Revolutionary War hero Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee won big in Jersey City. Now the hip watering hole named for him does the same.
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At night, the wind whipping off the Hudson River makes the empty plazas around the office towers of Jersey City’s Exchange Place feel a bit desolate. But a few blocks away, warmth and conviviality spill out of the tall windows of the handsome Light Horse Tavern.
The Light Horse anchors this thriving neighborhood of renovated brownstones and storefront enterprises and eateries. Reservations are recommended, even on a weeknight. Some patrons are drawn to the classic saloon ambience, others to the array of interesting beers poured. But Light Horse Tavern’s most potent allure is chef Ian Kapitan’s hearty, intensely flavorful American cooking.
If Jersey City has a patron chef, Kapitan is it. On his way up, the 40-year-old Ontario native cooked alongside top toques like Susur Lee in Toronto and Jean-Georges Vongerichten and David Bouley in New York. But Kapitan found his kitchen groove in Jersey City, where local foodies have zigzagged around town pursuing him.
Kapitan manned the stoves at Light Horse for three years after it opened in 2002. Then he moved to Marco & Pepe, where he and his truffled mac and cheese generated lasting buzz. Next he returned to Light Horse, then swung to Iron Monkey. Kapitan briefly ran his own place in New York’s Soho before landing at Light Horse again in August 2009. “I’m very comfortable here,” says the Jersey City resident. “The pace and vibe just feel right, and I have a great kitchen and crew. Plus, seasonal New American cuisine is perfect for me. It’s the food I love, and it allows me to be creative yet focused.”
The tavern’s namesake—Revolutionary War general Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee—was himself pretty focused. A graduate of Princeton (then known as the College of New Jersey), Lee earned his sobriquet for his deft horsemanship. His cavalry beat the British at the Battle of Paulus Hook, the restaurant’s neighborhood. Later, Lee governed Virginia and fathered Robert E. Lee. Today, his portrait commands the tavern dining room.
The restaurant occupies a red-brick row house bought by Bill Gray and Ron Smith, brothers-in-law who now live upstairs with their families. Gray, whose background is in construction, hand-built the 28-foot mahogany bar, 18-foot bay windows and mezzanine balcony, an ideal perch for frequent live-jazz nights. The brothers-in-law are typically found in the restaurant, monitoring Light Horse’s inviting atmosphere and managing its well-informed, intuitive servers, who dress nattily in banker’s-blue button-down shirts.
The broad menu offers a raw bar, enticing salads, a range of bar bites, plus appetizers, entrées and daily specials. The beer list is equally eclectic, with nearly 100 craft brews selected by manager Erin Robert Clyde. The spring menu had not yet been introduced during my visits, but nearly everything I tasted was earthy and satisfying, with distinctive touches. Blue Hubbard squash risotto was made with garlic, pignoli nuts and a Jersey-grown squash that imparts a more complex, nuttier taste than butternut. Steak tartare startled the palate with loamy sliced black truffles. This deluxe ingredient also anointed a toothsome dish of lobster gnocchi composed of divine house-made chive gnocchi, butter-poached lobster chunks, lardons and luxurious bacon crème fraîche sauce.
French onion soup is often a café cliché, but not in Kapitan’s hands. He says his is a nod to his mentor, Vongerichten, “who will turn a traditional dish into something perfect.” Kapitan does just that, enriching the soup with house-made veal stock and brandied caramelized onions. “I’m Canadian,” he says. “We take winter seriously and get into really rustic and hearty food.”
Rustic and hearty describe the generous pork belly entrée. Kapitan uses a relatively lean Jersey-raised Duroc heritage pork whose belly epitomizes porcine goodness. My only quibble was the overly acidic note in its sauce, a Jersey apple-cider reduction.
Kapitan’s seasonal side dishes were alluring. Maple-roasted winter vegetables—parsnips, turnips, carrots, celery root and pearl onion—were cooked separately, combined with thyme, rosemary and garlic, and sweetened with maple syrup. Irresistible Jersey-grown Brussels sprouts were braised in butter and vegetable stock, showered with pork-belly trimmings and finished with fresh herbs and butter.
Seafood is a year-round highlight. Wild Pacific Northwest salmon, lightly house smoked, then pan seared, would please even red-meat eaters. It was served with smoky roasted tomatoes, mushrooms and truffle slices. I was captivated by Kapitan’s fish and chips at Iron Monkey and was glad to see these expertly fried cod spears and crunchy potatoes on Light Horse’s menu. They are served with jalapeño-caper tartar sauce and terrific cole slaw with a sweet kick from rice-wine vinegar.
The 9-ounce burger was just as good as the fish and chips, layered with smoked red onions and artisanal cheese, with fries alongside. Kapitan’s bacon-wrapped meatloaf was crave-worthy, too. It resembled a giant Sicilian meatball, its 12 ounces of ground pork, veal and beef intended “to honor Jersey City’s Italian tradition,” says the chef. Duck breast was silken and ruddy, with delectably crunchy skin and basmati rice so savory with toasted almonds and garlic that it could be a vegetarian main dish. Kapitan’s meat entrées disappointed me only in a too-heavy barbecue sauce topping the impeccably tender skirt steak.
For dessert, Vincianne Galt’s seasonal Apple Breton is a marvelous take on the classic tarte Tatin, with an ice cream topping loaded with Madagascar vanilla.