“All I wanted was to go into a bar to see my favorite team play, enjoy classic, quality beer, and have a good bite to eat,” HopsScotch co-owner Luke Gomez said. “I’d either go into a sports bar with 30 TVs and be forced to drink Coors Lite, or I’d go into a beer bar and have to watch the game on a 13-inch black and white set, and wonder why it was either/or.”
So Gomez took matters into his own hands. He recruited partners Mark Maki and Nirav Patel, his wife Sarah, and wooed Chef Nick McCoy – the former executive chef of Koi restaurant in New York City – to Jersey City’s financial district to provide patrons with a drinking, dining, and sporting experience unlike any other in the area.
HopsScotch sits nestled on the corner of Washington Street and Christopher Columbus Drive and beckons patrons in with its bright, playful signage bearing the name of a childhood game, save the extra “s.”
But the 40 beer taps (the “hops” component) that line the rustic stone-hewn bar walls that sit beside 40 specialty scotches prove this is more than just child’s play, although, according to McCoy, customers have been known to gather in droves around a heated and vocal game of Jenga.
“It’s amazing to just how intense a game can get,” he said. “They take it to a totally different level, which is appropriate to what we do here.”
From basketball to having it all
Gomez and Maki met in 1998 coaching college basketball at California State Fullerton. Gomez spent 21 years in and out of the restaurant industry, while Maki managed a 2.1 million sq. ft. Target distribution center in Seattle until Gomez came up with his own idea for HopsScotch.
“It’s the American dream to be your own boss, and to love what you do,” Gomez said.
They unveiled their baby with decidedly mature tastes on July 5. During HopsScotch’s “soft opening” the new restaurant has had few kinks to work out and has become packed to the gills on weekends simply by word of mouth.
The formal opening will coincide with the sports season in September, Maki said, when they will add 40 bottled beers, a happy hour, and a brunch menu to the already impressive list of HopsScotch offerings.
“I personally think this is exactly what the financial district has been missing out on.” – Luke Gomez
Patrons first enter a sprawling main dining room flanked by an extremely long bar beneath a loft-like area owners term the “Scotch Lounge:” a more intimate place to drink and dine on couches and chairs reminiscent of cigar lounges of old.
There is cozier booth seating in a smaller dining room to the left of a very large, very full chalk board boasting daily rotating drink and food specials, and to the right is another large dining space.
“Jersey City is a growing area right now,” Gomez said. “I personally think this is exactly what the financial district has been missing out on.”
Craft hops, craft scotch
“It was our collaborative idea to marry together craft beer and craft whiskeys,” Gomez explained. “The criteria for selection? They all have to be extremely special and extremely hard to get.”
Gomez has the handle on the hops component, and McCoy knows a little something about the scotch.
“I lend my tastebuds, and my liver,” McCoy joked. “These guys have made sure that part of my health insurance plan covers my future liver transplant.”
HopsScotch lives up to its name with some serious scotches and beers. Gomez recommends the Balvenie 14 -Year Rum Cask either served neat (a 1.5 oz. pour) for $14 or on the rocks (a healthy 3 oz. pour) for $25. Since it spends its last six months in rum barrels, it has a sweet finish.
Or you have what Gomez calls the “gateway scotch,” which is a 12-year Caol Ila for $12 neat or $19 on the rocks. Not only is the price attractive, but it lends a smokey, peatey finish that’s smooth and easy to drink.
If you’re looking to try the kind of rare find that really puts the light into Gomez’s eyes, go for the limited 12-year Lagavulin, cask strength, for $15 neat and $26 on the rocks. He swears it’s better than Lagavulin 16-year.
Then there’s the wall-o-beers. The endless line of taps have interchangeable signs on strings to accommodate the ever-evolving selection, including daily specials that often make an appearance in the food as well.
“The three largest purveyors of beer are the United States, Germany, and Belgium,” Gomez explained. “We draw mainly from there, but we’re not limited to it.”
They have pale ales and lagers and dark beers and fruit beers and beers to fit any taste. Currently draught is all there is, but they plan to soon take on 40 Belgians, bombers, and boutique beers.
The specials the day we visited included St. John’s Mango Pale fruit beer at $7 per draught. It lent an unobnoxious, non-syrupy mango flavor with a peach nose and a slight bitter zesty lemon finish.
And don’t worry ladies (or men). If you’re not into beer, Gomez said, you can try the Tundraberry version of Tommyknocker, which is a tart, refreshing pale ale with subtle berry fruits brewed right in for $7 a draught.
It takes true conviction to lure one of the best (and youngest) chefs in Manhattan across the Hudson.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for me to build something from the ground up,” McCoy said. “We take the craft beers and the scotches and infuse the flavors into the food.”
McCoy’s roots have inspired the HopsScotch cuisine. He fondly recalled helping his German grandmother in the kitchen as she made bun dumplings when he was only four; an early start which perhaps in part explains his early level of culinary success.
“This is sort of my homage to her,” he said of the German-Belgian inspired cuisine.
The current menu consists largely of smaller plates meant to be shared and sampled and to promote a communal atmosphere not uncommon in the countries of the cuisine’s origin.
McCoy cooks in small batches using seasonal and local ingredients from highest quality purveyors like Pat LaFreida (a butcher made famous by the Food Network) and Hudson Breads. The dumplings of his childhood are one of the more popular bites on the menu, but have evolved considerably since he was four.
For $11, one can enjoy perfectly crisped, coin-sized bread dumplings topped with red cabbage, Serrano ham, and a lick-your-plate-good whole grain mustard sauce.
And then there’s the potato skins, at $10 for a healthy portion. McCoy hollows out small Yukon Gold potatoes and fills them with a reduced beer and sharp cheddar sauce, smoked duck confit (duck cooked in its own fat) with a chive crème fraiche, which is a slightly lighter and tangier version of sour cream.
Larger plates include the $11 Imported German Bratwurst topped with an ethereal caramelized onion mixture born of a Tommyknocker Maple Nut Brown Ale reduced to create a sweet nutty flavor and a slight bitterness. And, of course, there’s homemade garlic chips on top of that.
Though it may seem odd in a setting where “specialty” is king, any good pub has got to have a burger. And with Pat LaFreida as butcher and McCoy at the helm, theirs is a burger unlike any other.
For $12, the patty is made up of a super secret blend of top-grade meat that includes short rib and sirloin and sits beneath roasted garlic and the aforementioned caramelized onion mélange. Then you have your HopsScotch cheese sauce, which McCoy says it includes a béchamel base and, of course, beer.
The menu is set to expand in September.
Hours of operation
HopsScotch is located at 286 Washington St. in Jersey City. Their website, hopsscotch.com, will be fully functional soon. They are open Sunday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. They’ll even validate your parking.
For more information or to make a reservation, call (201) 451-HOPS.
Gennarose Pope may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org