Restaurant Review

Oh, Babe

You expect to eat heartily at a place called Ox (as in Paul Bunyan’s four-legged friend). But at Jersey City’s new downtown hot spot, you’ll dine more deliciously than ever a lumberjack dreamed.

The dictum “never eat anything bigger than your head” does cross your mind when you enter a restaurant named Ox, especially when the name has been slashingly cut into a thick sheet of oxidized metal out front. It’s a Paul Bunyan reference, according to co-owner Nicole Puzio, who was looking for “a real Americana name” for the restaurant she always hoped to own. Her partner is Edward Radich, and until last April they were chef and sous-chef, respectively, at nearby Marco & Pepe, the City Hall area’s beacon of hip decor and cuisine.

“When you’re working in a restaurant you always talk about having your own place and what it’ll be like,” says Radich. “Mostly it’s a way to kill time. This time we got a little carried away.” Now co-chefs and co-owners, they opened Ox in October. Sondra Elkas, once the bartender at Marco & Pepe, came on as general manager and oversees a concise and intriguing selection of wine, beer, and cocktails.
Their namesake dish, the $7 oxtail appetizer, demonstrates their way of ramping up peasant food with classical technique and top-notch ingredients. They braise the oxtail for four hours in veal stock, red wine, and herbs, imbuing it with astonishing tenderness and depth of flavor. They serve it on crisp pan-fried polenta and sauce it with a heady roasted-shallot jam. A drizzle of herbacious parsley emulsion balances the robust sweetness.

Excellent bar snacks include charcuterie and briny olives seasoned with twists of lemon rind. A winning appetizer of bourbon-steamed mussels comes with cornbread madeleines. Cute. Practical, too. The madeleines are perfect for soaking up the delicious bourbon broth fleshed out with roasted tomatoes and spicy Cajun-style tasso ham. A salad of rocket, roasted sweet potato, and shaved parmesan brilliantly combines bitter, sweet, and sharp. A joke that flopped was the cheapo “crisp cracker crust” on an otherwise tasty gratin of broccoli, goat cheese, fontina, and Gruyere.

Entrées top out at $23, with more than half under $20. The versatile kitchen turned out a faultless flatiron steak with potatoes au gratin and truffle Madeira sauce as well as a lush olive oil poached sea bass in savory lemon broth, topped with crunchy tobiko roe. Chunks of rabbit over pappardelle were terrifically tender, thanks to a 24-hour soak in Riesling before braising.

Maple-glazed duck confit was gamey and slightly dry, but pork belly was luscious. Ox serves it on a bed of braised lentils whose relative austerity complements the indecently sumptuous meat. The pork belly and the oxtail are candidates for signature dishes at Ox.

If Ox can be gored, it’s over dessert. “If we could ever afford it, we would have a pastry chef,” Radich says. “We tend to think like chefs. Pastry is the last thing we want to do. We come in every day and say ‘It’s your turn.’ We both don’t like these frou-frou desserts you see everywhere with strung sugar and extraneous things, but we’d like to have the same depth of flavor we have with the savory food.” For now, their warm Nutella tart—filled with the chocolate spread right out of the jar—is a surprising home run.

With its bare walls and concrete floors, Ox becomes an echo chamber when it’s full, which it often is. Jersey City recently designated the stretch of Newark Avenue where Ox resides as a restaurant zone where alcohol can be served after midnight. Get used to the din.

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