A few months back I heard about Chef David Viana and Neilly Robinson’s newest venture— a restaurant at the boutique Asbury Park hotel: The St. Laurent. As they describe it, the restaurant aims to present itself as an experience as diverse and culturally significant as Asbury Park itself. Viana is no stranger to crafting memorable dining experiences, his career includes stints at former best restaurant in the world, Eleven Madison Park, as well as Two-Michelin-Star Vila Joya in Portugal, before eventually landing as the Executive Chef at renowned restaurant and cooking school, Heirloom Kitchen in Old Bridge, NJ.
Heirloom Kitchen was the brainchild of Robinson, who looked to teach people how to cook during the week before transforming the school into one of NJ’s finest restaurants on the weekends. Once Viana came on board in late 2016, Heirloom Kitchen took off with critical acclaim. I had the pleasure of dining there in 2017, but have failed to make it back since. With a brand new spot popping up, this was my perfect chance to revisit Viana’s cooking. Heirloom at The St. Laurent encapsulates fine dining in an approachable and chic atmosphere.
Inside, the design is thoughtful and casual. Similarly, the staff, who are experts in their craft, wear a simple uniform making the experience feel comforting and approachable rather than boujee and uptight. Outside, there is a decorated garden and patio which matches the dining room’s light color palette.
Complete with an open kitchen, a beautifully stocked bar and an adjacent bar in a dimly-lit lounge residing in the hotel’s lobby, the newest page for Heirloom Kitchen was already a step above the rest. However, I have seen it all before, and sometimes at new, supposed-to-be extraordinary restaurants, the food has trouble keeping up with all of the bells and whistles. This time, though, I was confident Viana’s menu would deliver, so I sat down to find out for myself.
Heirloom at The St. Laurent offers a three-course menu; I suggest bringing a dining partner, or small group and ordering a variety of things across the three courses. Trust me, maximizing the number of dishes you can try is the best course of action.
We started with a cocktail and wine, of course. A classic rum daiquiri, my favorite, and a glass of orange Malvasia from Le Vigne di Zamò in Friuli, Italy were our selections. The daiquiri had no frills, which is exactly what I look for when ordering the classic cocktail. It’s tart, funky, slightly sweet and boozy— all things considered, it might be the perfect beverage and Heirloom’s daiquiri was no exception. I was pleased, to say the least.
I went for a natural wine as I tend to love the notes and aroma as much as I love the farming practices that go into making it. The Malvasia rode heavy citrus on the nose with a smooth and slight acidity. The finish lasts long and leaves a tingle of apricot and slight tannin on the back of your palate. A Malvasia usually lacks tannins, but because of the skin contact in this wine, this is not the case. What you are left with is a well-rounded and affordable wine that is perfect for eating. I applaud the curator of this wine list for including it.
As we enjoyed our drinks, our first course promptly arrived. Barbecued, curried honeynut squash with hazelnut and ricotta gnocchi with foie gras truffle and vermouth beurre monté were placed before us. The server expertly explained how the squash was cooked sous vide—a temperature-controlled method of cooking—in maple syrup and was accompanied by tempura fried delicata squash on the side. The honeynut squash was topped with crunchy hazelnuts and popped sorghum (which resemble miniature pieces of popcorn). The squash’s texture was that of velvet, and the leathery skin was broken down into a palatable form. The crispy, fried squash along with the nuts offered a textural contrast that was well-needed. Slight hints of red curry and smoke from the barbecue were the hero I didn’t know the dish needed. Alone, each component might have fallen flat, but together, they made magic. Sweet, smokey and savory, this dish left nothing to be desired. Did I mention it was vegan?
If you thought that would be the height of the first course, you thought wrong. Delicate morsels of ricotta gnocchi are bathed in a butter sauce that is emulsified with white vermouth and a walnut gremolata crowns each dumpling. However, this dish would be nothing without the truffles that dot the plate. I’m not talking about the fungal variety, but instead the chocolate kind. I know what you’re thinking: “Chocolate with pasta?” but Viana isn’t doing something bold just for the hell of it. Pairing foie gras with sweets isn’t that abnormal and in fact, its go-to wine pairing is the cloying dessert wine, Sauternes. The truffle combines white chocolate and rich, fatty goose liver. I could sit down with a bag of these and eat 10 like they were Ferrero Rocher’s, but they shone even brighter when dichotomized with the delicate ricotta pasta. What was so exceptional about this dish was the contrast in temperatures. Warm gnocchi was juxtaposed with the cold truffles and when eaten together, it was bizarrely outstanding. I was confused and delighted at the same time. Intrigued and satisfied. Several days later and the dish still doesn’t make much sense in my head, but when I was there eating it, it did. That’s all that matters.
For our entree, we chose the charcoal-grilled pork loin and the mahi-mahi. Before they arrived, I asked our server to choose any wine off the menu to pair with the mahi. Trusting a server with a wine pairing is a tricky game, but I had a feeling they would choose something better than I ever could. After all, I may know a bit about wine, but these servers are tasting these dishes and wines daily and they know better than I ever could what pairs well together specific to this menu. He ultimately poured me a Biancolella— a white varietal from Ischia, Italy. This mildly acidic wine is bold on the palate, with notes of stone fruit, honey and a slight salinity. Pairing it with a buttery fish like mahi-mahi is sort of a no-brainer. Suffice it to say I was more than pleased with the wine I was given.
