David Drake is one of just two chefs ever to have two restaurants in NJM’s Top 25 two years in a row (2008-’09). In the course of closing those places—Restaurant David Drake in Rahway, his bastion of fine dining, and Daryl in New Brunswick, his wine bar with adventurous food—Drake joined Alice’s, an eatery on Lake Hopatcong, in 2009.
“Owning and running a restaurant is, let’s say, stressful, even in the best of times,” he told me back then. “[At Alice’s], I can be simply the chef.”
Last spring, Drake left the lake for the Hudson River, becoming executive chef of downtown Jersey City’s venerable Light Horse Tavern. The plan was for Drake to also serve as executive chef of Greene Hook, a pub that Light Horse co-owner Bill Gray was planning to open on Greene Street in the Paulus Hook neighborhood, a block east of Light Horse and two blocks west of the river.
“Alice’s was busy four months of the year,” Drake told me on the phone after my Greene Hook visits. “I lost my energy. I kept tabs on the Jersey City dining excitement, and when Bill got in touch, I was ready.”
Greene Hook debuted last September on the ground floor of a 48-story luxury rental tower. It has 28 seats at the handsome bar and more than 100 at well-spaced tables. There are plenty of flat screens, a well-lit dartboard and surprisingly moderate sound levels.
Not only has Drake, 56, raised the food at Light Horse to new heights, he has more than fulfilled what he described as his mission at Greene Hook: “to serve much better food than you expect at a hip sports bar.”
Must-orders include peel-and-eat shrimp—tender, flavorful, heads on. Drake gets his Gulf shrimp fresh, not frozen, poaches them in a stock rich with shrimp shells and serves them with a horseradish rémoulade that actually accentuates the shrimp’s natural sweetness. Another must is crispy pork belly, cured in a dry rub, confited in duck fat and painted to piquance with the unctuous sauce that sushi restaurants brush on roasted eel. Drake credits Greene Hook cook Paul Oh for the kimchi that provides peppery contrast with the pork. Also delicious are corn-flour empanadas filled with braised chuck, potatoes and sofrito. They gain even more flavor with Drake’s chimichurri brightened with cilantro. Only the braised pork chili was subpar, needing more Tex-Mex heat.
Moving to entrées, fried chicken often sells out early, not just for its humorous presentation in a paper bucket. The pieces, crackly outside, moist inside, come with dark, zesty jalapeño biscuits and a black mini-skillet of white-cheddar mac and cheese.
As befits a sports bar, Greene Hook offers three burgers (one a roasted portobello mushroom), a cheese steak with Gruyere on ciabatta, and a grilled chicken sandwich. There are four pastas. The angel hair is unusual. The dry strands are broken and browned in olive oil, then stirred like risotto in lobster broth with onions, stewed tomatoes and garlic. A few meaty shrimp join the party. As the dish leaves the kitchen, it is sprinkled with crunchy bread crumbs. On one visit, the pasta was flaccid; on the other, it was crisp angel-hair heaven.
One of my companions blissed out on the orecchiette, punchy with Italian sausage, basil-kale pesto and oven-charred cherry tomatoes. The dish, Drake said, was created by chef de cuisine Joe Beninato, formerly sous chef of the now-shuttered Ursino in Union.
Striped bass was terrific, seared skin side down for crispness and basted with butter, thyme and rosemary for luscious flesh. The $24 flatiron steak was so flavorful you would think it was aged beef. It came with caramelized cipollini onions and root vegetables. The atypical but effective steak sauce is a reduction of Colorado’s Left Hand Nitro milk stout, one of Greene Hook’s roughly 18 rotating drafts.
I liked all the desserts. When I asked Drake the name of his pastry chef, he replied modestly, “The job fell to me.” Actually, he has experience. Long ago he served as Craig Shelton’s pastry chef in the glory days of the Ryland Inn. The bright and pretty lemon meringue with ladyfingers, huckleberry compote and a swirly browned top, was a table favorite. Hazelnut semifreddo arrived at the ideal cold-yet-spoonable texture one night, too freddo at another.
“It should sit for seven minutes before you dip in,” Drake said. “Preferably in the kitchen.”
That suggests Greene Hook’s one weakness: Drake, who lives in Millburn, divides his time between Light Horse and the new kid on the block. At least at this stage of its young life, Greene Hook is a little better when Drake is in the house.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:American - Modern
Price Details:Appetizers, $9-$13; entrées, $17-$27; desserts, $9.
Ambience:Hip sports bar with well-spaced tables.
Service:Welcoming, attentive, informed.
Wine list:The sweet spots are house cocktails and craft beers.