It's almost hard to believe that the Hamilton Park Ale House is located just two blocks away from one of the most trafficked roads in the metropolitan area.
The locally-owned bar and restaurant, set among a pastoral urban landscape of old-growth shade trees and neatly-trimmed 19th-Century rowhouses, lies at the heart of Jersey City's Hamilton Park section, just a stone's throw away from the lights and horns of the Holland Tunnel's often frenzied entrance plaza.
And like other fixtures in city neighborhoods that lie unseen by those who simply pass through en route to and from New York, the Ale House is a Jersey City jewel waiting to be discovered. A warm and inviting refuge for city residents looking to get out of the cold or noise, the restaurant offers exciting cuisine at unbeatable prices with a no-nonsense, laid-back attitude that reflects the very character of the city itself.
"We try to make it so that patrons are comfortable and can just sit around," said Maggie Vecca, the restaurant's co-owner and operator. Citing her belief that a great dining experience is just as much rooted in a sense of comfort as it is in good food and drink, Vecca described the Ale House as a meeting place whose outward character is collectively created by the neighborhood.
To support that assertion, Vecca pointed to certain decorative items that were gifted to the restaurant by regulars, including items like a tribal mask on the back wall or a mirror whose frame features etchings of frogs.
That holistic sense of input resounds in each corner of the restaurant, from its warm, dark green décor to its eclectic "American bistro" menu.
Crafted by 25 year-old executive chef Krista Trovato, the menu is comprised of popular seasonal dishes along with casual pub-style staples that make clear the restaurant's long history as a local tavern. The three most popular entrees at the Ale House are its penne, crab cake and rib dishes, and both Vecca and Trovato have learned that patrons don't appreciate the kitchen messing with those favorites.
Although Trovato, a Staten Island native who has worked as a cook at popular New York eateries like the Gramercy Tavern and the World Trade Center's Windows of the World restaurant, likes to change the presentation of the dishes as the menu changes, she said she knows not to give her customers too much of a surprise.
"They don't like it when you mess with their food," Trovato said last week.
To that end, Trovato and her sous chef, Nicky Zie, leave those dishes relatively unchanged but go to town on the rest of the menu and with their respective specials, which reflect each chef's training and sensibilities.
Offering a series of four specials a night that change daily, the Ale House - which can accommodate approximately 50 people - features a menu that fuses traditional American cuisine with either Italian or Asian flavors.
This winter's dinner menu consists of dishes like cioppino, which is a fish stew in an onion-laced spiced tomato broth with potatoes and garlic croutons. The restaurant also makes many of its dishes available in half-orders, letting the patron decide how much they want to both eat and spend. A half-order of cioppino is $7.95 while a whole order is $12.95.
Admittedly heavy on meat dishes, which executive chef Trovato says reflects her own Italian sensibilities, the menu's subtly imaginative interpretations of traditional entrees include the 16 oz. Sirloin ($19.95), which comes dressed with roasted shallot and blue cheese mashed potatoes.
When sous chef Zie, who comes to the Ale House from Manhattan's Odeon restaurant, works as the head of the kitchen on Mondays and Tuesdays, his specials tend to reflect his Asian palate, Trovato said. Both chefs also count Indian and Mexican flavors as influences in their specials.
The most important quality that ties these delicious dishes together, however, is their shared emphasis on presenting each diner with a beautiful, masterfully-cooked entrée. Because the kitchen is exceptionally small, each order is treated with individual care and attention, which by its very nature eschews the more common "production line" kitchen environment at other large restaurants.
"All our sauce work is done on the premises and nothing we use is from a can," Trovato said. "We get sushi grade fish for our salmon and tuna dishes. We cream our own spinach and make our own 20-hour demi-glazes."
Such high standards in cooking just enlarge the affordability of the restaurant's menu, with the most expensive dish being the $20 sirloin. Whole orders of other dishes hover around $15, which make it almost half price of comparable dishes at other regional restaurants.
Drink is as good as the food
The other part of the Ale House that is just as equally loved among Hamilton Park residents is the restaurant's bar, which is always animated with patrons both young and old. Featuring an extensive yet affordable wine list and a large selection of domestic and imported beers - both bottled and on tap - with daily beer specials, the bar is further supplemented by a vast array of liquors that can satisfy any mixologist's taste.
The restaurant's wines, from vineyards both domestic and international, come in all types and at very affordable prices. The restaurant's two most extensive wines, cabernet sauvignons made by Stag's Leap and Chimney Rock, ring in at $65 a bottle.
Wine specials at the Ale House are also reasonable, as are its drink specials and martini menu.
The restaurant also makes a good take-out business, and is open for brunch from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. It is open for lunch during the same hours every weekday and serves dinner from 5 to 11 every day.
The Hamilton Park Ale House is located at the corner of Jersey Avenue and Tenth Street, within walking distance from both the Grove Street and Pavonia/Newport PATH stations. Call (201) 659-9111 for more information. q