When I moved from sunny California back to the East Coast, I didn’t tell anyone that I was moving to New Jersey. I was just too embarrassed. But at least I live in a really nice part of the state, in an attractive little town. But, Jersey City? That’s about as bad as it gets, at least to those who have no idea. In reality, Jersey City has undergone a bit of a transformation, and if Ox Restaurant is any indication, it is far hipper than the Meatpacking District or Red Hook.
But I am not sure what to say about this restaurant. I ordered well and had one of the nicest restaurant meals of the past year. My wife screeched slightly less triumphantly after the meal, but her dishes were interesting and serious, if not completely successful. However, the bartender irritated me, and it wasn’t his banter, which was fine. He poured short shots into three of the four drinks I watched him make. Two were because he was at the end of the bottle, but any good bartender would open a new bottle and finish making the drinks correctly. The other? I won’t speculate. In retrospect, this irritated me more than it should have, because everything else was impressive. The greeter was professional, efficient and friendly. I did some reading on the restaurant’s web site and discovered that one of the partners worked at Gramercy Tavern, and this might have something to do with the skill of the front desk woman. Her demeanor reminded me of the professionalism of a Danny Meyer restaurant. In my book, that is high praise.
We sat down, and instead of the usual bread service, the waiter placed a small container of popcorn drizzled with some flavored oil and liberally doused with salt. After we devoured that and mentioned to the waiter how good and fun it was, he immediately presented us with another portion. I started with the ox tail appetizer, and that almost made me forget the bartender. Beautifully braised ox tail on a bed of polenta and just a dash of some kind of shallot reduction that they call jam, but I call good. The portion was nicely sized, the polenta wasn’t overcooked, and the meat was silky and tender…just great. My lovely wife ordered the grilled romaine, which was a great idea that didn’t quite work out. The dish came with a lightly fried egg on top, which was an interesting play on a traditional Caesar dressing. The croutons were excellent, and scattered about were some superb anchovies, whose name I cannot recall, but it sounded Spanish. The dressing was so light that it was difficult to detect anything about it. But the biggest problem was the grilled romaine. It wasn’t grilled at all, but rather steamed, whether because the grill wasn’t hot enough or the romaine wasn’t dried completely, I couldn’t tell.
The main courses were more successful. I had the snapper special, which was described by the waiter as a pink snapper that had strawberry flesh and skin. When pressed, he cheerfully admitted that he hadn’t tasted it, but that it was, supposedly, quite good. He was wrong…it was great. I like fish and will order it whenever I think the odds are good that it won’t be awful. This snapper was cooked perfectly. A delicate crust with wonderfully uniform flesh that didn’t have even the slightest bit of overcooked corner. It was placed on a bed of grits (I think) and dressed with some thinly sliced grape tomatoes and a few asparagus tips. A perfectly thought-out and executed dish. Very impressive. My wife had the crab and shrimp roll with lardons and a small baby arugula salad. Well done, but nothing out of the ordinary. We had a Mia’s Playground Chardonnay with the meal, and I am embarrassed to admit that I have never heard of it. Good stuff and very well-priced at $36. I also sneaked in a Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA, because it would have been rude not to drink it, especially because it was in tap.
The service was professional and unobtrusive. Even the bus-girl was a notch or two above the norm. The original artwork on the walls was interesting, although the stuff on the left side was much better than the stuff on the right side (the side I was facing). The joint has a minimalist look, almost stark, but there is a warmth that is undeniable. Everyone seemed to be enjoying their food, and for good reason; this is a serious restaurant that deserves to be noticed. We will absolutely return, even if we have drinks down the block before dinner (can you tell? I am still irritated by the bartender).