Today, I’m an ever-hungry Jersey food writer for this blog as well as Gannett New Jersey’s MyCentralJersey.com and DailyRecord.com, which congregate from the Courier News, Home News Tribune and Daily Record. But as a kid, I was labeled as a picky eater.
Today, I also know better. I was never a picky eater – I was a selective eater.
I crinkled my nose at bologna sandwiches at lunchtime and my mother’s dinnertime microwave meals. I passed on frozen pizza and plastic-looking macaroni. I wasn’t interested in questionable buffet items or soggy french fries.
However, I was definitely down to try colorful sushi rolls, exotic meats and other eloquently prepared dishes that I had never seen in a school cafeteria or even in my own fridge. I’m still the same way today – I gravitate towards something a little stylish, a little fashionable or a little odd over a burger any day, most of which I’m totally incapable of cooking or creating myself.
Many of these dishes that I love the most tend to be of Asian influence – I could eat Thai, Filipino, Japanese and Chinese cuisine every day of the week. However, there are two outstanding issues with this – one, I frequently don’t really know what I’m ordering and two, I’m often dropping quite a chunk of change at fancy restaurants.
When Cellar 335, an Asian fusion small plates restaurant at 335 Newark Avenue in Jersey City co-owned by Chef Jamie Knott of the Saddle River Inn, invited me to come check out their as-of-August eatery, I took one look at the menu and knew I was down. Bao? Wontons? Szechuan chicken? Korean meats? Sign me up.
However, what’s interesting about Cellar 335’s small plates Asian fusion menu – which ranges from a $2 spicy cornbread with smoked cheddar and honey-togarashi butter to a $19 prime skirt steak with miso, cauliflower and brown butter – is that it’s precisely that. Fusion.
A soft and succulent bao bun gets a twist with a sausage and peppers filling. A crab cake picks up a zing with kimchi mayo. Fried rice gets a modern spin with trendy avocado.
With these slight American swaps, I could understand what was on its way out of the kitchen. Plus, since most of Cellar 335’s dishes are small plates, I could sample and taste without any entree commitment.
Also, unlike other small plates restaurants, I actually found myself pleasantly full after $32 worth of food ($14 crispy duroc ribs, $14 hamachi tartare and a $4 bao) when usually, I’m dropping $50 while my stomach rumbles and I’m struggling to pronounce tapas correctly.
This unstuffiness is only accentuated by the sociable and congenial staff, sporting leis on a Tuesday night – our server, Melanie, felt like an old buddy telling me what dishes could not be passed up and what her favorite seasonal drink specials were.
Even though the food and the staff are anything but bourgeois, the food still had that fashionable touch I have always loved – plates with a distinct style, a mix of colors, presentation and taste that you know can’t be duplicated in just any kitchen or by just any hand.
Cellar 335’s atmosphere is also a distinct fusion – sensual red walls, dark wood and distressed leather play against crazed exotic plants and provocative graffiti created by a local artist. Head-turning modern photographs oppose vintage mirrors.
This mix of styles made me stop on my way back to my seat in the stylish restaurant and bar and think – what exactly is this place? What is it reminding me of? And then I realized it: a cellar, full of both the past and the present, the romantic, the exciting, the exotic and the understated.
Where: 335 Newark Avenue, Jersey City
Hours: Tuesday through Thursday 5 p.m. to 12 a.m., Friday and Saturday from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Contact: cellar335.com, 201-222-1422
Cost: Small plates range from $4 to $19, large plates range from $24 to $39, specialty cocktails range from $9 to $14