Underground Gourmet: A Momofuku Veteran Finds Fertile Culinary Ground Across the Hudson at Thirty Acres
Kevin Pemoulie spent four years simmering the bacon dashi at Momofuku Noodle Bar, but it seems he’s left his ramen days—and Manhattan’s high-stakes food scene—behind. Six months ago, you see, the chef and his wife, Alex, opened Thirty Acres in Jersey City. What’s that we hear you say? Jersey City? Isn’t that municipality out of bounds for the roving Underground Gourmet? And does this development augur a shift in public-transportation patterns, especially among the Brooklyn-bound food cognoscenti?
As it turns out, J.C. is just as accessible as Williamsburg, only two short PATH stops from the West Village. So much so, in fact, the U.G. has become something of a PATH-train presence, making the reverse dinner commute whenever the urge for, say, smoked quail with cranberry-barbecue sauce strikes. A brisk five-minute trot from the Grove Street station brings you to a quiet corner, where the windows wrap around a dining room equipped with salvaged church pews, sturdy wooden tables, and industrial light fixtures. The space is stylishly spare, with a copper-topped bar that has seen only BYO action during the customary liquor-license limbo.
Despite the tavernesque setting, do not cross this threshold in search of a bacon cheeseburger. Thirty Acres has other ideas of what it means to be a Jersey City neighborhood joint. Momofuku aficionados will detect its DNA in the quirky menu format, inventive raw-fish preparations, and the terrific pickle plate (a trio of cucumber styles, from sweet to spicy). If there’s a comparison to be made, it’s that Thirty Acres is like a mom-and-pop Momofuku, more amenable to customer demands (“We can make food veg friendly, but only if you’re friendly,” reads a note on the menu). Another concession: After diners expressed the desire for heartier portions, Pemoulie modified his opening small-plates lineup to include more traditional entrées. Still, at best, his is a cuisine not of appeasement but of bravura and style, invoking American traditions while evolving them into intriguing new forms. One night’s raw black sea bass, for example, is festooned with sauerkraut, apple mustard, and rye-bread crumbs. It’s sushi for the deli maven. Baked clams are seasoned with togarashi, and mussels in broth are enlivened with Sichuan pepper and kielbasa. You sop it up with toasted ciabatta like someone who fears it may be taken away too soon.
Despite its brevity, the menu telegraphs the season, and the best representation of fall might be that aforementioned smoked quail, served with a walnut bread pudding that will have you rethinking your Thanksgiving-stuffing plans. Mushroom salad is equally autumnal, down to the swipe of puréed squash on the plate. But elsewhere, seasonal touches can come off as gratuitous. While housemade pastas are terrific, with great texture and abundant flavor, you wonder whether an otherwise cohesive bowl of cavatelli, mingled with chorizo, zucchini, mint, and ricotta salata, requires the sweet-tart crunch of diced apples. Nutty, chewy spelt has a lot going on, too: pancetta, grilled radicchio, creamy sea urchin, and Asian pear. Clever, sure, but the combination proves texturally jarring, like eating seared foie gras atop a heap of granola. (No, wait, on second thought, that sounds pretty good; anyway, you get the idea.) Hat-shaped cappelletti, stuffed with a blend of ricotta and eggplant, are less novel but more satisfying.
The same can be said of the mains. Steaklike slabs of duck breast come with maple-and-cumin-spiced carrots in a bowl smeared with jerk sauce, and the pork chop is a hefty refutation of the small-plates trend. Though whole brook trout trumps them both with its super-moist flesh, lime mayo, and zesty cabbage infused with Old Bay.
In its short life, Thirty Acres has already garnered a cadre of fervent followers—young and older, birthday-party revelers and the solitary diner lingering over a bottle and a book—and the atmosphere is at once festive and familial, in and out of the kitchen. (Dine at the bar and you get a glimpse of the Red Bull-chugging cooks cheerfully pulling together to get out the pork chops; toward the end of the shift, one recent Saturday night, they celebrated as if they had just won an Iron Chef battle.) There are two desserts; the one you want is “Kevin’s Mom’s” lemon bar, a tart and gooey answer to Milk Bar’s Crack Pie—and, like the spirited new restaurant itself, just as irresistible.
500 Jersey Ave., at Wayne St., Jersey City; 201-435-3100
Hours: Dinner Monday through Thursday 6 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday till 11 p.m.; Saturday brunch 11 a.m.to 3 p.m.
Prices: $4 to $27.
Ideal Meal: Cucumber pickles, smoked quail, cavatelli or trout.
Note: The terrific Jersey Wine & Spirits three doors down will satisfy all your BYO needs.
Scratchpad: Two stars for the creative cooking; two more for a lively but civilized atmosphere and spot-on service.
*This article originally appeared in the October 29, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.