So if Brooklyn, the land of thirty-course tasting menus, is the new Manhattan, and if Queens, hawking $120 ramen feasts, is the new Brooklyn, it’s tempting to think of Jersey City, teeming with $2,000 studios and panoramic views of New York's financial district, as the next geographic parvenu on that list, a veritable sixth borough that’s just a 10 minute train ride from Midtown. Try getting to Staten Island that fast.
Thing is, the hip kids have never really flocked to Jersey City with the same gusto that's propelled them toward Williamsburg, Bushwick, Greenpoint, or other too-cool-for-school neighborhoods. And while New Yorkers are generally happy crossing the Hudson to watch the Jets lose, see Springsteen play, or hit up the state’s gorgeous shoreline come summertime, those same folks don’t typically travel to JC for dinner —the city's fine South Indian hangouts notwithstanding.
So this is why it’s worth paying attention to the three-year-old Thirty Acres, run by two Momofuku vets who are working hard to change our perceptions of Garden State gustation. And part of that change involves increasing the price of admission.
When wife-and-husband team Alex and Kevin Pemoulie opened their 40-seat, BYO venue in 2012, they packed the space with locals and New York "tourists" alike, all chowing down on affordable small plates packed with strong, salty, in-your-face flavors. In the early days, Kevin, the chef, sent out maple syrup-spiked pastrami (better than Katz's), grilled cod collar (nicely fatty), and best of all, raw hamachi with trout roe and jalapeno — a dish imbued with so much oil and heat it tasted like what would happen if a Michelin-starred chef took over Guy Fieri’s test kitchen. The menu, of course, was always a la carte; a meal for two — two appetizers, a shared pasta, two larger plates and dessert — would run about $125 after tax and tip (but before wine).
Then Thirty Acres switched to a tasting menu-only way of life in February. Cost: $75 for ten courses, which means a Friday night date would run no less than $190. Add on full wine pairings at $55 each and you're at $330. That’s a heck of a hike, though you quickly forget about prices when the grilled poussin with spicy lobster sauce arrives. The combination is so startling that David Chang could serve it at Momofuku Ko and watch a flurry of think pieces roll in on the blogosphere. The pairing is a seamless surf and turf; each component bursts with such concentrated funk it’s hard to tell where the shellfish flavor ends and the poultry flavor begins.
Restaurants, like communities and the people living in them, deserve a chance to evolve in unexpected ways,
As Thirty Acres transforms itself from an ambitious local venue into a special occasion, destination restaurant, some will dismiss it as another example of the tristate area becoming increasingly inaccessible to everyday eaters. And no matter the cost, most diners wouldn't splurge on a two hour, 10-course menu too often. But this critic will argue that a long set menu is precisely what Jersey City needs. High-end options are lacking here. And restaurants, like communities and the people living in them, deserve a chance to evolve in unexpected ways, even if that means the institution becomes pricier for all.
This is no small matter. Just as the next wave of creative fine dining around the world takes place outside of major culinary capitals, at restaurants like Borago in Chile, Faviken in Northern Sweden, and Gustu in Bolivia, we should hope, for the sake of diversity, that the next wave of American haute gastronomy comes outside of our biggest municipalities, at establishments like Torino in Ferndale, Michigan, at Forage in Salt Lake, and at Thirty Acres in Jersey City. It's about giving more Americans direct access to the luxuries they already spend their commuter dollars on attaining.
The no-choice tasting menu is key in this movement. The format encourages risk, allowing the restaurant to experiment with chancy, one-or-two-bite dishes that might alienate the diner (or never get ordered) if served in larger portions as part of a shorter a la carte menu. As such, dinner at Thirty Acres might begin a series of bites: a salty squid ink rice ball, a demitasse of sea bean and kohlrabi soup, and a grilled duck heart coated in such a drippy coat of blood orange that appears as if it were freshly ripped out of a live bird, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom-style. Too much? Another dish will arrive in a few minute's time, perhaps a fried lamb sweetbread (just a hint of musk) sitting in a pool of "volcano sauce," a mix of cider vinegar and gochugaru that rivals Frank’s RedHot in its heat and acidity.
Pemoulie occasionally steps out of the kitchen to sip a glass of New York riesling and chat with his guests about, say, a guy from Maine who gets him really great kombu and wakame. He’s right; the seaweed, cut into strips and paired with smoked hazelnuts, snaps with such a gently briny tang it could pass itself off as anchovy pasta if one’s eyes were closed.
Thirty Acres offers no offers no formal choices on the tasting, though smart diners will request a side of smoked duck breast ($12) to supplement it. Pemoulie’s house-made charcuterie doesn’t possess the same Iberico-like depth as Roberta's, but it comes close enough. And for repeat visitors who’ve already tried the excellent tagliatelle with maitake mushrooms and pine oil (the forest course), see if the kitchen might send out the bar pasta instead — the same noodles slathered in an obscene amount of black truffle butter.
Pemoulie, even amid his tasting menu format, has kept his penchant for powerful flavors intact. Halibut, always an oceanic white board, becomes a neutral background for the punch of caraway butter, a deft choice that makes the fish taste like a loaf of soft rye. Mangalitsa pork loin, so heady it tastes dry-aged even when it’s not dry-aged, gets a dose of anchovy sauce to crank up the umami even higher. And dessert, mandarin sorbet with cloumage, is essentially a gourmet creamsicle.
Will the set menu format work long term in Jersey City? Alas, Thirty Acres can feel a bit quieter than it should on weeknights. That's too bad since $75 is a steal for a menu of this length and precision. So let’s hope that the tasting remains, as it serves an important flag bearer not just for Jersey City, but for parts of the country where fine dining has not yet developed a strong foothold. Rock on.
Cost: $75 for the set menu; bar plates at $19 or less.
Sample dishes: Duck hearts with blood orange, lamb sweetbreads with volcano sauce, steamed halibut with caraway butter, poussin with spicy lobster sauce.
Bonus tip: Reservations only taken for the tasting