When Marco & Pepe opened on Grove Street in 2003, downtown Jersey City wasn’t exactly a mecca for adventurous dining. Five years later, Marco & Pepe chefs Nicole Puzio and Ed Radich left to open Ox on Newark Avenue. Ox created a culinary buzz, and then it was gone — as much a legend as the Paul Bunyan character that inspired its name.
Now Radich and former Ox cook Michael Fiorianti are back in the kitchen at Raval (136 Newark Avenue, 201-209-1099), an ambitious two-story tapas bar adorned with muraled halls and tiled banquettes.
Radich and Fiorianti met soon after Fiorianti moved into the neighborhood. “Mike walked in and said, ‘This looks like the kind of place where I want to work.’ He literally walked onto the line at five o’clock on opening night and just killed it,” Radich recalls. “We’ve been friends ever since.” Fiorianti eventually moved on to Satis Bistro, and Radich found work as a corporate chef. “My son is five years old — he was born right when Ox was closing, and I needed to work. I went into corporate dining because it was stable, it was family-friendly, and it was rewarding for a while. But you miss this. Not to get all Anthony Bourdain, but there’s something fulfilling about it: the hours, the pressure, being on your feet all day.” At Raval, their previous roles are now reversed: Radich is chef de cuisine and Fiorianti is executive chef.
A madeira-braised oxtail appetizer, an homage to Ox, is paired with a trompe l’oeil marrow bone — a thick-cut ring of tender parsnip. The rest of the comprehensive dinner menu at Raval features more than 30 dishes, from bar snacks like warm spiced almonds with chipped manchego and porcini croquettes oozing with béchamel sauce to an ibérico de bellota pork steak a la plancha, garnished with salsa verde. Savory bites at Raval are available until 1 a.m. The late-night menu features boquerones, cod fritters, lamb albóndigas, and charcuterie.
The bar program at Raval is led by Joe Donohue, a graduate of Tales of the Cocktail’s prestigious CAP program and a veteran of Hoboken’s Kolo Klub and the East Village’s Holiday Cocktail Lounge. Donohue oversees a creative cocktail menu, culling from a shelf of bottles the likes of which otherwise tend to collect dust in bars around town.
There are six variations on the gin ‘n’ tonic, each made with a different small-batch botanical gin, like Greenhook Old Tom. Each drink incorporates different house-made tonics: infusions of Hefeweizen; chamomile and lemon; and a potent blend of turmeric, saffron, and white peppercorn. Donohue is witness to a new breed of Jersey City drinkers.
“I worked in Hoboken for two and a half years, and people would say Kolo Klub is the only cocktail bar open, and there aren’t any in Jersey City. But I told them in five years there will be ten here. It hadn’t happened yet, but it was primed,” Donohue says. “More people in Jersey City have an adventurous side to their palate, and you can see it in the restaurants opening. Now there are all these unique concepts in Jersey City, and a mile and a half away in Hoboken they’re all the same.”