On The Rise: Jersey City
Everything is hitting new heights in Jersey City—especially the food
Jersey City is home to a quarter-million people. It is five times the size of Hoboken, its northern neighbor. And with a growth rate of more than 5% per year, Jersey City will soon overtake Newark as the state’s most populated city. One look at the new towers rising above the Hudson River or the crowds dining outside on Newark Street and you can feel what the numbers suggest but can’t possibly convey: electricity.
This—a city on the rise—is what chef Chris Siversen envisioned in 2009 when he laid eyes on the riverfront spot in Liberty State Park that he would turn into Maritime Parc, a restaurant at the vanguard of the city’s emerging food scene. “It just had the bones for becoming an up-and-coming place,” he says. He was right. In less than ten years, the city has experienced a gastronomic awakening, evolving into a first-rate place to eat. Today, there’s something of a parallel between Jersey City and the emerging Brooklyn of last decade. Jersey City, though, is more Jersey.
Siversen’s Maritime Parc was one of the first of the new wave, before it was a wave. “When we got to Jersey City five years ago, people asked us why we were here,” Siversen says. Today, he cooks seasonal food in a modern space with a panoramic view of Manhattan—and no one asks why.
Siversen’s seafood-laden menu pushes creativity without going overboard, says the chef. That means grilled oysters with bacon and reduced cream. Another: panzanella made with goat’s milk mozzarella, bread from Balthazar, watermelon, tomato, and a salad of herbs on top. The fries get fried in duck fat. This is simple food made using pristine local ingredients, then taken a step or two more. Siversen has fun. Last winter he cooked mussels in veal and beef stock, French onion-soup style.
One of the first restaurants to break from the past in Jersey City was Light Horse Tavern, owned by Bill Gray. “When we opened 13 years ago, there wasn’t much but old-school options,” he says, meaning lots of red-sauce Italian American and basic bar food. Light Horse became a pioneering restaurant in the city simply by offering up a more modern American cuisine, featuring creative renditions of classics, plus seasonal dishes—at a time when menus rarely changed.
Light Horse also focused on knowing its farmers and oystermen. Last year, Gray hired noted chef David Drake to take over the cooking at Light Horse, as well as at Greene Hook Bar & Kitchen, the duo’s new Paulus Hook eatery that opened in September 2015. Greene Hook is a cool place, somewhere you’d want to chill and munch on upscale bar food. The energetic music—a little modern grunge, a little classic rock—hits when you enter. The first thing you see is people playing shuffleboard and drinking craft beer.
But “upscale bar food” falls short of fully describing Greene Hook. Chef Drake has a lineup of East Coast oysters that includes day-after-harvest bivalves from Block Island, Rhode Island. He does a tartare from leg of lamb that’s charred on the outside; diced; tossed with mint, chives, capers and egg; and served with yogurt and Aleppo pepper. The parsley-cilantro chimichurri that comes with the housemade beef empanadas is probably the best take I’ve ever tasted. Same with the empanadas. And we’re not even past the starters.
“We’re all about the combination of sophistication and simplicity,” Drake says. “We like to do twists on classics.” This philosophy is evident in the industrial-tinged, reclaimed-wood aesthetic of the restaurant, designed and built by Gray, the owner, who’s also an excellent carpenter. It’s also evident in how Drake prepares his standout main courses.
The twists are slight enough to elevate the food but leave it feeling familiar and comforting. For a simple but on-point plate of pasta, Drake stews eggplant in fat with capers, shallots, and garlic before chopping everything and adding it all to rigatoni. For a flat iron steak, he simmers cipollini onions in Left Hand Milk Stout to create a sauce for the meat and its caramelized cauliflower purée. Drake both grills and steams maitake mushrooms to top his succulent Chef ’s Burger. Fried chicken earns its own category on the menu. Drake uses a sage-buttermilk marinade and individually sous-vides each piece before they take a swim in the fryer. Biscuits come with the chicken, kicking with jalapeño salt.
The casual, I-want-to-stay-here-all-day vibe of Greene Hook is one you find in many of Jersey City’s best eateries. One of those is unquestionably Third & Vine, a cool spot that stands out from the surrounding Newark Avenue restaurant pack.
Third & Vine is a wine-and-cheese bar—and much more. Beverage director and co-owner Brian Rothbart serves a slate of cocktails mixed from ingredients like herbs, jams and pineapple mostarda. (Don’t miss the cool tropical burn of his Agaves Gone Wild, a blend of coconut, lime and serrano-infused tequila.) Last summer he featured more than a dozen vermouths. Last winter it was brandy. His wine list features vintages from places like New Mexico and Lebanon. (“We want you to come in and discover a new wine,” he explains.) The list isn’t divided into red and white, but yellow, orange, pink and purple. “Wine is not a black-and-white or red-and-white situation,” he says. “There’s a whole spectrum.”
A thoughtful drink makes a good partner for Third & Vine’s food. Another complement is the intimate space itself, designed by Rothbart, with shared tables and wood salvaged from buildings damaged by Hurricane Sandy.
Third & Vine serves cheese and small plates. Jamie Mayne, Rothbart’s wife and co-owner, is the fromager. She deftly dreams up condiments that sharpen the flavors of her constantly evolving list of 30-plus cheeses. A condiment may be as simple as chestnut honey. It may be as bold and complex as a dusky bacon-bourbon jam to go with a Croatian sheep’s milk Paski Sir. It may be as creative as candied hibiscus (sweet) to act as a foil to a La Tur (earthy and creamy). As with the drinks, expect to learn a thing or two.
