I know this sounds as if it's damning with faint praise, but Veritas has the craftiest air-conditioning ductwork you've ever seen: a perforated cloth cylinder, spanning the room in silence, suspended just below the ceiling and off the long brick wall. And when it's not in use, the tube deflates to hang flat as a banner, a pale, elevated, mini-version of Christo's Running Fence.
Now, before chef Scott Bryan or any of his partners or staff begins reaching for the Fernet Branca, it's important to note that this is not Veritas's premier attraction. But transforming an unwieldy necessity like a ventilating system into a surprising and inventive design element spotlights the enthusiasm for sly, understated detail that permeates every aspect of this unexpectedly elegant and mature new restaurant.
It's doubtful you would break stride to notice Veritas, certainly not with the picture-windowful of activity going on across the street at Gramercy Tavern. Nor does its narrow bar or square dining room contain any dynamic feature to match the Tavern's vivid bar-corralling mural. And yet Veritas's individual components -- clear, conical bar lamps, muted celadon walls, sleek saddle-leather chairs, diorama niches displaying jewel-tone glass vases set in an oyster-white wall -- combine to create a room that, though spare and deliberately devoid of distractions, feels easy to take refuge in. There is just enough color, just enough comfort, a touch of formality (this place is obviously meant for grown-ups), even a hint of romance in its mellowness.
A full-blown, hot-but-not-heavy love affair is going on just out of view, however, right there in the kitchen -- it's between Bryan and chef de cuisine Christina Kelly and their menu. (Actually, there is another grand passion afoot as well. One look at the stunningly ecumenical, deliciously idiosyncratic, yet sky's-the-limit wine list, and you know you're surrounded by intense oenophilia. A word to the wise: Let the sommelier choose. He can entwine grape to meal better than any pairing Gene Rayburn ever commended on The Match Game).
Considering how other fast-blooming chefs are proclaiming their bistrophilic biases, pan-Asian passions, and South American ardor, brandishing favored spices as if they were aphrodisiacs, Bryan and Kelly's liaison is an atypically quiet thing. The menu's listings are shockingly modest, refusing to reveal each quarter-teaspoon of seasoning or detail every cooking procedure more deft than a toss. Such restraint is both rare and welcome. So is Bryan's enviable and equally uncommon (for the times) urge to turn toward a lighter method of preparing regional American cuisine.
At Bryan's first venture, the now-refashioned Luma, flavors were dense and lush. At his second, Indigo, dishes are constructed of short bursts of bright flavors (and the service, unfortunately, is too often composed of short bursts of grudging attention). At his third, Siena (on the former site of Luma), he harnesses the boisterous big flavors of Italy. But with Veritas, Bryan and Kelly are looking for their union to yield delicacy and refinement, even airiness. It's a risky blend that few attempt because it so often turns precious, leaving diners licking their lips in anticipation until they feel silly and, worse, starving.
Happily, Bryan's gamble has been fruitful, and joyous occasions often multiply with each mouthful. An ethereal bowl of warm truffled oysters exemplifies the level of achievement: a splash of Riesling in a whipped foam of cream and leeks, a sprinkling of fines herbes, fingerling potatoes, plus fat and happy oysters floating to the surface. No chili rub wailing for attention, no blast of cumin demanding its due. The dish flows like the third glass of champagne, more sensual than the rustle of velvet dropping to the floor. Sweetbreads are enriched by chestnut purée but resist their potential pasty aftertaste thanks to a lacing of lemon. Frothy lentil soup looks like a great bowl of cappuccino, delicious as it is weightless, except for rich flecks of thick-cut bacon that barely rest on the tongue for more than two beats.
Wild-mushroom ravioli is another dish worthy of full embrace. The pasta almost ripples in the emulsion, while the porcini and shiitake share, rather than fight for, your attention. A slightly briny tuna tartare is tackled by the sweetness of green onions and mint into happy submission. The foie gras is the only appetizer that could have benefited from some tough love. Tenderly seared and delicious on its own, it should have been accompanied by the pineapple compote or the ginger-pink-peppercorn vinaigrette (the latter is the better consort, though).
