Satis Bistro in Jersey City, writes Pat Tanner in her review, combines the most beloved dishes of French bistros, Italian trattorias, Spanish tapas joints and Portuguese cafes. That's a lot to juggle, but by adding a modern twist, Tanner says, Satis succeeds more often than not.
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Cherry-pick the most beloved dishes of French bistros, Italian trattorias, Spanish tapas joints and Portuguese cafes, give them a slight modern twist, and you have Satis, the pan-European bistro in Jersey City’s Paulus Hook neighborhood. Bouillabaisse? Oui, monsieur. Gnocchi? Si, signora. Patatas bravas? Si, señor. Kale, potato and linguica soup? Sim, senhora.
The linguica in that Portuguese soup, which also contains chorizo, is one of about a dozen first-rate cured meats on offer, some made in house by Chef Michael Fiorianti, others from Salumeria Biellese in Hackensack. Platters of interesting salumi like wild boar cacciatorini and culatello (prosciutto’s highbrow cousin), as well as equally well-chosen cheeses, are significant draws here. Fiorianti ran the kitchen at Goldman Sachs in Jersey City when he was with Restaurant Associates and also once interned with Thomas Keller. The chef is one reason this 68-seat bistro quickly became a neighborhood hot spot, especially for hip young professionals, soon after opening in December 2010.
The aforementioned gnocchi are made in house of ricotta, not potatoes. Rather than the usual nubbins, they’re fat, fluffy pillows. At Satis, they’re tossed with a tumble of white beans, braised escarole and mellow garlic confit so full of good, earthy flavors that the dish has become Fiorianti’s signature. My companion who ordered it was still talking about it weeks later.
When a beef-loving companion ordered the cauliflower steak, I thought he had misread the menu. Instead he wound up hoarding it, and I can’t fault him. The thick white slab is the size and shape of a big steak and treated as such: seared until caramelized, then paired with house-made steak sauce amped up with pine nuts and raisins. Peppery arugula and half-size roasted tomatoes filled with fregola (a couscous-like pasta) are the apt accompaniments to this hearty, satisfying vegetarian dish.
The setting also takes cues from casual European eateries, albeit with a big splash of downtown cool. A wall of vintage brick soars to the open second-floor dining room of a handsome building that dates to the early 1900s. It was vacant for three years before being purchased by Satis owners Michael Garcia and Geza Gulas, whose first project was Lucky 7 Tavern in Jersey City.
“We completely gutted the space,” says Garcia (framed black-and-white “before” photos hang in the main-floor restroom). “We love this location and the space and thought a European-style bistro would be a good fit with the neighborhood.”
Towering bay windows sport tangles of flowing greenery flanked by drapery. At night, the worn, dark-wood floor and tables gleam in the faint glow of vintage chandeliers and table votives in both the main and mezzanine spaces (where it can get really noisy). In the rear of the main space is the brightly lit salumeria, walls lined with white subway tiles and decorated with hanging sausages, salami and cured hams. In good weather, there’s seating on the bluestone terrace.
Gulas acts as host and sometime server. He is quirky, so you’ll either be charmed or turned off by his idiosyncrasies. He often appears put-upon and once tried to win our sympathy by complaining about a negative comment he had received on Yelp. The service team is generally efficient, although on one occasion attention flagged for seriously long periods after we received our entrées. And a caveat to groups: 22 percent gratuity is added to parties of six or more.
In true European style, you can make a meal of the appetizer, salumi and adventurous cheese plates. My favorite starters include the albondigas: three tender, golf-ball-size spheres of ground lamb and pine nuts bathed in just-spicy-enough tomato-saffron cream sauce. Almost as compelling is Fiorianti’s duck-liver mousse—unctuous, deeply flavorful, multiplied by a slab of toasted brioche smeared with whipped duck fat.
Satis has its share of middling dishes. House-made gravlax is very good but was taken down by Kalamata olives and baby potatoes that were both too salty. The so-called daily bruschetta was white-bean hummus on each visit, a bit boring. Braised short ribs fell short on flavor, moistness and tenderness. The goat-cheese mashed potatoes they nest upon almost made up for the ribs, but why bother when you can order a side of mashed potatoes with goat cheese and chorizo? I guarantee your table will be fighting over these.
Osso bucco with roasted-chestnut polenta is delicious, but does it warrant a $34 tab? With only eight entrées (seven on nights when the bouillabaisse is not offered), Satis needs to make sure every single one is worth ordering. The biggest disappointment is that very bouillabaisse, which one night featured grouper and tiny clams—both nearly tasteless—and watery, wan broth.
Gelato is a strength here. The menu also features three deep-bowled gelato sundaes—like German chocolate cake, made with coconut-almond chip and dark-chocolate gelati, candied pecans, toasted coconut and butterscotch sauce. Word to the wise: Share. We enjoyed the sundaes more than, for example, a banana tart tatin with tough pastry. My favorite ending to a meal at this cool homage to European bistros is affogado, simply a shot of hot espresso poured over vanilla gelato.