By Arielle Dollinger
As sunlight turns to moonlight, the lights dim within the walls of Huntington's Vitae Restaurant & Wine Bar; but the atmosphere does not dull. Blue light emanates from the bar area and General Manager John Estevez visits neighboring tables to ask how things are going.
Located on the corner of New Street and W. Carver Street, Vitae stands in the former home of Abel Conklin's Steak & Seafood.
The three-year-old restaurant is "Continental American, with a twist," said Executive Chef Steven Del Lima. Or maybe, "New American with a twist." Its name, "Vitae," comes from the Latin "vita,"meaning "life."
Though many of the words on the menu may be foreign and worrisome to the selective eater, wary of the unknown, Del Lima’s menu is simply a take on the traditional.
“I really like to do classic things with a twist,” Del Lima said. “Very simple ingredients with bold flavors.”
His goal, he said, is to use recognizable ingredients and then to make changes, "so it doesn't scare people away."
The vibrantly-colored Saku Tuna Tartare ($15) is a layered, cylindrical creation. The epicenter of a chili oil circle, raw tuna sits atop fresh-tasting avocado. At the cylinder’s top are a “crisp gaufrette” – a waffled potato slice that most might identify as a fancy potato chip – and ginger.
The Pan Crisped Teriyaki Chicken Dumplings ($12), served with Thai Chile sauce and pickled ginger, rest on a bed of cashew Thai quinoa.
Underneath a blanket of arugula and encircled by halved cherry tomatoes is the Pan Roasted Boneless Half Chicken ($25). Within the arugula and past a drizzle of balsamic are roasted red peppers, roasted fennel, fresh mozzarella and pears.
In a tomato-vodka cream sauce, the Penne ala Vodka ($23) is perhaps a bit saltier than is traditional, but still flavorful. Prosciutto and shaved Grana cheese – a cheese with a texture suited to grating – provide added texture.
In the coming weeks, the restaurant will launch its fall menu, Del Lima said. The menu changes twice a year, from summer into fall and from winter into spring.
On the fall menu, for example, is the Burrata salad. A colorful and healthful mixture, the Burrata gets its name from the fresh mozzarella component, which acts as a pocket around ricotta-like cheese curd. The cheese is served on a pile of quinoa and colors – beets, watermelon and asparagus spears – and the salad is dressed with a vinaigrette.
The Burrata is one of Del Lima's many menu additions during his time at Vitae. Originally from Massachusetts, Del Lima has been on Long Island for 12 years now and served as Vitae's chef from its 2011 opening until he left in 2013 to pursue other career opportunities. Earlier this year, having helped with the openings of three new restaurants, Del Lima returned to Vitae and to a menu that, he said, is still 95 percent of his own creation.
When asked, he struggled to decide which dish was his favorite on the menu. After brief deliberation, he came to the conclusion that he does not have a favorite.
"I do take a lot of pride in everything I put on the plate," he said.
A big clientele favorite, he said, is the Blue Crab Crusted Sole ($32).
And then there are the desserts.
Served alongside a ball of Tahitian vanilla gelato, on a plate decorated with a swoosh of raspberry coulis – a sauce made of pureed raspberry – and a sprinkle of super-fine sugar, the Warm “Falling Down” Chocolate Cake ($10) tastes like a typical chocolate lava cake on steroids.
Vitae’s Milk & Cookies ($8) are served warm and with the same sprinkling of powdered sugar as the chocolate cake. In Chef Del Lima's self-described "classic... with a twist" style, the cookies are relatable, and the milk shake is unique. The "milk" is actually a milkshake - a malted Dolce de Leche milk shake, to be more specific - and the plate glows with the sort of warmth and comfort that are rare finds in the realm of upscale restaurants.
Vitae Restaurant & Wine Bar
54 New Street, Huntington 11743