When Zylo opened in March in the new W Hotel in Hoboken (the first W in New Jersey), it was hobbled by amateurish service and no clear identity beyond its slick “Tuscan steakhouse” label. Half a year later, it has emerged from its growing pains as an appealing and even cocky young restaurant.
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There is serious money behind the enterprise. Zylo’s owners run Michael Jordan’s steakhouses. The design is by Bentel & Bentel Architects, who masterminded the contemporary look of New York’s Craftsteak, Gramercy Tavern, and the Modern. Zylo’s wall of windows, curvy booths and chairs, and dramatic high ceiling suggest a 1960s first-class airport lounge. Metal mesh curtains, a nod to Manhattan’s ageless Four Seasons restaurant, heighten the mod mood but dim the breathtaking New York panorama.
Zylo should benefit from a youngish local clientele delighted to have a W hotel’s dependable nightlife on this side of the PATH train. The 50-seat restaurant is reached by traversing a lounge with white leather furnishings in the lobby or a sprawling lounge occupying the front half of Zylo, minimally illuminated to highlight the view.
This “Tuscan steakhouse” also offers a fair amount of seafood, pizza, and—the strongest section of the menu—pastas. Executive chef Troy Unruh, 37, is intent on making his eclectic, somewhat unwieldy menu work. “I’m comfortable wearing many chef’s hats,” he says. “I’m a Dutch boy from Minnesota who went to culinary school and worked in all different types of kitchens. Now I’m living in Jersey City and cooking Italian in Hoboken. But whatever I cook, I aim for flavor-driven simplicity.”
Among the types of kitchens Unruh has worked in, all in New York, are Scandinavian-American (Marcus Samuelsson’s Aquavit), modern French (Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Jean-Georges, Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin), Central European (David Bouley’s Danube), and Italian (Lidia Bastianich and Mario Batali’s Del Posto). In the last of those, Unruh says, “I was the lead meat chef and became a hard-core Italian cook.”
Zylo’s steaks are very good. Unruh orders his dry-aged Black Angus prime beef from a Kentucky farm and offers it in six cuts. (At Zylo, rare means rare, not raw or medium-rare.) I especially liked the richly marbled New York strip steak and the 8-ounce flatiron. This manageably portioned steak came sliced, enhanced with a tasty rub of Tuscan herbs, including oregano, rosemary, marjoram, and garlic. The fiorentina, or porterhouse, was thick and juicy; surprisingly, the ribeye was less flavorful than other cuts.
Side dishes cost extra, steakhouse-style. On my first visit in late April, polenta looked and tasted like Cream of Wheat. Nowadays it’s a rich wonder cooked in half milk, half water, finished with parmesan, olive oil, and chives. Unruh’s braised Tuscan black kale, lavished with cream, mascarpone, and parmesan, is a creative and satisfying take on that steakhouse classic, creamed spinach. His Tuscan potatoes, chunks roasted with garlic and fennel, served in a citrus vinaigrette, aren’t very engaging. I wish he offered a side of regular fries or those crisp, salty, fried potato rounds that surround his octopus salad.
I was underwhelmed by a dull hunk of walleye pike and by a bland roasted halibut, this season’s trendy fillet. Unruh’s delicious pork chop, from firm-fleshed Durac hogs—called roasted pork on the menu—is crusted with fennel seed and cooked slowly. Abbacchio is a wintry dish of tender lamb grilled, braised, stripped off the bone like pulled pork, and served over lamb stock with baby vegetables. Deliciously restorative.
Unruh seems most inspired in his Italian cooking. His pastas are outstanding, especially now that they come to the table piping hot. Virtually all the pasta is made daily in the kitchen. Orechiette were topped with delectable chunks of house-made pork sausage. “I use roasted red peppers, red wine, and both sweet and smoked paprika,” he says.
He blankets spaghettini with fresh Maine crabmeat, raw basil, and a saffron butter concocted from shrimp and lobster stock, French butter, and saffron. It’s as lush as it sounds. Equally enticing are Unruh’s delicate, pillowy gnocchi, topped with braised pork shoulder, and garnished with pickled red cabbage Friuli style. Pastas may be ordered in appetizer or entrée portions; watch ’em disappear.
Unruh’s other Italian dishes are delicious, too. His artful pizzas are baked at precisely 575º in a brick oven and sized to be shareable as appetizers. They are tastily topped with fresh buffalo mozzarella and basil, or with prosciutto, fontina, and—the eureka ingredient—housemade sweet and tart onion marmalade.
Don’t overlook Unruh’s exceptional antipasti. Skip the over-battered calamari and go for the outstanding polpette, a deservedly voguish Italian dish of meatballs smothered with fontina fonduta, a cheese sauce. Unruh uses beef, veal, pork, bread crumbs, a slap of orange zest, a sauce of reduced San Marzano tomatoes—a classic Sicilian combination.
The key to the meatballs’ fluffy texture? “You don’t overwork them,” he says.
This chef likes crudo (Italian sashimi) based on seasonal catches. “Like, one day we got this great fresh Jersey fluke,” he says. “I wanted to keep it simple but interesting.” So he embellished the snowy slices with watermelon cubes, baby celery leaves, olive oil, and black sea salt—making a harmonious, memorable dish. In a new menu he will serve fluke crudo with apple, celery root, horseradish, and mint. (Not only would I love to see more crudo at Zylo, I’d applaud a revival of the cacciucco, an intense Tuscan bouillabaisse no longer on the menu.)
Zylo’s desserts, works in progress, are pleasant but unremarkable: a light ricotta cheesecake, a crunchy lemon semifredo, a soothing vanilla panna cotta.
Tuscan steakhouse feels like an ad slogan. Zylo should focus on what the chef does so well: Italian cooking, which has an honorable history in Hoboken. It would certainly be worth tweeting about from a W hotel.