Barracuda Baby Turtle Vodka

Vintage chef Patrick Atanalian dances on the bleeding edge of the culinary avant-garde, pushing past the current "fusion" trend into a world where everything in sight has fused and become surreal.

When I ask what his father would think of his food at the Vintage, the chef starts to laugh, stretches his arms out as if to embrace such an outrageous possibility, and continues to laugh heartily for an uninterrupted three or four minutes before wiping the tears from his eyes and saying: "I think he would be interested, and proud."

Rejecting the traditions of the father can be a little hairy, though, and some of Atanalian's innovations are too much even for someone who'd happily eat baby barracuda vodka turtles on a dare. Like the maki roll appetizer ($7.95), sushi rice rolled around a reasonably tasty braised combination of beets, greens, roasted mushrooms, and wasabi-plum vinaigrette. But they were leaden and weird both times I tried them, little bits of salad contained in icy masses of rice. Bringing them to room temperature might have helped, but as it was, the dish tasted like a mistake. Ditto for the jalapeño-chèvre-custard puff pastry ($8.25), a mound of chèvre topped with half a dozen slices of raw, marinated eggplant served with a nearly black, profoundly sour basil-pomegranate reduction and a few stale moons of plain pastry for a confused, bitter, and unpleasant effect.

Another loser was a selection of appetizers available only on the bar floor, downstairs from the nonsmoking formal dining area. It was described as smoked salmon and rice cakes ($7.50), and I thought the two would be together in one cake; unfortunately the dish turned out to be small cubes of smoked salmon scattered on a mushy pillow of ground breakfast cereal-style rice. They were supposed to be flavored with orange and Tabasco, but I couldn't taste either. My last complaint was with an entrée of balsamic-glazed lamb ribs ($18.95). The cassoulet base of beans and chanterelles was perfect and awfully tasty. But the ribs themselves were white and greasy with fat, impossible to pull apart, and should never have been served in such an elegant setting--after about 10 minutes of effort, I was greasy from eyebrows to elbows, and no amount of fine wine and romantic fireplaces was going to make me happy again.

Kristine Heykants

While I'm whining, I'll point out that you should take your choice of where to sit at the Vintage very seriously, since the ground floor is "cigar-friendly" and offers a humidor from which diners may pick cigars, so at a moment's notice, your quiet table by the fireplace can turn into a sewer of cigar fumes. This happens even on the no-smoking side of the ground floor, because cigars are just that powerful. Your best bet is to request the nonsmoking upstairs, where there are another two fireplaces to cuddle by.

One of the best things to cuddle over is dessert, in which Atanalian's culinary wit is most elegantly showcased. The plantain-Grand Marnier bread pudding ($5.95) arrives with two long antennae of fried plantain waving from its crown. While the pudding is topped with some unnecessary plantain chips (their starch distracts from the sweet richness of the dessert), the bread pudding itself is delicious, and the sauce of white chocolate, mango, and passion fruit, impossible to resist. The "Cherry Sabayon Soup" ($5.95) is a Dr. Seuss-style bowl of scrumptious chocolate mousse given textural interest with crisped rice (just like the candy bars!), served with a lush cherry sabayon sauce and scattered with fat, festive maraschino cherries. Likewise the chocolate Frangelico crème caramel ($5.95)--a dessert of chocolate custard with a perfect caramel layer and a coffee-infused chocolate caramel sauce--is heavenly.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the advantages of having nothing to prove, but lately I've seen that having something to prove can work out pretty nicely, too. Whether you're just stopping at the Vintage's beautiful Selby Ave. mansion for a glass of wine or staying for a full-fledged barracuda-to-sauternes experience (yes, they also have an extensive dessert wine list), the overall impression is one of youth, ambition, and, above all, hunger--hunger for something bigger than hipness, and more successful than mere success. So, a toast: To hunger!


LESS IS MORE:Word is in on those '98 vintages, from the West Coast, at least. Turns out El Niño --which in California has meant extremes of every weather sort--has resulted in crops half the size of what they ordinarily are, with very small grapes. Winemakers are saying it will taste great, but there won't be much of it. Frankly, I think local farmers could learn a lot from those media-savvy vintners, who make every detail of their agricultural process--from rootstock to mold to dirt (which they smartly call terroir) a selling point. Imagine: '96 soybeans are some of the best on the market! An intense nose and nutty beanlike intensity make these the beans to cellar for consumption after 2002. '98 milk? Perhaps the best since '78--full-bodied, rich, creamy; you can really taste the terroir. An outstanding year!

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