The path to Cellar 335 (335 Newark Ave.) is lined with red flags. For starters, it’s a tiki bar. To be fair, they call themselves a tiki cocktail lounge, and the back room takes up most of the real estate inside, but the distinctive kitsch-Asian and Far East vibe of the place will be apparent to anybody who navigated the sketchier corners of the American hospitality industry in the twentieth century. Tiki bars are associated with flaming drinks served in stone bowls, served to delight groups of inebriated revelers. They’re not known for their food.
If that wasn’t enough of a tipoff, the cellar is located beneath White Eagle Hall, the largest capacity music and comedy club in Jersey City. Pop concertgoers aren’t always the most discerning eaters. They’re often out for something quick and amusing. A kitchen and staff catering to people ready to rock would be forgiven if they cut some corners in the name of hedonism and heeded those raucous demands to keep the party going.
The Cellar calls their food Asian-inspired, which is a twenty-first century substitution for a term that has fallen out of favor: Asian fusion. Whether you’re a vegetarian or not, you might be leery of fusion restaurants, and you’d have good reason to be. Their menus are, too often, crowd-pleasing catch-alls, and the execution can be unfocused. Then again, Pinwheel Garden is, unabashedly, an Asian fusion restaurant, and it deserves all the accolades it’s gotten. And on closer inspection, Cellar 335’s version of fusion cooking doesn’t fuse as much as it initially seems like it might. Though there’s bulgogi and tikka masala on this menu — and though the drinks are non-specific tropical — this restaurant has a Chinese soul.
Why we’re interested: Cellar 335 has framed their 2017 review from New Jersey Monthly magazine, and if you ever got a notice as glowing as that one, I reckon you’d laminate a copy and hang it on your wall, too. Eric Levin of NJM noticed the same thing I did. A restaurant that could have skated by on pure schtick was, instead, putting a surprising amount of effort into their dishes.
Cellar creator Jamie Knott also runs the Saddle River Inn, a well-regarded and old-fashioned chophouse in the Bergen County suburbs. His cooking there has been acclaimed by The Bergen Record and other print publications. Knott has also taken over the other restaurant at White Eagle Hall: he recently converted Matthias Gustaffson’s music-driven crepe house Madame Claude into a Pastis-inspired French spot called Madame. So don’t let the Polynesian mugs mislead you. This is an ambitious restauranteur with a creative vision.
Is it vegetarian friendly?: More than you’d think, but still not as much as I’d like. The first part of the menu — mostly shared plates — is busy with vegetable dishes, but more than a few of these were designed to accommodate meat. Even the Cellar Fries get cozy with bacon under their blanket of cheese sauce. The big dishes are “bao downs,” disc-like platters of food served with steamed buns, pickles, and relish. It’s a delight to make little warm and malleable sandwiches (Cellar 335 is, consistently, a lot of fun), but should you want to bao in a non-carnivorous direction, deep-fried tofu is your only option. On the other hand, the starters are generous, and the staff at the Cellar are extremely welcoming. Our server intuited that our party consisted of vegetarians and asked without prompting whether we’d prefer the avocado fried rice without the egg. Smiling, she then assured us it was better with the egg.
This is a dense, tasty cylinder about the size and shape of a votive candle. Even if there weren’t corn kernels ensconced in the bread (there are), you’d still recognize that the kitchen isn’t skimping on the main ingredient. They’ve assembled this modest little appetizer with considerable care. The piece of cornbread comes under a sleeping cap of smoked cheddar, but the key to the dish is a semi-hot pat of togarashi-inflected butter than melts and moistens the whole thing. This won’t make you forget the cornbread at Yellow Rose in the East Village — surely the best version in the metro area — but at four bucks, it’s a fine way to get a vegetarian meal rolling at Cellar 335.
Further evidence that Jamie Knott has the basics covered: this is a good execution of a staple dish that only seems simple until you try to make it yourself. Heating hummus up can torpedo its consistency, but the Cellar 335 version manages to be pleasantly warm, reasonably creamy, moderately spiced, and graced by an enlivening handful of chopped scallions. You’re encouraged to scoop this stuff up with wedges of buttery naan. The Cellar has thrown in healthy crumbles of feta cheese, which works, but they didn’t need to rev up an engine that was already purring. Then again, making the extra gesture to ensure that visitors are having fun seems to be this restaurant’s operating principle.
A heaping bowl of charred beans in salty soy sauce and lime. Unlike the hummus, this would be hard to mess up. Mess up they do not. If you’ve got any naan left over, the soy broth is worth a few dips.
