When the Antique Bar & Bakery re-opened in February of 2017, pretty much everyone in Hoboken was curious. In a town where most old buildings get gut-renovated or completely torn down, replaced by condominiums, the fact that the new owners of the joint were not only preserving the nearly-century old coal oven but reinventing the place as a restaurant centered on that coal oven was notable in and of itself.
When we ate dinner there back in February, just a week after its official opening, we had a fantastic time. But restaurants often open hot in Hoboken—crowded and serving up great food—and then fade under the heat of Hoboken’s ever-shifting nightlife (see Porter Collins for the latest unfortunate example of that dynamic). So when we were invited to stop by one night last week to sit down for a chat with Chef (and co-owner) Paul Gerard and co-owner Joseph Castelo and do a thorough tasting of the menu (including a few things not yet officially on it) we almost pulled a muscle responding positively.
Packed on a Tuesday
We headed over to ABB on a Tuesday night, finding the place absolutely packed. They’ve really created a special vibe in the place—it’s intimate without feeling small, with tables tucked into unexpected places and candlelight giving everything a Kubrick-Barry-Lyndon feeling. The film reference is appropriate because the decor is subtly influenced by film and cinema; co-owner Castelo is also a writer, director, and producer of films like The Preppie Connection, and he’s brought much of his love for film to the design of the place, including the charming Super-8 filmstrip of old New York projected onto the wall.
Castelo, whose family goes back in Hoboken several generations, was excited when the opportunity to purchase the building housing ABB came up. Having grown up with the legendary “Hoboken Bread” produced in the 400-square foot coal oven (there were once three other such ovens in Hoboken, all gone now), he knew immediately that he wanted to keep it intact.
“I’ve heard the oven’s bricks came from the ballast of Dutch ships that would put in on the island,” Castelo says. “You can’t tear something like that down.”
When he met Chef Paul Gerard, the two immediately found a shared vision.
“Hoboken reminds me of the Brooklyn I grew up in,” Gerard told me. “I feel at home here.”
Gerard, who also co-owns Ethyl’s Alcohol and Food in Manhattan, was inspired by that apartment-sized coal oven. “It’s like wrestling a dragon,” he says, noting that he’d never cooked that way before, but took it as a challenge to find a way to create a menu that used the oven in unique ways. “You can make all you need in there—chicken, steak, fish,” he says. The ABB menu was a process of trial and error as Gerard tried different approaches until the dragon was tamed.
The Deep Dive
And thank goodness he did, because the “tasting” we experienced was spectacular. Just about everything on the menu made its way to our table, and it might be boring (or suspicious) if we say that everything was amazing, but it’s true. We worked our way from salads to appetizers, entrées to desserts, all the while enjoying the cool, humming buzz of the place. While couples canoodled at the bar or sang “Happy Birthday” with a special dessert, while groups of people came in for signature cocktails and great dinners, chatting gaily, we dedicated ourselves to journalism by eating enough food to kill a normal human and then crawling back for me.
A few highlights:
The Spring Peas & Rice Balls with Burnt Mint Aioli. Living in this area, you might think you know what to expect from a Rice Ball, but Gerard’s version is unique. Lighter and crispier than you expect, with the peas adding a flavor you never knew you were missing.
Summer Squash Carbonara with a Crispy Poached Egg. We’re not hugely into the whole veggies-as-pasta movement that’s hot right now, but this … this kind of changed our minds. It’s delicious, and the crispy poached egg is a marvel that works perfectly with the firm-but-tender squash and the Carbonara sauce is beautifully balanced.
Hot Oil Shrimp with Dirty Lemon. This is an appetizer that everyone raves about, and for good reason. Plump, juicy, and perfectly spicy, these are crowd-pleasers.
The Dirty Ribeye. This is probably the most popular dish on their menu, and for good reason. Cooked in that huge coal oven, the steak picks up a char flavor that’s 100% special. This steak was tender and had a bit of a kick to it (augmented by the dirty lemon), but the kick doesn’t get in the way of the meat’s flavor.
The Bone Marrow. We’ve never had bone marrow before, and certainly some folks get squeamish about it—but it. is. delicious. Chef Gerard recommended getting it with the steak and combining the flavors, which we didn’t have a chance to do, but if you’re game for it, we definitely recommend going for the marrow.
Lady Ashton’s Dirty Chocolate Cake. This cake looks unassuming, but it is absolutely perfect—not too sweet, not too dense—and it comes with what may well be the best home-made whipped cream we’ve ever had (and we’ve had the schlag at Peter Luger’s). The two perfectly complement each other.
We sampled many, many other dishes—all of which were great. To say we were pleasantly exhausted by the end of the evening is an understatement. We should pause to compliment the staff, too, who were universally friendly, accommodating, and knowledgeable. The “Line Dogs” that work the kitchen area (which is right out in the middle of everything, doubling as a show of sorts as they coordinate their movements and occasionally break into chants and routines) were some of the happiest-looking folks we’ve ever seen in a restaurant. The whole place somehow fuses professionalism with a cheerful, casual sensibility.
Hoboken’s better off having the Antique Bar & Bakery. We’re heading back as soon as we can—and you should too.