Restaurant Review

Hat City Kitchen

While anchoring an arts district, this Orange eatery rejuvenates a fine chef and makes joyous music for mind and mouth.

Fried chicken at Hat City Kitchen.
Photo by Steve Legato.

Resistance is futile,” famously quoth the Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation. To which chef Patrick Pierre-Jerome responds, “That’s what I want my food to say to your palate.” The man, you can tell, has a sense of humor. But he isn’t kidding. For instance, when a big bowl of his jambalaya touches down on your table, there is nothing to do but surrender. Pierre-Jerome first browns spicy andouille sausage and milder slices of kielbasa to dramatize their flavor, then adds them to the chicken wings, peppers, shrimp, and tomato sauce that go in the perfectly cooked rice. Pity the Borg androids—unable to appreciate the heady aromas and rounded flavors emanating from this $17 classic, big enough to share.

“All the components of the dish conspire against your tongue’s ability to resist,” adds Pierre-Jerome with a chuckle.

At Hat City Kitchen in Orange, there’s no place for taste buds to hide. For starters, consider a half rack of meaty baby-back ribs (a full rack is available as an entrée). Pierre-Jerome gentles the ribs overnight in a vinegar-based wet rub containing whole-grain mustard, brown sugar, and spices. Then he bakes them, covered, in a pan with a little water to create steam for fall-off-the-bone tenderness. He is planning to add a new wrinkle soon—a smoker.

Another destroyer of willpower is shrimp and grits, made with bacon, thick tomato sauce, and onions. In the center of the bowl, surrounded by a moat of sauce and plump shrimp, is what the chef calls a fried grits cake, which is creamy grits poured into a ring mold, chilled to firm it up, lightly powdered with flour, and deep-fried. Lucky Earthlings. Valley Street wings, available plain, buffalo, barbecue, or with black-pepper honey, are guaranteed to keep the table happy. Ditto the baked-potato fries, a crunchy, absolute must. “We intentionally overbake them to make them softer and give them cracks,” says Pierre-Jerome. “Then we cut them into wedges and deep-fry them.” Diabolical.

If you’re a New Jersey foodie of long standing, the distinctive name Patrick Pierre-Jerome might have a familiar ring. Under his full handle, Patrick Yves Pierre-Jerome, the chef put Montclair on the dining map with his superb French restaurant, Yves, in 1990. Only 36 seats, but it made his name before he closed it in 1995 because, lacking a liquor license, profits were paltry.

Over the next decade-plus, among other things, Pierre-Jerome served as Craig Shelton’s pastry chef at the Ryland Inn; earned rave reviews as executive chef of Stage Left in New Brunswick; surfaced as executive chef of the favorably reviewed New American restaurant Vineyards in Hamburg, Sussex County; and learned what he calls “serious hard core barbecue” at Danny Meyer’s Blue Smoke in Manhattan.

Through it all, Pierre-Jerome honed his faculty for “putting flavor first.” This was rooted in his boyhood in his native Haiti, then in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, and finally, as of age 10, East Orange. “My mother and grandmother had a knack for making anything taste great,” he says. “My sister and I used to joke that if my grandmother cooked army boots, my sister and I would fight over the laces.”

Watching TV in East Orange, a third woman entered his life—Julia Child. “She always sounded like she was trying to talk with a tablespoon of water in her mouth that she didn’t want to swallow, and I found that endearing,” he says. “Hers was a radical departure from the Haitian-Caribbean food I’d been used to. Not a plantain in sight.”

Pierre-Jerome worked in restaurants after high school, eventually graduated from the CIA, and spent several months cooking in upscale restaurants in France. His peripatetic career ensued.

Then, in 2009, HANDS posted an ad for a chef. HANDS (Housing and Neighborhood Development Services, Inc.), a nonprofit committed to the redevelopment of neighborhoods in Orange and East Orange, had just purchased the building and liquor license of the former Orange restaurant Ricci’s in the Valley with the intent of opening a new place that would anchor a Valley Arts District.

“Rather than just open another Italian restaurant or sports bar,” says Patrick Morrissy, founder and executive director of HANDS, “we thought, let’s make it a place that will be a big contributor to the arts district. We had a vision of food and music that were cross-cultural, which is really what the Valley is. It’s where the suburbs meet the city.

“Patrick came by,” he continues, “and we just fell in love with him. He cooked for the whole group of us at HANDS, and we loved his food.” Hat City Kitchen hasn’t turned a profit yet, but when it does, Morrissy says, “all profits will go into Valley revitalization activities.” (HANDS’s Valley endeavor has been named the 2010 Redevelopment Project of the Year by the Urban Land Institute of Northern New Jersey.)

The name Hat City Kitchen is cool, but it’s not just a conceit. A century ago, Orange was known as Hat City when the Stetson brothers, among more than 30 other firms, operated hat factories there. Now there is more than a little civic pride for Pierre-Jerome, 51, in operating a tuneful restaurant just across the border from his hometown. HCK, in its lounge area, rocks hard with live entertainment on Friday and Saturday nights (and a blues band a few Sundays a month), usually starting at 9 pm. The sound carries into the dining room but isn’t deafening.

Meanwhile, Pierre-Jerome, along with his capable sous chef, Anthony Walsh, riff and rock too. There’s a reason fried chicken is HCK’s best-seller. It’s created in a two-day process that starts with brining. Over crisp skin, its drizzle of black-pepper honey “puts it over the top,” as Pierre-Jerome rightly notes. The worthy second-best-seller is blackened salmon with brown sugar-mustard sauce.

Not everything is spot on. The mac’n cheese side could be cheesier. My Mom’s Meatloaf—sorry, Mom—was a bit too dense and a little dry. The sausage gravy with the chicken-fried boneless pork loin was irresistible, but the loin itself was a heavy chew. Among sides, creamed spinach was bright, fresh, and flavorful, but hot buttered mushrooms were surprisingly dull.

Pierre-Jerome makes the desserts. Standouts include deep-dish pecan pie, crunchy pecan cookie pieces, and the best-seller, vanilla bean bread pudding with hot buttered rum-caramel sauce. Resistance may not be futile, but it ain’t easy.

In sum, Pierre-Jerome sees his role as intermediary between the ingredients and his customers. Speaking of his fried chicken, he says, “It has a verse it wants to recite. I’m just here to help it find its voice.”

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