Editor’s Note, January 6, 2016: The owners of the Kitchen at Grove Station tell us the restaurant has temporarily closed and will reopen at some point under the same name but with a new executive chef. David Viana is no longer associated with the restaurant.
“My aim is to deliver the highest level of food, without pretense or sticker shock,” David Viana, executive chef of the Kitchen at Grove Station, told me. “Jersey City residents needed this.”
Given that downtown Jersey City already has one of the hippest and fastest-growing restaurant scenes in the state, the second part of Viana’s statement does suggest some pretense. On the other hand, the 35-year-old chef is on firm ground claiming high-quality food. And with many dishes on his 20-item dinner menu priced under $20—the highest is a $26 strip steak—no one will need smelling salts when they see the bill.
The restaurant’s name stems from its location on the ground floor of the 1989 International Financial Tower, which faces the entrances to the Grove Street PATH station. When you enter, you pass a barista bar operated by Jersey City’s cool Modcup roastery at the head of the long, 72-seat dining room. On the right is the semi-open kitchen; on the left, a windowed wall lined with high-backed booths under dangling Edison-type bulbs. In the center are rustic wooden tables lit by chandeliers, including one crafted from antlers.
Viana is adept at intensifying flavors. An exemplar was his $10 corn soup. Setting half the raw kernels aside, he cooks down the rest with garlic and pickled shallots. “The starch naturally thickens it into almost a custard,” Viana explained. He turns the custard fragrant and maple-hued with aromatic herbs. Adding the reserved corn and a touch of cream, he cooks the soup until the kernels caramelize into chewy, candy-like bits. Corn soup? More like bliss in a bowl.
The son of Portuguese immigrants, Viana grew up in Elizabeth. “My dad was a pastry chef who owned P&K Bakery on Third Avenue,” he said. “He did these ornate, beautiful wedding cakes. He worked so hard, if I wanted to see him I’d go to the bakery. The sacrifice of being a chef was drilled into me. My parents wanted me to be a professional.”
Viana majored in criminal justice at Seton Hall. “I worked as a Union County probation officer for four months,” he said. “Let’s just say it wasn’t for me. I realized how comfortable I am in a kitchen.” He earned a certificate from the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan in 2003 and worked as a cook at Eleven Madison Park and later at Mesa Grill, both in Manhattan.
Fluent in Portuguese, Viana did a six-month “stage” (unpaid apprenticeship) at Vila Joya, a two-Michelin-star restaurant on Portugal’s Algarve coast. “But Chef Dieter Koschina is Austrian, and his kitchen is German speaking,” he related with a laugh. “Still, I learned what haute cuisine is all about for a cook: Worship the ingredients, work long and hard.”
Back home, “I fell even deeper in love with American fine cooking at Restaurant David Drake in Rahway. David made me a thoughtful chef. I’d ask him about an ingredient or cooking step, and he’d say, ‘Well, what would you do?’ The message I got was, question everything, use your mind, keep innovating. Something working, or not, is in your hands.”
Viana also worked for chef Anthony Bucco at Uproot in Warren and Michael White at Osteria Morini in Manhattan. Late in 2011, chef Zod Arifai of Blu and Next Door in Montclair hired Viana as chef de cuisine when Arifai revived Daryl in New Brunswick.
“We were kindred spirits in our love of food and passion for creation,” Viana said. After Daryl closed, Viana worked briefly as chef de cuisine for chef Ryan DePersio’s Battello on the Jersey City waterfront. “I was a caretaker for his recipes, with free rein only over specials,” Viana said. “I didn’t last.” On his first day of unemployment, he interviewed with investors who wanted to open a casual café in the Financial Tower.
“I was already living in J.C. I love the vibe and the people here,” Viana said. “I told them, ‘This place can be so much more than a café.’” They hired Viana, and the Kitchen at Grove Station opened in November 2014.
Viana’s idiosyncratic menu eschews the customary categories. Instead, he says, “they describe moods, not courses.” The first three—Grains & Greens; Cool & Crisp; and Warm & Cozy—are medium-sized plates. Hearty & Robust plates are roughly entrée sized.
Grains & Greens always features a roasted vegetable salad and a risotto, like last summer’s arborio rice cooked in beet juice and dotted with hillocks of white and green—goat cheese and fava-bean confit. Cool & Crisp includes carpaccios of seafood or meat, the latter including a memorable panzanella steak tartare—a riff on the classic Tuscan bread and tomato salad served with a lavish quenelle combining hand-chopped, raw New York strip steak, dry-aged beef fat and garlic.
Warm & Cozy’s riches include the corn soup and a playful faux chowder combining littleneck clams, fresh corn, shallots, onions, bacon and house-made agnolotti filled with buttered russet potato purée. Clam juice, bits of pickled clam and spices provide the minimal, yet maximally flavorful, liquid.
Also in Warm & Cozy is a seafood dumpling in mildly spicy coconut broth, a dish devised by Arifai at Blu before he brought it to Daryl. Viana adds tiny red watercress leaves, pearls of garlic oil and a sprinkle of flying-fish roe.
Hearty & Robust brings you a pan-seared, Duroc-breed pork chop, moist and flavorful, its accompanying Swiss chard adding a bacon-braised exclamation point. The 6-ounce prime New York strip steak, though unaged, was beefy, finely marbled and velvety enough to cut with a fork. Wild Oregon Sockeye salmon filet was luscious under crackly skin.
Hudson Valley duck breast (3 to 4 ounces, $19) was likewise tender under crisp skin. Viana aces this with a steam-seared technique that Arifai used at Blu and Daryl. The skin is seared in a pan till crisp. A plate is placed over the meat, gathering steam that gently cooks the meat, keeping it moist. Viana applies the same technique to a boneless chicken breast with splendid results.
Showmanship comes to the fore in another Hearty & Robust dish, Mediterranean Map. It centers on Jersey-caught skate dredged in rice flour and pan seared to resemble a puffy croissant. Bits of preserved lemon, tomato-anchovy pesto, smoked almonds, capers and saffron aioli locate the dish in the Mediterranean.
Viana, son of a pastry chef, insists, “I’m not one myself.” But his dark-chocolate soufflé, made with Valrhona 72 percent cacao, suggests otherwise. It gives a remarkable meal a refined finale.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:American - Modern
Price Details:Midsize plates, $9-$17; larger plates, $14-$26; desserts, $8-$9.
Ambience:Nouveau hunting lodge.
Service:Welcoming, well paced, informed.
Wine list:Full bar; wine by the glass: 8 whites, 8 reds.