Set on the waterfront at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, boasting panoramic views of the New York skyline and Lady Liberty, Liberty House is a catering palace; a busy bar whose jejune cocktails include one made with bubblegum-flavored vodka; and a destination restaurant with a waterside terrace—a “memory maker,” in the words of co-owner Jeanne Cretella of Landmark Hospitality, which also operates Stone House in Warren and various catering businesses. She and her husband, Frank, are currently renovating the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station.
My first visit, a Saturday night before Christmas, was tumultuous. Running a full house and two catered affairs, the kitchen and waitstaff were taxed to the limit—and so was the space itself, crowded and drenched in noise and superfluous live music. Our brittle, offhand waiter drifted in and out of our meal. The food suffered, too. A strip steak, lamb osso buco and duck breast all arrived seriously overcooked.
A few Tuesdays later things went better. Liberty House’s largely separate restaurant and banquet kitchens are run by executive chef Ken Trickilo. Now 40, the West Milford native began working in local restaurant kitchens while in high school. “My Uncle Dennis sat me down,” Trickilo relates. “He was a senior exec at Toys R Us but had always wanted to be a chef. He told me to follow my heart.” Happy ending: “Uncle Dennis and Aunt Arlene put me through the Culinary Institute of America.”
After graduation, the budding chef cooked at the Globe in Cape May, the Bernards Inn in Bernardsville and Panico’s in New Brunswick under its original owner. More recently, Trickilo was corporate chef for South City Group, which runs the Fire & Oak restaurants, Bistro 55 and Bentlee’s. A Rockaway resident, Trickilo came to Liberty House last spring and overhauled the menu. “I want every diner to find something they’ll love,” he says. “There’s less Italian, but still some. There are French bistro dishes and American comfort classics.”
Liberty House is building a hydroponic greenhouse to grow produce like herbs and microgreens. The restaurant makes its own pasta, including fettuccine flavored with curry-like fennel pollen.
Diners can feast on Liberty House’s generally pristine fresh fish, shellfish and sushi. (Two caveats: calamari may be fresh or frozen; ask before ordering. Shrimp cappellini was made with frozen critters that lacked bright, fresh shrimp taste.) But Trickilo’s moist jumbo lump crab cake, made with lemon remoulade, is beyond reproach. (He’s experimenting with a rock-shrimp cake.) My favorite Liberty House entrée was coriander- and pepper-crusted bluefin tuna, pan-seared and naturally buttery. I’m not sure it’s a natural match for the earthy wild rice in stewed-kumquat reduction it comes with, but the unexpected pairing makes for a distinctive dish.
The rest of the menu was touch-and-go on both visits. A handful of giant caper berries was the highlight of the Butcher Board, a pedestrian salumi platter from Paris Gourmet in Carlstadt. Trickilo’s meats are top quality, including beef from DeBragga, recently relocated from Manhattan’s Meatpacking District to Jersey City. On my second visit, an 8-ounce Angus filet mignon was cooked precisely to order and had ample beef flavor. It was not enhanced by the overly cheesy, retro potato pavé with it, or the recommended side dish, mac and cheese, which was bland.
Carrot cake was sadly short on frosting. Green apple and cranberry crostata was dry and its ginger ice cream wan. I did like the pumpkin cheesecake, a deli-style zesty treat with autumnal spices.