That perfect spring day is a rare creature—so is that perfect spring plate.
Such a plate appears before me at Heirloom Kitchen in Old Bridge, its creator a few feet in front of me at the stove. I catch my breath at first sight of the wash of pea puree, a brushstroke of early-season green that anchors falafel, also made with peas; graceful short stacks of asparagus, both tip and stalk; and bundles of lump crabmeat, pure and dotted with glistening fish egg and fronds of herb. I glance up at chef David Viana, who is searing duck in a skillet. How do you thank someone who has shed for you all the burdens of winter in one perfect plate?
Viana’s food at Heirloom Kitchen could seem all about a show of art. No, no, no. It’s all about taste and execution, and craftsmanship. And a deep-seated understanding of ingredients and their flavors. Viana, cooking in a veritable performance space, an open kitchen with front-row seating that is the Chef’s Counter, is in his element. He’s a teacher, a conduit of information about all things food, and a space that affords him continual contact with his students seems to both comfort and inspire him.
Hey, I’ve had Spanish-style octopus done 12 ways from Tuesday this year alone, but never as expertly as Viana does it: the sensuous arc of tender octopus dusted in pimenton and angled atop crusty rice, clearly cooked to achieve inner moistness, as it manages desirable crunch. There are speckles of marinated peppers and black beans, all but hidden under pillows of lobster foam that bring a richness to everything on the plate, and a snippet, here and there, of slightly charred octopus. That’s a gift too many chefs would toss, not recognizing its counterpointing virtues.
Even the side shows—generous and dinner-sized—to be honest, are masterful. Soulful fingerling potatoes, tangled in duck confit, taste unabashedly meaty; cauliflower, both purple and green, roasted and tossed with breadcrumbs and golden raisins, are vibrant and, inexplicably, juicy; and Brussels sprouts, caramelized but not candy-like, stay true to the soul of the tiny cabbage.
There are scallops—speaking of caramelized—with tops and bottoms in striations of gold, set in a brown butter infused with lemon, and partnered with roasted maiitakes, small wedges of potato, fans of Brussels sprouts’ leaves and a flourish of greens and herbs. These are happy scallops, very happy.
The duck may be the happiest ingredient of them all here in Viana World. I’ve watched it cook for 40, maybe 45 minutes during my time at the Chef’s Counter on this jam-packed weekend night. Even though Viana is constantly chatting with diners and his on-point kitchen mates, as well as orchestrating the dozen or so items on the well-edited, micro-seasonally sensitive menu, the duck is his always-coddled baby.
We take custody of it with gratitude. It’s plated so that the pink of the breast meat and the orangey-gold of the seared fat and skin jump out, with a torpedo-shaped mound of pale-yellow, pureed potatoes, a phalanx of carrots, slivers and curls of green onion, microchips of mushrooms, and skinny stalks of charred asparagus respectfully giving the bird center stage. It strikes me as fantastically cunning that the binding element in this brilliant presentation is pistachio, pulverized and sprinkled judiciously about the plate. But, truth is, there is nothing here that doesn’t offer Viana’s duck opportunity for nuance. It’s enlightening.
But the enlightenment, and fun, isn’t over yet: Dessert, courtesy of pastry chef Jon Boot, is a true revelation. There is deconstructed carrot cake that makes me want to take back every negative thing I’ve ever said about deconstruction in the kitchen. Indeed, it looks like it was pilfered from the Museum of Modern Art’s mid-20th-century collection. Shaved curls of carrot—orange, purple and yellow—top a multilayered free-form parfait of buttermilk, carrot puree and a kind of granola scented, I think, with garam masala. Walnuts, yes. What else is there?
I may never stop contemplating this finale, unless I’m giving Boot’s rhubarb a go. There is a horseshoe-shaped puree interrupted most politely by a loose scoop of goat’s milk yogurt cosseting cubes of cooked rhubarb and broken-up thin cookies. Lavender? Definitely, and also a suspicion of roasted rooibos. By comparison, the chocolate mousse is easy to dissect, with chocolate (of course) and hazelnut (an almost-expected pleasure) and coffee (for a lift). But then there’s a parnsip puree—and the imagination is off and running again. Boot certainly is the sweet-side-of-food soul mate to Viana.
Viana, finally, has found a culinary home, thanks to the vision and wisdom of Heirloom Kitchen’s owner, Neilly Robinson. She works the floor on the three nights a week dinner is served here, and assists at Viana’s cooking classes on other days. She revels in his food; he revels in the opportunity to express his voice without constriction, without unnecessary editing. Viana’s song of spring was pitch-perfect. I cannot wait for all the seasons to come.
Heirloom Kitchen, 3853 Route 516, Old Bridge. Dinner served Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 5 to 10 pm. Reservations are a must. Chef’s Counter, communal seating and more traditional dining options are available. 732-727-9444, heirloomkitchen.comClick here to leave a comment