Professional chefs will tell you their trade is full of repetition and drudgery, but like anything requiring precise technique and a little improvisation, it is also, at its most rarefied level, an art. As with any serious artistic endeavor in New York, progressing to this upper realm requires hustle as well as talent, and so far in his young career, Josh DeChellis has exhibited both. DeChellis served his apprenticeship as the sous-chef to Rocco DiSpirito at Union Pacific. After absorbing the delicate skills of the seafood world, he left to run a small atelier of a restaurant in the West Village called Sumile. There, he constructed a series of elaborate little dishes (skate mingled with Japanese eggplant, poached duck breast spiked with sake) using mostly Japanese ingredients and classic French technique. This kind of precious cooking was designed to attract the attention of the city’s haute food community, who hurried downtown in their sauce-stained coats to examine the menu, sip a little sake, and, in due course, speculate on what this talented young chef might do next.
DeChellis’s latest project, it turns out, is another modest-size restaurant, this one on the Upper East Side, called Jovia. Unlike Sumile, however, Jovia, which is run by the proprietors of the popular Soho establishment Zoë, is designed with a broader audience in mind. It is Sumile for fat people, a place where you can get intricately rendered pots of suckling-pig-and-duck terrine and other rustic specialties like venison, short ribs, or squab, presented in a variety of sophisticated, generally pleasing ways.
Jovia occupies two floors of a townhouse; the bottom is given over to a long bar, above which flicker a couple of flat-screen TVs. The fine dining takes place upstairs in two rooms appointed with big glittering mirrors and decorated in elegant dark colors. The only problem is the lighting in the main room, which emanates from weirdly pendulous glass lamps and is dull and flat, like the inside of an old railway dining car.
Any quibbles with the setting tend to evaporate, however, when the food starts to arrive. The potted suckling-pig-and-duck mixture comes in a decorous white china bowl, with a spoonful of tangy marmalade made with diced porcini and pickled endives on the side, and it’s a pleasure to spread it like butter over slices of hot, crunchy toast. This was followed to the table by an entrée of tuna cheeks, faintly charred around the edges and sweetened with vinegar (this unusual dish shows up only occasionally on the menu), and a gourmet version of classic Italian beef brodo, containing shreds of Swiss chard and fat raviolini stuffed with dates. Then there’s the duck egg, another rustic dish, served in refined uptown style with a lid on top. The egg is broken over bits of poached rabbit, smoky bacon nuggets, mushrooms, and pearly fresh snails, and as you eat it, the flavors become more intense, the whole thing mingling together into a sinful, cholesterol-rich mash of textures and tastes.
DeChellis tosses off a few barely memorable crudi (tuna and fluke), and an acceptable salad or two, but his strength lies in taking weighty, potentially leaden dishes and reworking them with a light touch. Pastas are a sure way to overload any dinner, but at Jovia, the first one we sampled was an excellent mixture of handmade malfatti, torn into strips and squares, then mingled together with a light crush of fresh tomatoes, roasted garlic, and the slightest hint of anchovies. Tagliatelle appeared next (it’s prepared in a similar way, only with Parmesan and wild mushrooms), followed by fat, almost marshmallow-size gnocchi mixed with salty pieces of cod and duck sausage. DeChellis’s risotto tastes like some refined, gourmet form of porridge (it’s small-grained, almost soupy, and folded with leeks, shreds of bacon, and small, barely cooked oysters), and his ravioli are stuffed with mashed veal shanks and presented like dessert dumplings in a delicate row, with a smooth, almost cloudlike spoonful of ricotta on the side.
The prim food aesthetes at my table examined these dishes with professional restraint, but when the entrées arrived, they threw all decorum to the wind and began feeding like untrammeled hogs. Among the seafood items, the favorites were the grilled halibut garnished with a nice pesto of herbs and lime, and the uncommonly tender Chatham cod, set over a creamy mix of spinach, faintly smoky clams, and toasted pumpkin seeds. The short ribs were properly sticky and soft, and so was the chicken breast, which the chef slow-cooks, slices, places over a bed of polenta, and finishes with a rich sauce made with bacon, tomatoes, and a scattering of green olives. Oddly enough, the very pricey items ($38 for the lobster, or a perfectly good though unadorned piece of strip steak) tended to be the least remarkable, while difficult dishes like squab and venison were very good. The squab is layered over quail and sunchokes, then topped with a lightly rich sauce made from the birds’ own juices, and the venison loin, so soft you can cut it with your fork, is steamed with juniper branches.