Some open kitchens are just oversize pass-throughs you peer into. Others offer perimeter seating, but little interaction. Sushi bars and hibachi tables close the gap, but leave the language barrier. By comparison, the chef’s counter at Heirloom Kitchen in Old Bridge just might be unique. The eight seats at the island kitchen are so close to the stove and prep stations that guests freely chat with executive chef and co-owner David Viana and his team as they work.
“It’s really interactive,” Viana says. “If someone takes an interest in something, I may send them a taste. I love to do it, and it helps them be adventurous.”
The kitchen is visible in varying degrees from anywhere in the 55-seat dining room, its wood tables and cupboards punctuating a soothing sea of white. Sitting at the chef’s counter amounts to dinner and a show, but the amount of back-and-forth is up to you. Wherever you sit, what makes Heirloom Kitchen worth a drive from anywhere is that the service will be alert and warm, the food modern, personal and compelling.
Sitting at the counter is quiet and comfortable because this isn’t a mega-BTU commercial kitchen. Founder Neilly Robinson built it in 2013 as a teaching kitchen for home cooks. Imaginatively themed classes, often with guest chefs, are held several days a week and sell out quickly. Viana himself teaches. Robinson’s curated selection of tools and tabletop pieces make Heirloom an understated retail boutique as well. If you have to wait to be seated, you can browse her enviable collection of cookbooks (also for sale).
What you may not realize is that the fun of dining at the counter exemplifies how far Viana, 38, has come as a chef and as a person. As he puts it, “I don’t think I could have done this five years ago.”
I’ll come back to the reasons, but let’s start with the food, which made him a semifinalist for a James Beard Award last spring. On our first visit in September, we sat near the entrance, far from the action, but no matter. Viana was still glorying in summer, as in a sensuous tomato-and-strawberry salad with smoked ricotta, berries and pistachio pesto. Chilled corn soup lifted that oft-insipid purée into a spirited dance of poblano crema, ancho chili oil, sweet corn kernels and juicy shrimp.
A main course of lamb-rib tempura was sinfully succulent in a sweet-and-sour Worcestershire glaze. Dabs of sweet-potato purée and a smattering of crisp vegetables compounded the pleasure.
We returned in January, sitting at the counter. Viana was kibitzing with one of the other counter guests about appearing on the current season of Bravo’s Top Chef. “I love competing, but not shooting TV,” he said of the filming last year, when Rob Santello, now the chef de cuisine, filled in for him. “Too much hurry up and wait.” (He was eliminated in the ninth episode.)
Winter tests a chef’s ingenuity, but Viana has put together a strong team. Sous chef Katherine “Kat” Norat was calmly twirling together Santello’s kaffir lime chitarra (spaghetti) with braised pork shoulder, coconut milk and a curry-emulsion foam, a ravishing dish. She was also making her own dish, an umami bomb known as a parsnip and maitake gratin topped with cocoa-nib baklava.
Viana was turning out orders of his stellar monkfish entrée. A creation like no other, it encloses a cylinder of the “poor man’s lobster” in a mixture of scallops, foie gras, more monkfish and herbs. The package is wrapped in a cabbage leaf, steamed, sliced and served with crunchy cabbage spring rolls over a burnt cabbage jus. However odd that sounds, the textures and flavors mingle brilliantly. It’s an amazing dish.
Whimsy and sophistication go hand in hand at Heirloom. New to the menu in January was chicken and waffles: two firm and flavorful rye-and-porcini mini-waffles topped with chicken mousse, tarragon aioli and black truffles.
Desserts spring from the fertile mind of Sean Yan, 26, who had never made desserts before Viana hired him. His yuzu-marjoram carlota (cousin of an icebox cake) has a crunchy coating of crumbled masa cookies and a tart, semi-frozen interior. It’s delightful and unlike anything else. Says Viana, “Everyone is a rock star here.”
It takes one to know one. Viana has always had a rep as a huge talent, but his path to stability has been rocky. He grew up in Elizabeth, the son of Portuguese immigrants. “My mom,” he says, “cooked a meal every night, but basically boiled everything.” At about 15, he started working in restaurants, “where I discovered that broccoli was green and had texture.” He earned a degree in criminal justice from Seton Hall, thinking he might become a lawyer. But after a brief stint as a probation officer (“I hated it”), he enrolled at the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan and graduated in 2003.
He worked various stations at Bobby Flay and Michael White restaurants in Manhattan. But feeling “burned out,” he spent six months in Portugal, then returned to Jersey to work at Restaurant David Drake in Rahway, Uproot in Warren, and other restaurants.
In 2014, Ryan dePersio opened Battello in Jersey City and hired Viana as chef de cuisine. He was fired from that job. In 2015, he earned three stars from NJM at the Kitchen at Grove Station in Jersey City, then departed to open Barrio Costero in Asbury Park. He soon left there as well. What went wrong?
“I realized I was the common denominator at all these places, so maybe the problem was me,” he admits. “I wanted more out of people, and I was loud and impatient. I yelled a lot. I had to look in the mirror, and it was soul wrenching. But I think I’m better for it and have mostly learned from my mistakes.”
Three years ago, he became a father, and that, too, has changed his outlook.
It was Dan Richer, the pizza whisperer of Razza in Jersey City, who at one point reached out to his friend Neilly Robinson and said, as Robinson recalls, “You have to meet this guy and eat his food.”
They met in 2016, and soon formed a partnership, making Viana for the first time a co-owner. “David is insanely resourceful and creative in the kitchen,” Robinson says. “He is a real people person, authentically kind to guests, and a great teacher. He is the full package.”
Says Viana, “I’ve never worked in an environment with someone as supportive as Neilly. Had I not met her, I don’t know if I’d be cooking right now. She’s the reason for it.”
The beneficiaries are Heirloom’s guests—all of them, but especially those seated around the most convivial open kitchen in New Jersey.Click here to leave a comment
Price Details:Appetizers, $5-$20; entrées, $32-$39; sides, $10-$12; desserts, $10-$12
Ambience:Casual, convivial and (at the chef’s counter) enjoyably interactive
Service:Informed, enthused, attentive
Wine list:BYO, and wines from Domenico in California