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Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee was your typical American Revolutionary multi-tasker—Princeton grad, cavalry major general, U.S. congressman, and governor of Virginia. In the midst of these accomplishments, he managed to father six children with a woman seventeen years his junior, including future confederate general Robert E. Lee.
Harry’s legend lives on at a tavern in Jersey City’s Paulus Hook section, near the Hudson River. Paulus Hook is the site of a battle where Lee and his men, though badly outnumbered, captured 400 British soldiers from the fort that once occupied the Jersey City waterfront.
The tavern is owned by a pair of brothers-in-law who discovered Lee’s legend while restoring the historic brownstone at Washington and Morris Street. They make the most of their corner real estate with soaring two-story windows on two walls that give the place a bright airy feel, despite the exposed brick and rich, dark woods of the interior. The bar’s pressed-tin ceiling reflects noise, and in the evening the room is often packed with people fresh off the PATH train. The second-story balcony or the secluded dining room past the bar are better places to enjoy a quiet dinner.
But dinner at the Light Horse is not always enjoyable since chef Ian Topper-Kapitan departed last year. His food had made nearby Marco and Pepe a sensation, but he left the Light Horse soon after winning rave reviews. The kitchen under chef Marcos Acosta is not what it was.
Give the place credit for a broad and well selected beer list. The wine list is also good; a bottle of Nino Franco, one of the better proseccos around, is just $25. It goes wonderfully with oysters. We ordered a dozen as a first course, yet only seven arrived. I asked why.
“They’re shucking the other five, but we wanted to get these out to you as quickly as possible,” the server explained. The oysters, fresher on my first visit than my second, were never bad. But that excellent prosecco was parked in an ice bucket against a far wall, and the wine steward circled back so infrequently that we had to get up and cross the room to refill our glasses.
On the plus side, an $18 lobster and jicama salad was stocked with chunks of fresh lobster meat and was pleasingly spiked with bits of pickled ginger. Spring rolls were lightly fried, filled with fresh, plump shrimp, and served with a concentrated citrus ginger soy sauce. A duo of tuna sashimi and salmon tartare was hit and miss. The tuna was perhaps supermarket-sushi grade and served on limp glass noodles; the silky salmon tartare, topped with a peppery avocado puree, was delightful.
Entrees didn’t fare well, and poor service didn’t help. On one visit, not a single dish in a three-course meal was placed in front of the person who ordered it, a near-comical feat.
Which was the lightly smoked pork chop and which the pan-roasted veal chop? Both were tasted and passed around; no one could be sure. We asked our waiter, when we finally tracked him down, and even he asked a runner for a second opinion. Salmon was suspiciously fishy, and the lentils it was served on were dry. A special of oven-roasted scallops, meager in size and flavor, were served on truffled smashed potatoes topped with mango salsa and lemon vinaigrette. Truffles and tropical fruit? The question was moot—the truffles didn’t register.
Dessert offered no upturn. Lime cheesecake was gluey, and the best that can be said for the fresh berry crepe was that some very fresh berries were used. Best bet? Sidle up to the bar, where you should have been all along, for a can of Young’s Chocolate Stout. Bottom line? The neighs have it.
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