Fine Art and Fine Dining Come Together at Vacca Grill & Lounge
In what was once a desolate industrial district, comes the next happening neighborhood to be discovered—Sherman Creek of Upper Manhattan. On a city block populated with garages, parking lots, and auto repair shops, rises the oasis that is Vacca Grill & Lounge, a new dining destination, the like of which has not been seen since the development of the meatpacking district.
Vacca is the fresh and innovative creation of entrepreneur and acclaimed fine artist Dario Oleaga, whose work has been featured in many solo and group exhibitions including the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Havana Bienal at Wilfredo Lam Contemporary Art Museum in Havana, Cuba, as well as in his native country, the Dominican Republic. Motivated by the desire to develop his community, he built Umbrella, on 202nd Street, and went on to develop several other popular venues, including Ambar Room, Serie 56, and Guadalupe, Tette, Opus, Coral.
With Vacca, he provides a platform for other talented Dominican artists—his colleagues from the Altos de Chavon School of Design (an art school in the Dominican Republic affiliated with the Parsons School of Design). Working with Architect Ruperto Arvelo, Arevlo architecture+design, pllc, Oleaga turned a 5,800 square-foot mechanic’s garage into a performance piece, so that dining at VACCA Grill & Lounge is an experience that stimulates every sense—the sight and sound of the art and music, the smell and taste of the food and drink, the touch of the textiles decorating the walls and tables. From the moment you enter the vast loft-like space with seating for 70, you begin to experience the artistic vision of Dario Oleaga.
Immediately as you enter, behind the original garage door, an entire wall is lined with bottles of the finest sparkling French wine—think Armand de Brignac, Veuve Clicquot, Perrier-Jouet, Don Perignon, Ace of Spades, Cristal, and Krug. As you enter the main dining room and your eyes are immediately drawn to the massive LED-chandelier, with multi-color lights that throb to the same beat as the music emanating from the state-of-the-art sound system, an effect that is created and controlled by computer systems designed by a lighting engineer.
On one wall of the front dining room and lounge, there is a sculptural mural made up of 94 translucent backlit horns that change colors in an undulating display, and a 3-D mural of butterflies composed of paper and posters by Rider Ureña, a member of the faculty of the Art Department at Columbia University. Throughout the lounge and front dining room, there are stunning examples of tattoo-style art on brick walls by Aneudy Hernandez, with bold black outlines, partially filled in with ink colors, based on representations of Chinese Imperial dynasties from textiles. The dining room and lounge also feature works by Chiqui Mendoza, Diego Balarezo, Cangai and Carlos Martinez. Guests can make themselves comfortable amid the art on banquettes upholstered with fabrics that match the vintage textiles.
The cocktail bar—located at the very center of everything—is covered in blackened steel. You’ve arrived once you have a Lovely Limonada (Bulleit bourbon, lemon and sugar), Johnny’s Mojito (Johnny Walker Black, lime and mint), or a glass of Champagne in your hand. Behind the bar is an elevated dining room with Lucite chairs, steel-colored tabletops, a 360-degree perspective on the art, as well as perfect views for live performances.
To achieve a level of culinary craft that matches the standard set by the visual art, Oleaga has appointed executive chef Humberto Leon, previously executive chef of Pennsylvania 6 and STK Downtown, who also worked under Bobby Flay at Mesa Grill and Bolo. Leon’s chef de cuisine is Virgilio Espinosa, with whom he worked at STK. Together, they present a steak and seafood focused menu with a Euro-Latin-Caribbean flair, along with some specifically Dominican favorites, all designed to pair well with wine, Champagne and cocktails.
The chefs have created a beautiful raw bar, located just outside the kitchen with a dramatic display of fresh oysters and clams ready to be shucked, chilled steamed lobster, as well as a variety of ceviches, tiradito, and shrimp and lobster cocktails. The seafood canoe is an impressive masterpiece for a group to share, built with all the elements of the raw bar.
Next up are the appetizers: Crispy yucca cakes arrive in a mini-fryolator accompanied by chipotle mayo; mini-sliders, bbq ribs, or steamed mussels in coconut curry broth. Like everything else at Vacca, the salads expand our expectations. Asian greens are a toss up of Napa cabbage and daikon with soy-sesame vinaigrette and burrata caprese pairs super fresh, creamy mozzarella with eggplant compote, sun-dried tomatoes and a balsamic reduction in a compelling new combination.
For the main course, there are simply prepared steaks and seafood. Meats, grilled to the diners’ specifications in a variety of cuts including churrasco, tenderloin, bone-in ribeye, and New York strip are served with a choice of classic sauces (chimichurri, red wine, steak sauce or au poivre), each made with a special Vacca zing. Fish, such as tilapia or branzino is as fresh and straightforward as it comes: simply grilled or broiled whole. Both surf and turf are served with delectable side dishes: Dominican favorites including mashed root vegetables such as yautia (sweet orange yam), malanga (taro), corn pudding, sautéed spinach, or truffled mashed potatoes. The house specialties are composed plates, such as Scottish salmon with cauliflower and baby carrots in a green apple curry, seafood linguine with tomato sauce, basil, and chili flake, or a thick cut maple-glazed pork chop served with sweet potatoes and spinach.
Desserts include traditional homey Dominican favorites such habichuelas con dulce (sweet cream of beans), a thick pudding like confection, as well as flan and chocolate mousse.
General manager and sommelier Lina Tio, who brings the hospitality of her native Santiago, Dominican Republic to Vacca, runs the front of the house. She not only ensures that the staff has the tools to make every guest feels well taken care of, but also oversees the Champagne selections and the global wine lists that includes rose, whites, reds and sparkling wines by the bottle.
For an even more VIP experience, guests can reserve the private dining room, reached through a hallway covered with spray-painted graffiti art images that portray iconic comic book women. Inside this very special dining room, there is more of Oleaga’s original work: a refurbished industrial door decorated with colored prints of Champagne labels that are echoed in the Champagne wall near the entrance, and a reclaimed tree refurbished as a communal table, perfect for groups. On the ceiling, Oleaga has created waves of shimmering fish scales of diverse textures and colors. There is also a hand-stenciled mural by Vacca Jesus Hernandez of the French poet Baudelaire’s poem that captures the feeling of VACCA, the feeling of being drunk on life, intoxicated with beauty.
The unisex bathroom, comprised of individual rooms, illustrated with Oleaga’s collages of graffiti, street art, and photography, is finished with shimmering metallic glass brick and a striking mosaic boat communal sink projected out from the wall to the middle of the room by Ezequiel Taveraz.