Whatever Happened to…Jersey City’s Transformative Chef?

The blossoming of downtown Jersey City as a dining destination can be traced to the opening of Marco & Pepe shortly after the trauma of 9/11 (and partly in response to it). The chef, the previously unknown Ian Topper-Kapitan, began turning out a new kind of freewheeling, casual food the likes of which, at that time, you had to go to Lower Manhattan to experience. For the next decade, Topper-Kapitan would continue to be a culinary force in that swath of downtown JC between the Hudson River and City Hall. Then he disappeared. Tonight I got a call from him.

Marco & Pepe was started by Jersey City resident Ralph Rodriguez, a Wall Street consultant, in the grim days after the towers fell. The restaurant became a gathering place for the hip young crowd moving into the neighborhood from New York.

After Topper-Kapitan left, Nicole Puzio, who had worked under him, took over and kept the Marco & Pepe magic going. Eventually, she left and opened Ox, another important (if short-lived) addition to downtown JC’s expanding scene.

Meanwhile, Kapitan (a Canadian, he dropped Topper, his married name, after he became a US citizen), surfaced at the Iron Monkey and helped rejuvenate that venerable downtown watering hole. Then he moved a couple blocks west to the Light Horse Tavern, and made that a place people went to for the food.

Kapitan left the Light Horse shortly after receiving a glowing review from the New York Times. Then a year or two later, he returned. Again his food was terrific. Then–maybe early 2011–he left again, this time for good.

Then tonight he called me.

Why? Bear with me—it’s a little weird. Earlier today I needed to speak to an Essex County chef we are doing something on. The writer of the story had given me the chef’s cell number. So I called. There was no recorded greeting, just a boilerplate announcement that such-and-such number isn’t responding. So I left a message, asking the chef to call me.

When Kapitan called, he said, "Hi, Eric? This is Ian Kapitan. Earlier today you left a message for [the other chef] on my cell phone."

Whaaat? The number I had been given, it turned out, was not the Essex County chef’s cell phone, it was Kapitan’s cell phone. Kapitan, by the way, had no idea what the other chef’s cell number actually was. Moreover, he said this wasn’t the first time someone had called his cell phone expecting to reach some other chef, who, in every case, Kapitan didn’t have the foggiest idea how to reach.

So there I was on the phone with the legendary and mysterious Ian Kapitan. Why waste the opportunity? I asked him what I’d always wanted to know: why he left Light Horse, what he’s doing now and how’s it going?

He said he left Light Horse because he wanted to expand his horizons, cook in a more adventurous and personal way, incorporate farm-to-table ideas and so on. Which are the kind of reasons a lot of chefs cite for moving on.

He said he was just about to celebrate the one-year anniversary of his new restaurant, Alobar, in Long Island City, New York.

"Aloe like the plant?" I asked.

"No, Alo like the king."

I later looked it up. According to Hawaiian legend, there was a high chief of Maui called Alo. I don’t know if that’s the guy Alobar is named for.**

Why Long Island City?

"Long Island City," Kapitan said, "is where Jersey City was ten years ago."

Perhaps coincidentally, Long Island City is located not much farther from Ground Zero than downtown Jersey City is–except across the East River instead of across the Hudson.

Kapitan said things are going well at Alobar. Check it out here. It seems like a very hip place. I miss Kapitan’s food, but I’m glad to know people are enjoying it, somewhere.

Recommended Reading:   Coming Soon: Restaurants to Have on Your Radar

**I have just been informed that owner Jeff Blath named the restaurant for the character King Alobar in the Tom Robbins novel Jitterbug Perfume. ("He just liked the name, and it stuck.") A name tailor-made for a restaurant with a bar, don’t you think? The novel is available from Amazon here.

(That link will take you to the Kindle version. It’s available in dead-tree form, of course, and I have nothing against those. Still have way more physical books than my sagging bookcases can handle. But I haven’t bought a physical book since Sept ’08, when I got an iPhone and began reading (by now over 100) books on Kindle for iPhone. Have never looked back.)

I just happened to take a look at the Jitterbug Perfume EXCERPT available on Amazon. It begins with an astonishing ode to the beet. Foodies will definitely want to read this. It’s one page long, and not a long page:

"THE BEET IS THE MOST INTENSE of vegetables. The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious.

"Slavic peoples get their physical characteristics from potatoes, their smoldering inquietude from radishes, their seriousness from beets.

"The beet is the melancholy vegetable, the one most willing to suffer. You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip.

"The beet is the murderer returned to the scene of the crime. The beet is what happens when the cherry finishes with the carrot. The beet is the ancient ancestor of the autumn moon, bearded, buried, all but fossilized; the dark green sails of the grounded moon-boat stitched with veins of primordial plasma; the kite string that once connected the moon to the Earth now a muddy whisker drilling desperately for rubies.

"The beet was Rasputin’s favorite vegetable. You could see it in his eyes. In Europe there is grown widely a large beet they call the mangel-wurzel. Perhaps it is mangel-wurzel that we see in Rasputin. Certainly there is mangel-wurzel in the music of Wagner, although it is another composer whose name begins, B-e-e-t——.

"Of course, there are white beets, beets that ooze sugar water instead of blood, but it is the red beet with which we are concerned; the variety that blushes and swells like a hemorrhoid, a hemorrhoid for which there is no cure. (Actually, there is one remedy: commission a potter to make you a ceramic asshole—and when you aren’t sitting on it, you can use it as a bowl for borscht.)

"An old Ukrainian proverb warns, ‘A tale that begins with a beet will end with the devil.’”

Amazing, right? "The beet is what happens when the cherry finishes with the carrot." The root "a muddy whisker drilling desperately for rubies." If the rest of the book is this good, I have got to read it starting tonight.


Read more From the Editors articles.

By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.