801 Belmar Plaza
Belmar, Monmouth County, New Jersey
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
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
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
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
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. -
Credit Cards: All major
Reservations: Not accepted
Handicapped Accessible: Yes