Restaurant Review

What Makes Ironbound Farm’s Dining Experience So Magical?

An outdoor, open-fire kitchen and the freshest food possible.

Scallop gnudi at Ironbound Farm in Asbury
Scallop gnudi, which are gnocchi-like dumplings, at Ironbound Farm in Asbury. Photo: John Bessler

Farm-to-table dining defines the Garden State, where locavore is more than a buzzword. The Tasting Room at Ironbound Farm goes further. Here, the farm is the table, and the head farmer is the top chef. There’s no fresher food around. Ironbound’s 108 acres and neighboring farms provide virtually all the food served, and the booze too, crafted at the on-property Ciderhouse. Only seafood hails from elsewhere in Jersey.

One spoonful of chef Alec Gioseffi’s bone-marrow appetizer, a typically ho-hum bistro standby, posed a challenge: How can beef goo taste this good? I found out: through exquisite care in raising the animal, brining the marrow to firm and intensify it, babysitting its turn in the wood-burning oven, and plating it with palate-caressing braised beef cheek, herb chimichurri, gentle radishes and fire-baked sourdough. Wonder of wonders: The immediacy and ingenuity of this starter characterized everything that followed.

Bone marrow at Ironbound Farm in Asbury

Bone marrow Photo: John Bessler

Ironbound Farm is the brainchild of Charles Rosen, a polymath lawyer, adman, filmmaker, criminal-justice activist—and now, farmer. He became spellbound by Newark’s Ironbound District in the heart of America’s once teeming hard-cider industry, “which was done in by the paving over of Jersey’s once ubiquitous apple orchards,” he says. Yet this loss was redeemed decades later by the discovery, in Livingston, of one remaining Harrison apple tree, the basis of bygone Newark cider.

Having started up an urban farm and market in the Ironbound, Rosen now had a new mission to accomplish: reviving the Harrison and establishing a cidery. He underwrote thousands of Harrison grafts from that prodigious tree and planted them on a newly acquired parcel, way west, off Route 78. He moved his operations there in 2015 and planted vegetables and herbs. He raised pigs, sheep, goats and chickens. He constructed an imposing, burnished wood cidery and hired Cameron Stark, an inspired, Napa-trained Jersey winemaker, “to create cider as complex and balanced as wine,” says Stark. Next, Rosen built a cider bar to showcase Stark’s suave, nuanced, and sometimes gratifyingly alcoholic creations. A companion menu offered Ironbound-made tacos and pizza. But there was a hitch. “In Jersey, a farm can’t have an indoor kitchen,” Rosen states. “So we built one outdoors: the motherfire.”

[RELATED: Ironbound Farm’s Fortified Cider is a Worthy Rival to Port and Sherry]

Motherwhat? It’s as dramatic as it sounds. The Argentinian-style cooking hearth is a spiky steel tower whose leaping central fire demands a fire-tamer, fuochista Gunnar Bentley. More compact blazes fuel chefs’ stations for grilling, stewing, frying and smoking. Even the two brick ovens run on firewood, finessing Ironbound’s marvelously crisp yet downy breads. The state’s only permanent open-flame kitchen was designed by Ben Walmer, the architect and chef who founded the “pirate”-chef community of Jersey food and drink pros.

A ravioli al uovo (egg yolk) appetizer at Ironbound Farm in Asbury

A ravioli al uovo (egg yolk) appetizer Photo: John Bessler

Besides the 48-seat indoor Tasting Room, Ironbound hosts 16 diners at the motherfire counter. As many as 300 additional visitors feast on cider and “farmed-up street food,” says Gioseffi, at picnic tables, and in the dining garden and gazebo in the area known as the Cider Garden and Woodshed.

“Guests’ expenditures at Ironbound complete the circle,” says Rosen. “They empower our vision to thrive as a regenerative, self-sustaining farm that honors its land, its workers, its animals, its community, its visitors. How many restaurants can say that?”

Nor can many restaurants say their chef majored in agriculture and art. After Rutgers, Princeton native Gioseffi found a hometown mentor, Eno Terra chef Chris Albrecht. Gioseffi cooked and managed Eno Terra’s organic vegetable farm. When Rosen asked him “to help make his apple orchard more integrative,” Gioseffi fell in love with Ironbound’s ideals and joined the team, he says.

Heritage-pork coppa at Ironbound Farm in Asbury

Heritage-pork coppa Photo: John Bessler

“Our cuisine is seamlessly nature-driven,” he explains. “Every morning, I walk the fields to see what’s ready to harvest.” His Tasting Room lineup shimmers with temptations, many vegan and/or gluten-free, and all maximally, globally flavored. Part of the pleasure is puzzling out what just tickled your tongue. The ravishing green tint of a sumptuous, supersized raviolo al uovo is courtesy of arugula in the house-made pasta. Plump Barnegat scallops in an artful, intriguing dish encircle what resemble mini muffins. They’re gnudi, floury Tuscan ricotta dumplings, sparked by Asian citrus bits and chili oil. A pan of kohlrabi- and apple-crowned raclette accompanies lushly meaty heritage-pork coppa.

Gioseffi aces seasonal cakes and fruit confections. And mixologist/beverage director Danielle Nguyen’s complex, cider-based libations are festive, wildly tasty, and often, unexpectedly potent. “Undersell and overdeliver,” she quips.

HOW WE REVIEW: Restaurants are chosen for review at the sole discretion of New Jersey Monthly. For our starred reviews of fine-dining restaurants, our critics visit a restaurant at least twice with two diners, always maintaining anonymity to avoid preferential treatment, and the magazine pays for their meals. Stars are assigned by the dining section editor in consultation with the reviewer.

Four stars = extraordinary; three stars = excellent; two stars = very good; one star = good; half a star = fair.

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Restaurant Details

  • Cuisine Type:
    Farm-fresh - Globally inspired
  • Price Range:
  • Price Details:
    Appetizers and salads, $12-$19; entrées and pastas, $22-$44; desserts, $14
  • Ambience:
    Contemporary country chic
  • Service:
    Passionate and personable
  • Wine list:
    House-made hard ciders and inventive cider cocktails