In a nod to what he calls “Fort Lee’s amazing global cuisines,” chef David Burke, an 18-year resident of the town, says, “Finding great food here has never been a challenge.” What have been in short supply, as he sees it, are “excitement and buzz.” With Ventanas, which turns one next month, he and partner Alex Duran, owner of nightclubby Son Cubano in West New York, combine Latin, Asian and American flavors with a sexy magnetism to create what Burke calls a “gotta-go-there place.”
Ventanas is that, even on a rainy weeknight. The young crowd, well-dressed and frequently Spanish speaking, exudes confidence. On weekends, skirts seem shorter and heels higher; jubilance increases by the hour. High above the octagonal bar in the cavernous main dining room hovers a constellation of shimmering, mauve discs, some dripping jellyfish-like tentacles. To one side, there is another dining room and bar. Beyond a wall of glass doors and windows (ventanas, in Spanish), a patio overlooks a man-made pond and firepit.
Ventanas occupies the ground floor between the two 47-story towers of the Modern luxury residences a block south of the George Washington Bridge toll plaza. Burke lives in one of the penthouses. Since closing his only New Jersey restaurant, the Fromagerie in Rumson, in 2015, Burke has bounced back. Among his now 11 restaurants are four in Jersey (David Burke at Orange Lawn in South Orange and Drifthouse and Nauti Bar in Sea Bright are the others). At Ventanas, he says, “my job is to make sure the food is delicious, seasonal and sexy, and also affordably priced.”
The kitchen is run by executive chef Andrew Riccatelli, 36, a Marlboro native and former drummer who has cooked at Stage Left in New Brunswick and for chefs including Bobby Flay and Stephen Starr. His Latin-influenced menu melds with the sushi offerings of Sang Choi, a Korean sushi chef trained in Japan. Some of the cultural confluences are quite effective, such as the Señor Duran, a sushi roll involving Korean bulgogi beef, pickled daikon and Korean pepper sauce.
Riccatelli wakes up some items that have become snoozes. He gives guacamole a Caribbean kick with bits of fresh pineapple, mango and tiny peppadew chilies. He brushes tuna tartare with hot-and-sweet Peruvian aji amarillo pepper mayo and tucks it into tacos. Roast duck breast channels Chinatown with a soy-honey glaze and succulent Shanghai-inspired duck-confit dumplings on the side.
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Burke’s signature playfulness is alive and well, if not front and center. The crackling pork shank—not listed on the menu, but available if you ask for it—is a delicious monster. Cured in salt and sugar, roasted in lard, then deep-fried, it’s brushed with Chinese plum sauce and plated with fried sweet plantains, rice and beans. It arrives with a David Burke-brand steak knife plunged into it like King Arthur’s Excalibur.
In the tradition of his boss, Riccatelli aims to craft food that “makes its presence known.” Two seafood entrées illustrate the point. Gambas al ajillo with fideos pasta fills a paella pan with short, wispy-crispy strands in a reduced shellfish stock enriched with garlic, saffron, tomato and chilies. On top come four big, meaty, sparingly seared shrimp. The result is arrestingly good. Riccatelli’s pan-seared Scottish salmon entrée is simpler, but equally sumptuous. Toasted nori crumbled on top adds offsetting crunch to the marvelous, naturally buttery flesh of the salmon.
The menu is a carnival for carnivores, too. Of the four steaks, two use Burke’s patented method of dry aging in a room lined with blocks of pink Himalayan salt, which subtly seasons as it tenderizes the beef. The 34-ounce porterhouse for two ($115) is aged 45 days, the 12-ounce New York strip for 40. Before broiling, the strip is dusted with salt and pepper and brushed with rendered, aged fat, which the kitchen calls “beef love.” At $46, the strip is a relative bargain and superlative in juiciness and flavor. Its perfect sidekick is an order of Hipster fries, a vast bowl of crisp shoestrings fired up with chili flakes, peppadew peppers and chunks of meaty bacon that, as an appetizer, comes pinned to a miniature clothesline, a signature Burke touch.
At busy hours, servers can seem overwhelmed, but floor captains intercede smoothly. The overall effervescence is enhanced by cocktails designed by the bartending team. The drinks tend toward winningly offbeat takes on classics, like the Caipirinha D’uva, crafted with a unique, oak-aged cachaça and lemon instead of lime.
Ventanas’ go-for-broke desserts, by French-born, Swiss-trained Julien Chantereau, leave no craving behind. His fiendish mashup of s’mores and profiteroles fills puff pastry with roasted peanuts, caramel, vanilla ice cream and caramelized marshmallow. As if that were not enough, he adds hot chocolate sauces (milk and dark) and chili-infused cream “for a Mexican kick.”
Wild as that is, it’s not the signature dessert. That honor goes to a rough replica of the George Washington Bridge in Valrhona bittersweet chocolate. It rests on a dense, dark chocolate hazelnut cake layered with hazelnut pastry cream. At $22, the George Washington Chocolate Bridge serves two. Though it costs $7 more than the toll across the real GWB, the journey is a lot more fun, and for once, you don’t mind taking it slowly.Click here to leave a comment
- Cuisine Type:Latin American - Sushi
- Price Range:Expensive
- Price Details:Appetizers, $14–$22; sushi, $8–$110; entrées, $29–$115; sides, $8–$22; desserts, $10–$22
- Ambience:Darkly swank and stylish
- Service:Varies with the server
- Wine list:Full bar, excellent signature cocktails