The entrees arrived and the runner explained each course in heavy detail. The pork loin was cooked sous vide to temperature and then dusted with activated charcoal and finished on the grill. A smoked apple puree, farro, chorizo espuma and a pork jus flavored with gin decorated the plate. The mahi-mahi was cooked with constant butter basting, and alongside roasted brussels sprouts, a sesame sweet potato puree, pomegranate seeds and a coffee and bonito flavored yogurt underneath.
The pork was juicy and well-seasoned. The flavor of natural charcoal permeated the loin’s core. The apple puree was sweet, while the raw, sliced apple was tart and crisp. Pork and apple is a common pairing, but that doesn’t mean it’s overdone. It’s common for a reason— it’s fucking good. The chorizo espuma had all of the flavors of chorizo without the physical sausage being present at all. It had a slight paprika flavor, which leads me to believe they used Portuguese chorizo— perhaps an homage to Viana’s heritage and time working in Portugal. I cannot be certain, though. This was a composed meat entree that hit all the notes it needed to. The pork was bold and rich, with every flavor note under the sun to compliment it. Three sauces on the plate can be overwhelming, but when they work so magically together, it’s welcome. With no remorse, we licked the plate clean.
Then came the pairing to my wine, the mahi-mahi. Truth be told, I haven’t had mahi-mahi in close to five years. I had a bad experience with it once and have yet to order it since. I felt if I was ever going to break my streak, here was the place to do it. I mentioned that the mahi-mahi was cooked with constant butter basting. This lends a sweet flavor to the meat, as well as a crisp texture on its exterior. For a thick, skinless piece of fish like this, I find this method of cooking to be crucial as it provides a backbone to the rich center and a textural contrast in the skin’s absence. I have never had brussels paired with fish before, but it was wonderfully pleasant. The sweet potato puree brought color to the plate along with the bursting pomegranate seeds, but it was the bonito-infused yogurt that brought everything together. I conquered my aversion to mahi-mahi and I am elated to say that I love to eat the tropical dolphinfish once again.
We chose two desserts on the opposite ends of the spectrum: A citrus olive oil cake and a dark chocolate budino with banana. A variety of pudding, the chocolate budino was incredibly rich and completed by a tahini blondie, banana ice cream, brûléed banana and dulce de leche. I adore chocolate and banana together, so there was never a world where I wasn’t going to like this. Still, it exceeded my expectations. Like the dishes before it, textural contrast was as remarkable as the flavors present. And when both the flavors and textures are out of this world, you are left with a simply delectable dessert— there isn’t another way to put it.
Similarly, the olive oil cake reached the same ceiling. The citrus-scented cake was paired with passionfruit, yogurt and what seemed to be a sheet of meringue. What was so interesting about this dessert was the presence of aji amarillo, a fruity pepper hailing from Peru, in the form of a gel. The pepper has a slight spice to it, which cuts through every other component of the dish like a knife. Without it, the dessert might be forgettable. With it, you get something like nothing you’ve had before.
That seems to be the theme at The St. Laurent— food like you’ve never had before.
Before finishing the evening, we headed to the bar for a nightcap. A Cynar and soda to digest my meal and, yes, an espresso martini. I am not embarrassed to say that the trendy drink, which is actually not a martini at all, is absolutely delicious. Plus, I felt a little better about drinking this version, which featured rum in place of vodka, espresso, Oloroso Sherry and sea salt. It was frothy and bold. When I asked the bartender how many he makes a night he laughed, “too many,” he told me.
Heirloom at The St. Laurent is a welcome addition to Asbury Park’s growing roster of great restaurants and cocktail bars. The space is nestled within a residential neighborhood, and if not for the subtle neon sign, you might drive right past it.
You can make a reservation at the Chef’s Counter, which offers a front-row view of the kitchen so that you can watch as the skilled kitchen staff seamlessly puts out hundreds of plates of food. Or, sit at a table for a slightly more secluded experience. The lounge is also open to the public without reservation if you’re just looking for a drink.
All things considered, Heirloom at The St. Laurent is worth the trip no matter where you’re coming from in the Garden State. Neilly Robinson and David Viana have once again crafted something outstanding— blurring the line between fine dining and casual to put forth an experience that is bewildering. The hotel’s historic beauty is complete with the addition of this restaurant and Asbury Park is lucky to be its home. As the seasons go on and the menu changes, I have no doubt that The St. Laurent will quickly become one of New Jersey’s most sought-after culinary destinations.
About the Author/s
Peter Candia is the Food + Drink Editor at New Jersey Digest. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, Peter found a passion for food journalism midway through his schooling and never looked back. He is a former line cook, server and bartender at top-rated restaurants in the tri-state area. Peter never stops learning and he is always in the weeds.