The pepper-crusted venison, however, surrounded by a spry cherry-Armagnac jus, is a wonderful ménage. In fact, if a house is going to have only seven entrées, why not make them all equally good? Bryan and Kelly have done just that: A densely sweet, farm-raised chicken in Madeira and a moat of garlic-rich potato purée. Shrimp-and-wild-mushroom risotto with a velvety carpet of black truffles (bound to cause resentment when others realize you're giving all your attention to your plate). A completely satisfying roast squab that's flanked by crunchy green lentils and baby beets but whose charms are unlocked by an innocuous-looking brown sauce that is actually an emulsified elixir of foie gras. And the real star -- shellfish broth bathing moist layers of codfish, studded by eggplant caviar and dusted with saffron. But the fish most altered is salmon in a sublimely buoyant foam of curry nage. I would be delighted to pour the latter on anything. Anything.
There is an inflexible bias in my family that when it comes to dessert, there is chocolate, and then there is everything else. (Daniel Boulud's new restaurant splits his dessert list precisely this way. I have to check: We must be related.) However, neither that nor the smooth brioche bread pudding with mascarpone nor the richly appealing apple tart can match a praline parfait so enticingly perfumed by a reduction of clementine oranges as to qualify as the Dom Pérignon of Creamsicles. I sincerely hope Mr. Bryan takes that as a compliment. I would hate to have him think that I come to Veritas only to enjoy the splendor of his climate-control apparatus.
I recently received a phone call from a furious diner. She said she had called Babbo restaurant to make a reservation for eight people, and the house had refused, citing the intimacy of its two dining rooms, each of which handles around 50 people. What arrogance, she declared. What restaurant would want to restrict the number of her guests? A smart one.
Last month I dined at Siena, one of the other outposts of Veritas chef Scott Bryan and his partner Gino Diaferia. Siena serves zesty and warming contemporary Italian cuisine. It's a vivacious neighborhood place, in vibrant contrast to the matte finish of Veritas, and its easygoing manner is infectious. So we relished the hot-pepper broth of the linguine vongole with loads of shredded bread, tore at the almost-pulled nature of the Barolo-braised pork, squinched our noses at the bristle of dandelions in white-truffle essence, and lunged for the coziness in a spoonful of ribollita. Just like everyone was doing. In their own space.
But Siena seats only 65. The last time we were there, so was a table of twelve. Face it, a group's decibel level is directly proportionate to how big it is. And so they bellowed across the table. They played musical chairs as if they were at sleepaway camp. They laughed too loud, they screamed too often, they passed, they dropped, they leaned back and got in everyone's way. They took pictures. In other words, they behaved exactly as you would if you had been sitting at a table with eleven of your friends.
We tried to enjoy our rib eye and rosemary chicken. Chef de cuisine Kristin Maugeri had certainly done her part. And the staff were all worthy of the purple heart. But except for the dirty dozen, every table was having about as much fun as if they'd all been served cysts.
Sorry, ma'am. The management of Babbo is right. If you are going to dine with a large party, choose a restaurant that can handle your crowd. And for those who insist "Oh, no, not my friends," the next time someone in your circle has a house party for the gang, ask him how many footprints he 409'ed off the wall afterward. Bet not as many as the cigarette butts he found in the areca palm.
Veritas, 43 East 20th Street (353-3700). Lunch, weekdays noon to 2:30; dinner, Monday through Saturday 6 to 11, Sunday 5 to 10. A.E., M.C., V. Appetizers $8-$16; entrées $22-$28.
Siena, 200 Ninth Avenue, near 23rd Street (633-8033). Dinner, Monday through Saturday 6 to 11, Sunday 5 to 10. A.E. Appetizers $6-$8, entrées $10-$18.