Raval, a stylish salute to Barcelona’s gritty-hip Raval district—a multiethnic, waterfront neighborhood much like downtown Jersey City—opened in May and quickly won a following. Its mosaic-tiled banquettes and gorgeous whole Serrano ham resting on the bar evoke the old Barcelona neighborhood, as do the Spanish libations and staying open into the wee hours on weekends. It makes for a lively night out.
But while the décor and drinks sing with authenticity, the kitchen’s execution, especially of some of the most traditional dishes, in recent visits proved inconsistent. That might surprise patrons of Sátis—owned, like Raval and a third downtown Jersey City restaurant, Lucky 7 Tavern—by Michael Garcia, Andrew Siegel and Geza Gulas. Since Sátis opened in 2010, locals have come to rely on it for high-quality cooking.
Garcia and executive chef Michael Fiorianti have been introducing Spanish elements such as marcona almonds, Spanish cheeses and hams and even patatas bravas into Sátis’s European menu for years. But Garcia’s desire to bring authentic Spanish food and culture to Jersey City long predates Sátis.
In 1998 and ’99, while a student at the University of Maryland, Garcia spent a year in Spain, living mostly in Seville but spending significant time in Barcelona. “It’s the lifestyle of Spain I recall the most,” he told me in a phone call after my visits. “People working to live instead of living to work. This meshes so well with tapas. At Raval, we offer a little piece of that.”
In the winter of 2013, Garcia and Fiorianti started planning to open an authentic, modern Spanish restaurant. Last October, Fiorianti, who had never been to Spain, spent 10 days in Seville and Barcelona, eating five meals a day. He spent time in kitchens working with local chefs on classic dishes like paella. Inspired by the exciting flavors of the trip, he drafted a preliminary menu on the flight home and started working up recipes in his kitchen at home.
“Everything in Spain was so vibrant,” he told me in a phone call. “In Italian cooking, there is more simplicity. But the Spanish food I had was both unapologetically simple and in-your-face at the same time.”
Based on my own travels through Madrid, Seville and Spain’s La Costa del Sol over the last 15 years, I found that the best-executed dishes at Raval tended to be the smaller, simpler ones, such as the fried padrón peppers, served warm and sprinkled generously with flaky sea salt. The warm marcona almonds paired with salty manchego cheese was a delicious nibble to pair with sangria or a cocktail. Both croquetas—salt-cod fritters with spicy pepper jelly, and porcini-béchamel croquettes with wild mushrooms—were deftly fried, emerging with a light crust and creamy interior.
You might assume that sangria is the national drink of Spain, but over the last decade, Spaniards have fallen in love with the British gin and tonic. In Spain, G and Ts are often assembled tableside, with dramatic flair centered on selecting the precise type of gin, tonic, flavoring, ice and glassware.
Fiorianti said that Spaniards regard gin and tonic as a digestif. Employing various artisanal gins and six tonics (five house-made), Raval’s wine director, Ryan McEnerney, and mixologist, Joe Donohue, have created six sophisticated gin and tonics whose flavors range from chamomile to fennel to turmeric.
But don’t ignore the sangrias, which come in red and white and were properly juicy yet balanced. A third sangria changes with the seasons. Cocktails, including the Paloma Rose and the Santa Madrona, were impressively light and well balanced.
While in Spain, Fiorianti enjoyed a simple dish of pork ribs in honey sauce. His adaptation substitutes pork belly for ribs. He brines, then confits the meat, presses it in the pan while searing and serves it in a house-made marcona almond-butter sauce. The sauce was ravishingly good, but the meat lacked suppleness and was stubbornly chewy.
Escalivada, a dish of roasted eggplant, grilled onions and peppers, fried goat cheese and frisée, did not fare well, either. The eggplant was soggy; the peppers and onions added little flavor, and the disc of fried goat cheese was not warm enough to wilt the frisée, an essential element of the dish.
Patatas bravas, a classic of cubed potatoes served with a garlic aioli, were bland and a bit mushy. Pan con tomate (a slice of grilled bread traditionally topped with olive oil, garlic and the juicy pulp of a freshly grated tomato) was smeared with an undistinguished tomato sauce.
Paellas are small considering their $30 price. The seafood in the seafood paella (octopus, shrimp and minuscule mussels) was seriously overcooked. The Valenciana, a chicken-and-chorizo paella, was slightly better, but both lacked the quintessential crusty rice around the edges, called la socarrat, that defines great paella. Raval’s renditions tasted more like ill-executed risottos than traditional paellas.
“I think because of our reputation with Sátis,” said Garcia, “a lot of people see Raval as a restaurant. It’s a tapas bar and cocktail lounge, more than just a restaurant. We want people to drink sangria, be loud, watch soccer games and hang out late-night in the lounge downstairs.”
Raval provides a great setting for all that; but in fact it is a restaurant. In time, one hopes, it will be a better one.
Cuisine Type:European - Spanish/Portuguese
Price Details:Tapas, $4-$26; medium plates, $9-$16; large plates, $19-$25; paellas, $23-$30; desserts, $7-$9
Ambience:Trendy, urban, Spanish
Service:Friendly and responsive.
Wine list:More than 80 Spanish wines by bottle; six gin and tonics; six Spanish brandies; five Spanish sherries; three sangrias; cocktails; beer