Cocktail Vitae

Vai (and its drinks) are a refreshing departure for the UWS

The Upper West Side suffers from a dearth of comfortable, any-night-you-fancy restaurants, so it was refreshing to stumble upon Vai. Tucked away on 77th Street, this tiny, three-month-old spot feels more West Village than UWS, with its menu of simple, inexpensive Mediterranean small plates and carefree jeans-and-sneakers vibe.

A big part of Vai's appeal is its charismatic chef-owner, Vincent Chirico, who you'll find seating guests, suggesting wine pairings and serving the grilled calamari ($9) or tagliatelle with braised rabbit ($14) he's just cooked in his phone-booth-size kitchen. And if you want to know his bona fides, Chirico's cocktail menu doubles as a liquid résumé.

With drinks named Aquavit, Union Pacific, and Daniel, among others, Chirico's sake- and wine-based cocktails pay homage to the chefs who've mentored him. The Aquavit—a bellinilike blend of strawberries and Prosecco—is a nod to his stint as Marcus Samuelsson's sous-chef. Chirico's tour through Jean-Georges Vongerichten's empire inspired Mercer Kitchen, a blend of plum wine, sake and mandarin orange juice. And a Frenchified mojito made with basil, cherries and mint-infused sake is his tribute to time spent on the line at Daniel.

Take note, UWS: You need more spots like this.

Vai, 225 W. 77th St.; 212-362-4500 or vairestaurant.com