For nearly two months, The West Branch stood on the corner of Broadway and 77th Street all dressed up with no place to go. The new bistro, the latest offering from chef Tom Valenti, looked like a ghost restaurant with all the furnishings installed but the interior still darkened. From early September until the end of October, the opening was delayed by a poor inspection review from the Board of Health and problems with its boiler. After all that time, it seemed fair to wonder if it could still open with a bang. Ultimately, though, the waiting just seemed to whet Upper West Siders' appetites. The place has been fairly packed since starting service on Oct. 31. "The neighborhood seems to respond well so far," Valenti said. "The motivation behind this place when I first committed pen to paper almost three years ago was just to bring another moderately priced eatery into the neighborhood. Something that was just a little more accessible and more user-friendly." The unstated comparison, one implied by The West Branch's name, is to Ouest, Valenti's flagship restaurant located several blocks north on Broadway. When Ouest opened in 2001, it was roundly acclaimed and hailed for bringing "fine dining" to the Upper West Side, a reaction a bit overdone but one that undoubtedly galvanized other restaurateurs. The results are evident: new eateries are popping up like crazy. One need only look at Valenti's new neighbors. On the north side of 77th Street opposite The West Branch, Vai has become a surprise hit since opening this past summer. Next door on Broadway, Fatty Crab, an outpost of a downtown Malaysian restaurant, is getting ready to welcome diners. "We certainly have the audience," Valenti said. "That's tried and true if you look at all the restaurants that have opened in the past few years. Most of them are doing well." The West Branch shares Ouest's focus on Valenti's brand of unfussy French cooking. Sample entrees include pan roasted trout, duck confit and gnocchi with braised veal breast. "The food is decidedly more bistro in feel," Valenti said. "We wanted to capture all the things you might want to eat, and that runs the gamut from foie gras to calves' liver to oysters to pastas to roast chicken. Ouest has a more composed approach. I think we have more of a fine dining profile there, whereas this is a little simpler in format. You can't get a burger at Ouest, but you can get a burger here." The long-haired, soft-voiced Valenti doesn't conform to the stereotype of the modern celebrity chef. That's partly because he has hesitated so far to expand wildly like the other big names in the New York restaurant scene. After Ouest, he opened 'Cesca, an Italian restaurant, on 75th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in 2003. It was a success, but Valenti refused to open a spin-off outpost in Atlantic City and eventually split with his business partners, handing over control of 'Cesca. Now The West Branch has brought him back to two eateries. It's hardly a dining empire, but it is one with a notable profile and influence on the neighborhood. "I would jump on a plane tomorrow and go someplace else if I felt that this market was exhausted," Valenti said. "But why leave home if you don't have to?"
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