Is Jersey City the new Brooklyn, a place to savor creative food for a few dollars less?
That’s the question one might ask when gazing out the giant windows of Thirty Acres, a restaurant that requires patrons to cross not the East River but the Hudson, to a place whose tree- lined and townhouse-studded streets evoke Carroll Gardens.
If only the F-train to Brooklyn were as quick as the PATH.
At Thirty Acres sweet, raw scallops are dressed in jalapeno puree. The sting on the tongue is followed by soothing cilantro. Trout roe pop, releasing their oily salts. Crunchy pumpkin seeds add a hint of sweetness. This dish wouldn’t be out of place at Per Se. Cost: $12.
Or try corned beef slicked with maple syrup, an occasional special that wouldn’t be out of place at your favorite diner.
This highbrow-lowbrow tightrope act is the brilliant work of ex-Momofuku Noodle Bar chef Kevin Pemoulie and his wife, Alex. They opened Thirty Acres nearly a year ago with the help of Kickstarter funds. They hoped to raise $10,000; they ended up with over $18,000.
The bad news is that Thirty Acres lost $15,000 to $20,000 in ingredients and income to Sandy-related power outages.
So just as we frequent the beleaguered restaurants of lower Manhattan in the wake of the hurricane, we can do the same for Jersey. Thirty Acres is hardly hardship duty. Order the $16 quail. Pemoulie smokes the bird over hickory, imparting a gentle sweetness. Then he ups the ante with a swath of tart cranberry sauce and a small mound of walnut bread pudding.
It’s one of just 17 items on the menu; such are the constraints of a small, 40-seat restaurant. There are no reservations for small parties, no sound absorbing linens, no formal bread service. The upside is that the menu isn’t littered with fancy pizzas, fish tacos or large-format items coyly priced “for two.”
No steaks, either. Pemoulie sears gargantuan, beef-like blocks of duck breast ($27), as filling as beef with a hint of game and a roundhouse kick of cumin.
Instead of risotto, we get spelt ($17), a quinoa-like grain that acts as a springboard for pancetta and sea urchin.
Pemoulie loves intense flavors. He jolts the palate with the gentle pain of heat throughout your meal. Oysters (never too cold, never messily shucked), are paired with a dollop of beet cocktail sauce. Your nose begins to run. Cod collar ($12) is a fatty, sticky slice of fish that soaks up salty soy and more jalepeno.
Braised chuck flap, meltingly tender, is finished with a generous shaving of sinus-clearing fresh horseradish ($27).
And cavatelli ($14) are jazzed with so many chilies you might think you’re in a Sichuan restaurant. You’re reaching for a tissue but the fire never overwhelms the dish’s bitter broccoli and fragrant mint.
The chef also knows how to use neutral ingredients to heighten flavors. Cod steamed in cabbage is a subtle vehicle for Polish sausage. Arctic char ($26) is pretty much just that, a slab of medium rare fish with no bells or whistles. Balance is respected.
Well, most of the time. Baked clams are just a pile of dry breadcrumbs atop the bivalves ($13). And neither brioche nor cranberries can balance the off-putting tang of chicken liver pate.
A liquor license can run as much as $150,000 in this town (Pemoulie hopes to acquire one in the new year), so for now, bring your own.
Finish with a cup of strong coffee, dig into tart apple crisp and stare at the quiet streets. Welcome to the sixth borough.
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: All dishes $27 or less.
Sound Level: Shouty, sometimes over 80 when full.
Date Place: Canoodling happens at the bar.
Special Feature: Check Thirty Acres’s tumblr for specials.
Inside Tip: Avoid too-sweet sweet potato tortellini.
Back on My Own Dime: You bet.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor
Sound-Level (in decibels): 51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse. 56 to 60: Speak up. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: You’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at firstname.lastname@example.org.