artichoke, served cold and a bit limp with caper mayonnaise, also suffers the fate of too much time in the pot.
Of the five accompanying salads, the aptly named Special Salad is the clear standout. Julienne turnip, leek, celery root and Gruyre dressed with lemon and olive oil, it achieves a trompe l'oeil effect: Each strip is the same ivory color by candlelight, so you get a bite of cheese just when you're thinking celery root. The fennel and tomato salad also is winsome.
Just three choices long Ñ none of them chocolate Ñ dessert is as unfussy as dinner. Almonds and dried apricots sound like a fine ending, but they haven't been available for a while. If you're lucky, the dreamy custard will be on offer. If not, console yourself with another glass of wine. The manageable wine list is European save for a couple of Oregon pinots; glasses range from $4 to $6, and the priciest bottle is $46.
To be sure, the Vat & Tonsure isn't for everyone. People put off by distant waiters, unapologetic outmoded cooking or opera should save their money. But from the spare design to its unadorned food, the Vat remains timeless. And that holds unquestionable appeal.