Dinner at Vivas in Belmar NJ, a review
My wife and I went to Vivas in Belmar Plaza last night for just the second time since it opened. Not sure why the long wait between visits, but I guess we weren’t that wowed the first time. Not so this time.
Everything about the place is very visually appealing, from the décor to the food; including the bottles of garlic infused oil on every table in tall slender bottles with long slivers of red and yellow peppers and cilantro. The bread was crusty and very good and while they will gladly bring you butter (another table asked), even my wife (who almost never eats bread without butter) was happy with the oil. (and yes, it is just as wonderful as what the chef used to serve at Bistro Ole, only prettier)
They have a very large menu to start with but added to that with a long list of Tapas and Entrée specials. We started with the crab cake and the seared scallops over mashed sweet potatoes. My wife (who grew up in Baltimore and ate crab when it was peasant food) really liked the crabcake. Served over a bed of baby spinach in a vinegarette with a but of mustard sauce on top. The scallops were nicely cooked and served over a sweet potato mash. Not my favorite rendition of scallops, but enjoyable none the less.
For mains, my wife went with the braised short rib special and I had the halibut with a thin potato crust. The presentation of both dishes (and really everything) is very nice if a bit superfluous. Both the ribs and the halibut were topped off with a long slender piece of beautiful garlic/herb toast and a thin curvy slice of fried plantain that were completely inedible, but added a great visual note (we just pushed them aside and focused on the actual entrée).
The ribs were moist and tender and served in a flavorful braising sauce with a side of the mashed sweet potatoes. Very nice dish. The halibut was plated over sautéed spinach and black bean and roasted red pepper sauces, each sauce occupying it’s own half of the plate and coming together in a nice ogee design. The fish was very nicely cooked; moist and flavorful. Another winner.
We normally split a single dessert, but decided to splurge and order two. She had the dark and white chocolate mousse and I had the empanada with mango and manchego cheese. Once again the presentations were quite impressive (somebody in the kitchen is keeping an eye on things). The empanadas were a bit too sweet for my taste (but it was, after all, a dessert), and the mousse was very, very good (ok, it was amazing – don’t pass it up).
They have a long list of after dinner coffees and espressos, which we passed on this time but would probably try on a weekend night (I happen to like places that aren’t too cheap to invest in a nice espresso machine).
The service was very prompt and attentive without being obnoxious and everyone seems to really care about what they were doing. Prices are very reasonable for a BYO – two tapas, two entrees and two desserts came to $100 with tax. Only the halibut at $30 was a bit pricey.
Obviously we really enjoyed the whole experience and will be returning often.
I hesitated at first after visting Viva's for the second time last weekend, but seeing it pop up here again has prompted me to offer my humble opinion, which regrettably isn't as good as my first impression.
We stopped in and put our name on the list, and were actually called slightly early. Great start. Decent table and opened-wine followed... no probs. Our waitress was sweet and relatively attentive, but the trouble began when, after glancing at their large dinner menu, we were offered a slew of complicated specials, all at rapid-speed by our busy server. Not great as we grew confused with many similar ingredients combined with different fish or meat. We had to check again and she was very understanding.
We ordered two tapas for the four of us to start: a tuna tartare (partially seared) that had to be a total of 1.5 ounces of tuna with an extraordinary amount of a sauce that we weren;t sure was mango-based or something else. Tasty, yes, but tiny and swimming in special sauce isn't how I like my psuedo-sashimi, how about you? The other app was some kind of plaintain and shredded beef that was a sloppy mess on the plate, but still kind of tasty. It looked like a roasted banana covered in chili with a gigantic plaintain chip sticking out of the top.
Entrees: the winner was the potato-crusted with halibut, which has been good before. The three others were fair but not as advertised. My wife and her friend ordered a lobster-shrimp special with "creamy garlic sauce," but the dish came in a small pot with a garlic broth. "It's creamy, but it's not," was the explanation of the second server who brought the dishes. Mine wasn't bad, a menu item with mahi, shrimp and scallops with pineapple (curiously absent). The description made it seem that I would get seared seafood with chunks of pineapple and a tomato-based sauce. What I got was a pot of overcooked seafood with a tasty tomato-saffron broth. Confusing more than bad, but not what I expected and not well executed.
Dessert: my wife and I split chocolate-covered strawberries with a two-cup plop of sweet whipped cream; the other couple ordered what were tasty apple empanadas that were on the soggy side and -- as most dishes at Vivas it seems, swimming in different sauces, including a raspberry coulis, which was not a coulis but just pureed raspberry and sugar.
Overall, the service was fine, but at the prices we paid (over $110 per couple after tip at this BYO), we should have had finer food with a more focused and defined menu. I just don't understand, except for the fact that they've gotten soft since people are literally climbing over each other to get a table. My first visit was last year not long after the place opened, and I had nothing but raves for Viva's. Now, not so much and I'm disappointed. Let down, actually.
Sorry to all the Viva's fans out there. At their best, it's a great dining spot. But at those prices (and with the long wait for a table), there's no excuse not to be at their best on a Saturday night.
I've been to Vivas about a half a dozen times since they opened and have never had a bad meal there. They have all been very good dining experiences including the food, service and ambience. My wife and I have followed Will Vivas from his original restaurant called Vivas in Asbury Park on 5th avenue to Bistro O'le over the years.
Will may not be the absolute best at the shore but he ranks right up there. Not only a very good chef but a decent manager of his establishments. I do understand that Vivas will get some glowing reviews as well as some average ones. But overall his place earns one of my top five picks at the Jersey shore.