David Drake, who took over the workhorse kitchen at the Paulus Hook spot Light Horse Tavern this summer, recently opened its casual offshoot just down the block — Greene Hook (70 Greene Street, Jersey City; 201-721-5062). “Jim Kennedy, who was the mayor of Rahway – he was my partner in my restaurant there – he comes to Light Horse a lot, so the owner asked him for my number,” recalls Drake. His eponymous Rahway restaurant shuttered during the recession of 2007, and it was the last time the chef has executed the French technique he mastered under David Burke at Brooklyn’s River Cafe and Craig Shelton at New Jersey’s Ryland Inn, when both of those chefs were cooking at their peak.
After serving bistro fare in Lake Hopatcong the past five years, Drake’s curiosity about Jersey City’s dining scene trumped his complacency in the suburbs. “I just felt Jersey City was the right thing for me,” says Drake, while acknowledging “there’s a lot of young people here, which is good and bad, because they don’t have disposable income.” Greene Hook makes Light Horse’s grown-up fare more accessible without dressing down the craft. Fried chicken by the bucket is cooked sous vide and sided with freshly-baked jalapeno biscuits; agnolotti is made from scratch, deviled eggs are dusted with paprika then dotted with caviar. “Otherwise it’s like putting on a tuxedo without a bowtie,” he says. “A lot of places, that’s fine, no one’s wearing a bowtie anymore, but that little final touch makes it fun.”
Drake describes Greene Hook’s menu as “unconventional fine dining” and to prove his point, the barroom’s dominated by a shuffleboard league twice a week, as much of a draw for the neighborhood’s junior executives as the nightly dollar oysters and heavily discounted drink specials that keep beer, wine, and cocktails under $5 after work.
“We’re still figuring out how to do it, but we’re humming all the time,” he says, relieved and mindful such waterfront success stories aren’t always the case. After Ryland Inn shuttered the same year as Restaurant David Drake, Craig Shelton helmed the kitchen of Skylark on the Hudson, an upscale diner a few blocks uptown in Jersey City’s Newport neighborhood, only to see it too shutter after Hurricane Sandy.
More conventional dining dominates the revamped menu at Light Horse, where Drake’s always happy to reinvent dishes as long as he has access to the finest produce and proteins available. “I can plate something seven different ways, but that doesn’t matter if I don’t have the right ingredients,” he says. Now he can confidently impart French flair to the former chef’s daily specials, like a dorade wrapped in phyllo that was previously hunkered down in an afterthought of chickpeas. “Now it’s stuffed with wild mushrooms, and rolled up like a giant joint,” he says.
And just as Drake takes cues from younger customers, he also pays attention to his young cooks at Light Horse Tavern. Because authenticity is just as vital as quality, a pork belly dish is paired with one back-of-the-house employee’s mother’s secret kimchi recipe. “He was here when I came on, started as a dishwasher, and had no experience in a commercial kitchen,” he says of the cook who’s now worked his way up to garde manger while also lending a hand to revamping the dessert program.
“Honestly I should probably ask him if it’s okay, ” says Drake, before tweaking the recipe’s notes of garlic and Korean chile. “He takes such pride in everything he does.”