David Viana morphed a strip mall cooking school into one of New Jersey’s best restaurants — imagine what the James Beard Award nominee could do inside a historic Jersey Shore hotel.
The Elizabeth native’s star has only risen since appearing on “Top Chef” in 2019. Demand for tables at Heirloom Kitchen in Old Bridge (in that strip mall) has climbed at a commensurate rate with foodies clamoring for his creative dishes, immaculate plating and delectable duck. If Viana, 41, isn’t the biggest name in New Jersey food, he’s certainly on the short list.
So when the baseball-capped chef announced in March an Heirloom outpost was coming to the new Hotel Tides in Asbury Park (now called The St. Laurent Social Club), the hype began to build immediately — this surely would be the most anticipated new restaurant of 2022.
No pressure, right?
“I feel pressure every day, man. I live off it. It’s the fuel,” Viana told NJ Advance Media earlier this week. “There’s pressure every day, every dish. I love the pressure. I thrive on it.”
Thriving indeed. Heirloom at The St. Laurent, which opened to diners a little less than two weeks ago, is simply fabulous, a clean knockout at center ring.
With dishes featuring the same verve, flair and thoughtful touches as its Old Bridge counterpart in an even more alluring space — plus an impressive cocktail program — Heirloom at The St. Laurent isn’t just Viana’s greatest restaurant to date. It’s immediately the best restaurant in Asbury Park’s competitive foodie scene, and perhaps even the whole northern Jersey Shore.
“I don’t know if there are many places down the Shore that put that much love and care into every detail,” Viana said.
Heirloom at The St. Laurent’s pre-fixe menu is small, but every option is so enticing even a selection between two dishes deserves critical thought. The three-course menu is $89 per person — a casual Shore haunt this is not — but it’s worth the splurge. Viana’s acumen for classic and contemporary is exemplary and on full display here: duck with pickled melon, raw beef with pear, shellfish with curried gnocchi.
While this all may sound overly posh, Heirloom Kitchen owner Neilly Robinson explains the mission: “We call our cuisine the gateway to fine dining. It’s elevated, but it’s not overly fancified. We’re not using esoteric ingredients, instead we’re creating something that’s maybe a little more familiar and elevating it and is also crave-able.”
Let’s take it course-by-course:
First, the gem salad was tasty, highlighted by the fried manchego cheese, which registered like a smaller, sharper fried mozzarella stick and will have you questioning everything about our state’s favorite fried cheese. The steak tartare was lighter and sweeter than typical takes on the dish with Asian pear and ssamjang — a thick spicy Korean paste made with fermented soy beans and red chili paste. The scallops were perfectly cooked and paired with Masala curry gnocchi and sweet and sour eggplant. If you can only order one, go for the unbeatable tartare.
For mains, Viana’s locally famous duck, served with earthy beluga lentils, crispy kale and bright pickled cantaloupe balls, remained a king among kings. The skin was delectably rendered and crispy while the meat itself was rich, juicy and tender. The pork was a winner, too, cooked with charcoal jerk spice, carrot, coconut and red pepper jus to create a terrific blend of sweet and spicy to complement the succulent pig.
For dessert, the sesame and chocolate mousse with toasted meringue and miso sriracha caramel was another inventive combo as was the goat cheese panna cotta with macerated berries and golden beet sorbet — a clever sweet and savory combination that works brilliantly.
The french petit rolls with foie butter and apricot compote were an additional $18. Spend the $18. Trust us.
Let’s talk booze. Lead bartender Ricardo Rodriguez once worked at Broken Shaker, a Miami bar named one of the 50 best in the world. He’s now brought that talent to the Jersey Shore, nailing the classics with aplomb — the daiquiri was sweet, tangy and refreshing and the Manhattan came with a Luxardo cherry on a chilled metal spike — Heirloom is nothing if not meticulous.
“You’re doing your customers an injustice and if you’ve missed that attention to details because I think it makes a big difference,” Rodriguez said.
The Tropical OF, an old fashioned with coconut fat-washed bourbon, banana and tiki bitter will have you rethinking Don Draper’s favorite drink for the rest of your life. And while espresso martinis may be cliche — especially in the dead of summer — Rodriguez’s with aged rum and Maldon salt injects new life into the drink; a can’t-miss with dessert.
Across the board, the only dish that didn’t impress was the halibut; cooked tenderly, but under-seasoned. Still, the accompanying chanterelle arancini were scrumptious little salt bombs, and no quarrels with the cauliflower, sunflower seed coconut nage (similar to a broth) and mint oil.
Few restaurant dining rooms steal your breath the way Heirloom at The St. Laurent does, after an exhaustive renovation of the Hotel Tides interior, which involved completely rebuilding the previous hotel restaurant’s kitchen. The new space expands up Heirloom’s rustic, minimalist aesthetic in Old Bridge with a bright, breezy and beachfront feel — think Jersey Shore fine-dining meets Tulum (with fewer Instagram influencers).
The white-wooded dining room, white wicker light fixtures and oversized garage-style windows are inviting — even if you weren’t eating dinner here, you’d still want to hang out just to soak up the vibe. That you can do in the cocktail lounge at the front of the hotel, which in sharp contrast to the dining room is dark, and moody, pulsing like a New Orleans speakeasy.
“It’s almost a surreal vacation place,” Viana said. “You can almost close your eyes and think you’re in Savannah, Georgia or Charleston, South Carolina, between the the silhouette of the building and the beachy vibes.”
The bottom line
Virtually no New Jersey restaurants in 2022 have experienced the level of expectation nor the locally cynical whispers of Heirloom and its accompanying St. Laurent hotel, which revamped a beloved LGBT icon in the shabby-chic Hotel Tides. The Tides had its own glorious hideaway restaurant, which we named Asbury Park’s best restaurant in 2019. But Viana and company were clearly up for the task in writing this critical next chapter. The combination of creativity and precise execution, gorgeous atmosphere and impeccable service makes this spot hidden on a residential street a worthy locale for destination dining in any season. Reservations should be coveted, like an heirloom.
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