Restaurant Review

Iron Monkey

The Iron Monkey in Jersey City serves up some sophisticated pub grub.

Iron Monkey has become a neighborhood institution by rolling with the economic punches. It began thirteen years ago as a high-priced bistro and morphed into today’s moderately priced gastropub specializing in boutique beers—and, since March, the enlightened pub grub of noted chef Ian Topper-Kapitan, who made his name seven years ago as the opening chef of nearby Marco & Pepe.

Iron Monkey, which lowered its prices by about a buck per appetizer and two bucks per entrée in September, is almost worth going ape for. If its service improves, we’ll be swinging from the vines.
Esoteric neon beer signs fill the front window—Chimay (Belgium), Dogfish Head (Delaware), Radeberger (Germany), Allagash (Maine). Sidewalk benches offer comfort to outcast smokers. On the ground floor of the onetime townhouse, good rock, blues, and bebop play on satellite radio. A few small tables face the massive, mirror-backed walnut bar, which seats 26. The entire menu is served here, along with those way-beyond-Bud beers and small-producer wines—more than four dozen of each.

Patrons seeking a quiet dinner ascend a wobbly-banistered wooden staircase to a white, sparely elegant gallery room. It is gently illuminated by votives on white-clothed tables and spotlights trained on work by area artists. The kitchen occupies the third floor; above that is a year-round deck, often SRO in warm weather, with a soon-to-be retractable roof.

After Toronto-raised Topper-Kapitan left Marco & Pepe, he landed briefly at another neighborhood institution, Light Horse Tavern, and then became a hotel mogul’s private chef. He was enticed back to Jersey City by Iron Monkey’s owner, a fabric broker who lives next door to the restaurant. The 38-year-old chef brought his fan base and specialties, including his much blogged-about truffled mac and cheese with chèvre, Gruyére, mascarpone, and crème fraîche. He introduced terrific appetizers such as tacos made with soft cornmeal tortillas lightly crisped on the grill; pan-fried lumpmeat crabcakes; and best of all, Angus beef mini-burgers on brioche buns.

Topper-Kapitan’s compact menu features several rustic entrées, including braised pork shanks (the meatier foreleg) Tuscan style with white beans and rosemary, and a grilled or pan-seared catch of the day. His fish and chips is better than any I’ve wolfed in the United Kingdom. He slices fresh cod into spears, dips them in an English beer batter, deftly fries them in canola oil, and serves them with creamy cole slaw and flawless hand-cut Idaho fries. Too bad they are only available at lunch.

The chef is adding vegetarian dishes, including mushroom Wellington and farfalle with caramelized squash, sage, lemon, and parmesan cheese.

I never hold high hopes for a tavern steak because it is usually not dry-aged, but Iron Monkey’s boneless Angus ribeye is the real thing: a good piece of well-marbled meat dusted with kosher salt and white pepper, grilled to order, and crowned with a pat of garlic-herb butter.

At my meals, the only desserts that merited more than a bite were gelati from Ciao Bella and a house-made, muffin-like Valrhona chocolate-chip bread pudding that has since been replaced by a wintry version with roasted apples. Topper-Kapitan says he’s working on other, richer desserts, like vanilla panna cotta with fresh strawberry compote, pear pound cake with red-wine reduction sauce, and warm chocolate pudding cake with vanilla gelato. Can’t wait.

Iron Monkey’s new general manager, Daniel Del Coro (whom the chef recruited from Light Horse Tavern), says he’s determined to hire savvier, more professional servers. In my visits, the servers hung out and chatted loudly in the dining room and weren’t too sharp when they did hop to. In the meantime, Iron Monkey’s food alone earns it two and a half stars.

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