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Vai Spuntino's incredible $39 prix fixe

We've always thought that Vai–with its unassuming atmosphere and approachable menu–had more of a downtown soul than its Upper West Side address would suggest.

So we felt a certain vindication when chef-owner Vincent Chirico–an alum of Daniel, Jean-Georges and Aquavit–recently launched Vai Spuntino, a small sister location on Thompson Street.

Like most siblings, there's a strong resemblance: Chirico, now aided by chef de cuisine Greg Torrech (formerly of Sixth Street Kitchen), continues to find inspiration in the Mediterranean with small plates such as garlicky rock shrimp, given heat by way of guajillo pepper ($12), and braised short ribs ($15), which surrender to a fork without a fight. Served with creamy crushed potatoes, they are a tender parting kiss to winter.

But in a move that's unfamiliar in any part of town, Vai Spuntino offers a prix fixe tasting menu priced at an eyebrow-raising $39. (Wine flights bring the tab up to a still-frugal $59.) It includes about five cherry-picked dishes, some from the menu and some a product of Chirico's whimsy.

It is a tasting menu, to be sure, but don't think for a moment that the younger Vai is putting on airs. It's inherited its predecessor's gentle come-as-you-are hospitality, and we've never felt so at home over a multicourse meal while wearing sneakers.

Vai Spuntino, 105 Thompson St. (between Spring and Prince sts.); 212-226-1146 or vairestaurant.com