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801 Belmar Plaza
Belmar, Monmouth County, New Jersey
(732) 681-1213

By The Artful Diner
May 19, 2008


Situated on the 8th Avenue side of Belmar Plaza, Vivas' exterior isn't terribly prepossessing. Fact is, it strikes one as downright on the seedy side. But looks can be -- and, in this case, certainly are -- deceiving. Once across the threshold, you've stumbled into a jubilant, flying fiesta -- the warm bright colors, the objects d'art, the closely spaced tables, the noise, and the animated conversations emanating from members of the convivial clientele.

But the real magic is in the kitchen... and the music as well. The large, spotless precincts reverberate with the sound of infectious Latin tunes, which keeps the staff hopping and happy, turning out chef/proprietor Will Vivas' equally upbeat and innovatively joyous cuisine. The food is not truly "classic" Latin in the strict sense of that designation. Rather, it is an artful fusion, a seamless blending of Latin flavors and ingredients with French, Italian, and other subtle shades of European cookery.

The menu is large -- one is almost tempted to say too large -- for attempts at this sort of creative culinary compass usually result in a situation in which the kitchen's reach significantly exceeds its grasp: that is, several palpable hits and a majority of near misses. But Mr. Vivas, the former chef at the popular Bistro Olé in Asbury Park, is nothing if not a risk taker; and his able staff serves up his sometimes daring recipes with extraordinary savvy and panache.

The tapas presentations ($10.00 - $12.00), for example, all exhibit a delightful sense of style and intriguing mélange of ingredients. The inordinately tender pan-fried calamari are teamed with a scintillatingly smoky poblano sauce and topping of crumbled goat cheese & splash of pesto; the skirt steak is caressed by a guava glaze and served over a beguiling blue cheese potato salad; and rich and meaty scallops are encrusted with breadcrumbs, pan seared to a golden brown, served over garlic toast, and crowned with a provocative sun-dried tomato-garlic-rosemary demi-glace.

The pairing of polenta and shrimp is a personal favorite. The pristinely fresh and crunchy grilled crustaceans are arranged around an epicenter of sautéed spinach, which is crowned with a square of grilled polenta. The consummatory touch...? All the constituents are surrounded by a sea of garlic-poblano pepper sauce.

Even what most would consider a humble lentil salad ($12.00) receives a number of incredibly energetic embellishments. The generous mound is commingled with creamy avocado, tomatoes, onions, and hint of cilantro. Inventive garnishes include a poached egg tiara, tortilla chips, and colorful dabs of red pepper coulis. An exceptional presentation.

And entrées are equally notable... The halibut ($28.00), for example, is perfectly pan seared and teamed with a pungent sofrito sauce (a fragrant concoction comprised of garlic, onions, tomatoes, roasted peppers, and variety of herbs). But even better, in my opinion, is a special variation on the theme. In this case, the halibut filet is embraced by a golden brown potato crust and set on a seabed of sautéed spinach. The culinary coup de grâce, however, is delivered by an artfully inclined saucier. The plate is divided exactly in half, with one side awash with a rich black bean-chipotle purée, the other with a sensuous sun-dried tomato cream sauce ($30.00).

Other treasures of the sea include whole marinated red snapper served up in a mojo sauce ($26.00); grilled salmon over a lentil purée accompanied by sautéed spinach ($24.00); and mahi-mahi in concert with shrimp, scallops, and grilled pineapple in a smoky poblano pepper sauce ($28.00).

But confirmed carnivores are certainly not neglected. The pork tenderloin Serrano ($26.00) is a winner in every respect. Set on a pillow of julienne vegetables (carrots, zucchini, and yellow squash), the meat is lusciously moist and tender, stuffed with a combo of Serrano ham and zesty Manchego cheese, and finished with a complementary shiitake mushroom-garlic demi-glace.

Red meat lovers, of course, have numerous options: the grilled New York strip steak is embellished with a cilantro-garlic butter and sautéed onions ($26.00); the center-cut filet mignon is accompanied by an earthy blue cheese potato salad and mojo sauce ($28.00); and the rack of lamb may be dressed in an herb crust and cumin-cilantro glaze ($28.00) or in a tarragon-mint mustard sauce ($28.00).

Desserts continue the kitchen's exemplary work. The tres leches ($8.00), three-milk cake, is rich but exceedingly light on the palate, and the special chocolate flan ($8.00) exhibits a marvelously silky texture that belies its intense chocolaty flavor. Whatever your dessert selection, however, be sure to team it up with a jolt of espresso ($3.50 single/$5.00 double), which is potently robust and piping hot.

During the summer months, Vivas is something of a mob scene; and even during a rather chilly Saturday evening in March, the joint was still jumping. With all this bustling activity and constant influx of patrons, you might expect the service to suffer; but that is assuredly not the case. Like Mr. Vivas and the members of his dedicated kitchen staff, the servers are young, energetic, and extremely knowledgeable.

In every respect, Vivas is an immensely satisfying and joyous dining experience. Just one caveat: Reservations are not accepted. So come early or be prepared to wait.

Cuisine: Latin with international nuances
Hours: Winter Hours: Lunch: Tues - Fri, 11:00 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.; Dinner: Tues - Thurs & Sun, 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Summer Hours (beginning Memorial Day): Lunch: Mon - Fri, 11:00 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.; Dinner: Mon - Thurs, 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Fri - Sun, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Reservations: Not accepted
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: www.vivasrstaurant.com

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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