The food is less innovative than the cheese pairings but equally enjoyable. “It’s comfort food,” says Rothbart. “We wanted the food to be accessible because the cheeses and drinks are less familiar.” Executive chef Lynn Wheeler does the small plates, which range from simple to intricate. To name a few: ricotta meatballs with polenta; a dish of white anchovies with garlic and parsley; and a two-day pork belly braised with dark beer and red wine and then finished in the oven. The hot cheese sandwiches on the menu are decadent, especially the Spicy Duck, which features house-smoked duck breast with Gruyère and pickled serrano peppers.
You can linger at Third & Vine for a long time. Again, the restaurant-as-hangout is a thread that runs through some of the greatest hits of Jersey City’s food scene. And no place has more of a relaxed vibe than Talde.
Talde is the younger Jersey City sibling of the eponymous restaurant chef Dale Talde opened in Brooklyn in 2012. It’s also a perpetual party. Creative cocktails (such as a Negroni made with smoked vermouth, and a plum-wine Bellini) and imaginative Asian-American food (pretzel pork dumplings, Kung Pao chicken wings) roll out of the kitchen staggered, one by one, as soon as each individual plate is ready. Reggae, funk and gypsy jazz pour from the speakers into the moodily lighted 100-year-old industrial space that serves as the restaurant. The playlist might be as good as the food.
One of the best things on the menu is the shiitake mushrooms. They’re sizzled robata-style on a clay grill until they hit your taste buds with the richness of a rib eye steak. On the same plane is Talde’s MC Bao, a steamed-bread sandwich (of sorts) filled with pork ribs cooked Cantonese-barbecue style until sweet and tender. Other standouts include a fragrant blue crab fried rice and Korean fried chicken, marinated in kimchi yogurt, dredged in rice fl our, and double-fried.
“Jersey City reminded us of Brooklyn,” says David Massoni, coowner of Talde, when asked: Why Jersey City?
Everyone I spoke with for this story echoed the idea behind this thought: “Jersey City has so much growth potential,” says Siversen.
“Jersey City right now is a cool place to be,” says Gray. “The new young crowd reflects how the food scene is evolving,” says Drake. “The Jersey City food scene is up and coming,” says Rothbart. The idea, in essence, is this: That a cool thing is happening in Jersey City.
GREENE HOOK BAR & KITCHEN
70 Greene St.
84 Audrey Zapp Dr.
TALDE JERSEY CITY
8 Erie St.
THIRD & VINE
353 3rd St.
A FEW MORE RESTAURANTS TO TRY:
502 Washington Blvd.
Some of the best pasta to be eaten in New Jersey is made in Battello’s striking space right on the Hudson. Ricotta gnocchi dissolve in your mouth like puffs of flavored air, and snow crab deepens puttanesca with silky nuances. Fish also stars—with starters like scallop crudo and octopus flavored with popcorn, and then a legion of stellar entrées. Cocktails are creative and refreshing. Don’t miss dessert!
ORALE MEXICAN KITCHEN
341 Grove St.
Graffitied brick walls and a lineup of almost a dozen riffs on guac speak to the spirit of this spot: freewheeling Mexican. There’s duck in posole (an ancient Mesoamerican soup), and there’s duck on a taco. The classics like corn empanadas and enchiladas suizas are enjoyable, though it’s hard to skip something like masa gnocchi. Creative remixes abound. So do tequilas and mezcals.
RAZZA PIZZA ARTIGIANALE
275 Grove St.
Razza uses its own wild yeast culture for leavening pizza dough to make some of the best pizza this side of Vesuvius. Also try the incredible bread.
236 Grove St.
Traditional Mexican. Good drinks. That’s what you get at this convivial hole-in-the-wall, where a tongue taco washed down with a Michelada on a summer afternoon beats almost anything. Each of the dozen tacos comes with its own salsa, classics like ranchera and chile de árbol. This place started as a food truck.
340 3rd St.
Cutting-edge modern-American food is plated with finesse at this eatery serving eclectic dishes that are part local, part international. Mussels get a curry kick. Snapper is dredged in garam masala flour and fried. Noodles for the ramen section of the menu are made at Sun Noodle in Teterboro. Aged steaks and other meaty dishes like roasted bone marrow are cut at the in-house butcher counter.
A FEW MORE FAVORITE DRINKING SPOTS:
176 Newark Ave.
The wall-mounted deer head, fireplace, wooden tables and candles might make you feel like you’re in Aspen or Montana. Nope. The Archer is an innovative cocktail lounge right here in Jersey City where drinks are crafted from ingredients like Laird’s Applejack, sherry and cinnamon—solid ingredients, standout drinking. Food is casual and game-centric: elk meatballs, wild boar sloppy joes.
364 Grove St.
This Grove Street bar serves unbeatable cocktails in a literary-themed space: Books and typewriters hang on the walls. Stick with classics, or spring for something like the Marla, made with Chartreuse, rye, vermouth, mint and absinthe. A roster of oysters and snacks like corned beef spring rolls and guanciale mac and cheese make the drinking even better.
88 Liberty View Dr.
This cavernous European-style biergarten where 144 taps fill the steins is a fun place to drink. The beer list is geographically robust—and tuned in to the best brews to be had from Belgium and Eastern Europe. Snacks like currywurst, kielbasa, burgers and barbecue keep you in a transatlantic-beer-hall state of mind.