Avocado Fried Rice
With or without the egg, this has become one of my favorite dishes in town. The dollop of mashed avocado — if you want to call it guacamole, I won’t argue — sits in the middle of a ring of rice, pepper, raw sliced radishes and cooked bits of carrot. A flirty purple flower (edible) blooms from the plate like the blossoms that adorn a typical tiki drink, and the whole thing is liberally sprinkled with white and black sesame seeds. Were any of these culinary decisions made for hue-hungry Instagram viewers? Maybe, but it doesn’t taste that way. The mound of avocado compares well to the guacamole served in most of the best Mexican restaurants in town, and the vegetables play marginal supporting roles well and are always treats to encounter. The sesame seeds, too, are more than a garnish: they impart a slight nutty complexity to a dish that’s otherwise elemental and straightforward. The rice, however, makes the plate. It’s soft and feathery; its airiness disguises that this starter is as filling as an entrée.
Admittedly, some of the fun of the avocado fried rice has nothing to do with the flavor. That’s true of many of the dishes on the Cellar 335 menu. All the colors found in a bag of Tropical Fruit Skittles are represented here: the grass-skirt green of the avocado, the sunset red of the radish rims, the luau-garland fuchsia of the jumbo edible flower. Just as it’s enjoyable to scrape big heaps of hummus from a bowl with sturdy wedges of naan or stuff slaw into a sticky, steaming bao, there’s a tactile thrill to eating rice so nicely cooked that it practically tickles you on the way down. Cellar 335 serves food that’s meant to be consumed heartily. Knott wants you to approach his fare with a combination of hedonism and culinary discernment. Fitting for a cook who has set up in the basement of White Eagle Hall, he sees the restaurant business as the branch of showbiz that it is.
Fried Tofu Bao
The large format vegetarian option is the only one that feels unsatisfying. That’s not because of the flavor or the presentation. It’s that the crispy tofu is doused in so much pungent Thai barbecue sauce that it arrives without deep-fried snap. A little cup of the sauce occupies the center of the platter, and the presence of a spoon suggests that the kitchen expects the eater to add more. The textural contrast of fried tofu and pillowy bao isn’t a natural one, anyway — pork belly, the classic bao accompaniment, should be almost as tender as the bun. I must conclude that the kitchen has decided that extra flavor is necessary to make vegetarian food entertaining. I found myself putting some of the fried rice and edamame in the steamed bun. That was, predictably, delicious.
An ube is a bright purple yam associated with Southeast Asian and Philippine cooking. It’s at once more candy-like and smoother than a typical American sweet potato. Mash one up and it begins to resemble Concord grape sherbet. For the most visually striking of their desserts, the cooks pump pureed ube into three unassuming cannoli shells. The cylinders of ube are so bright and uniform in color that they resemble thick squirts of acrylic paint. Cellar 335 serves these three purple meanies alongside a scoop of mango sorbet. Odd as this all might sound, the taste is familiar: on the tongue, it’s remarkably like a fruit cobbler. The gooeyness of the sweetened ube combines with the crust-like cannoli shell to generate the unexpected sensory illusion of eating a slice of holiday pie. Add the coolness of the sorbet, and you’ve got something autumnal, and redolent of Thanksgiving.
The vibe: Cellar 335 feels unlike any other place in Jersey City. In feel, it’s closer to one of those sprawling, old school Chinese restaurants on Route 22 than it is to sleek urban spots like Ondo and Peppercorn Station. Chopsticks in gold receptacles, ceramic seashells, and cocktail umbrellas are presented without irony. The darkness and spaciousness of the dining area is amplified by the black tables and the tall banquettes and the soft glow of illumination from the dim lights (and, perhaps, your neighbors’ flaming drinks). That sounds alluring — sexy, even — but this is a party room, and it’s probably better suited for big groups looking to share plates and have a good time than it is for couples on a date. Perhaps in consequence, the members of the waitstaff at Cellar 335 are upbeat, patient, and justifiably proud of the quality of the food they’re serving. This is a place where vegetarians can feel comfortable asking for substitutions — or asking for anything, really.
The verdict: A restaurant that will cheerfully make accommodations for vegetarians is a good thing. A restaurant that is actively courting vegetarians is better. Considering the skill of Jamie Knott’s cooking, it’s hard for a herbivore not to wish he’d apply his formidable talents to more meatless dishes than he does. At Cellar 335, he demonstrates that he’s got the wizardry necessary to tease the flavor — and the fun — out of grains and vegetables. His idea of a good time might involve chicken wings and braised shanks (the overhauled menu at Madame reinforces that impression) alongside cocktails with names like Dead Man Walking and Smoldering Bastard. If so, he’s certainly not alone. As a non-meat-eater, I’m happy to have been invited to the tiki party he’s throwing. Even if I do feel a wee bit secondary to the target audience.