Downtown Jersey City has become a hub for international cuisine, but somehow we’ve never had a good Spanish/tapas restaurant. So when I heard that Raval was bringing a little bit of Barcelona to downtown I was instantly sold. The good news is that Raval is a good addition to the neighborhood. The bad news is, it’s still got a lot of quirks to work through.
Raval opened its doors this past May and is still a relative newcomer to the downtown scene. The restaurant is bigger than its exterior leads you to believe with a small section of tables upfront, a tiny corridor, and a larger bar and dining area in the back. (There’s also a downstairs lounge where they have live flamenco). The front of the restaurant gives you a little more dining space and I love the Antoni Gaudí/Park Güell-inspired tiling of the seats, but it does tend to feel a little removed from the rest of the restaurant. Still, I’d recommend it for a group or those who prefer a quieter dining experience, since tables in the back are somewhat close to each other.
The first time I visited, I sat in the main dining area and was attended by an excellent waitress who explained the menu and was generally very friendly and helpful. She was so attentive, that she noticed when we were mistakenly given the bacalao croquetas instead of the mushroom croquetas. (We were instantly comped and she immediately brought us the correct order). The second time I went, service was disappointing. I had to flag down my waiter each time I needed something and not once did he check in on us, explain the menu, or even crack a smile for that matter. When I was given the wrong drink, he took care of it, but not a single apology. In the grand scheme of things it’s not a deal breaker, but competition around Newark Avenue is high and mediocre customer service doesn’t help any establishment.
Fortunately, the food somewhat made up for the lackluster service on my last visit. Under the tapas menu ($4 to $26) you have Barcelona classics like pan con tomate ($4, toasty bread brushed with garlic, olive oil, and crushed tomato), patatas bravas ($7, crispy potatoes with garlic aioli and a spicy tomato-based sauce), and tortilla española ($9, a Spanish omelette with onions, garlic, and chorizo; also served with two slices of pan con tomate). With the exception of the pan con tomate, which I felt tasted like regular toasted bread, all of the tapas I ordered were good. The patatas bravas could have been a bit more crisp, but they tasted better on my second visit. I’d say skip the pan con tomate and get the tortialla española (which comes with 2 slices of pan de tomate anyway).
Moving onto the media raciones portion of the menu ($9 to $16), I had the mushroom croquetas ($10) and the bacalao croquetas ($12). Both were golden, warm, and lightly fried — the perfect pre-dinner appetizer and my favorite on the menu. No Spanish restaurant would be complete without a paella, however I found that Raval’s paella de mariscos ($30 for 2 people) was a little incomplete for the price. The mussels and clams were miniscule (almost dime-sized) and they opt for two shrimp instead of lobster. Granted, they were very meaty and delicious shrimp, but for $30 (pricier than most paella I’ve had in New York City) I expected more seafood. Throw in some big meaty mussels and more soft, delicate clams and you have a winner. The taste is there, but the shellfish wasn’t. Show me something like this (my favorite paella in Barcelona) and then you can charge me $30.
As far as desserts are concerned, Crema Catalana can be found in pretty much every restaurant in Barcelona. Everyone prepares it differently, but in the end they all have a similar creme brulee type of texture and taste. Raval’s is somewhat different ($8), with a creamy upper layer made up of whipped cream and orange compote. I personally like it, but I’d love to see a classic Crema Catalana as well. For dessert, I’d recommend the house-made churros ($9), which have just the right amount of doughy, cinnamon, sugar goodness in each bite. Plating could be a little nicer though.
Raval is a great addition to the neighborhood. I’d choose it over New York City’s Boqueria in a heart beat. However, they need to work on their consistency. Also, if you want a paella that can feed many (and won’t leave a hole in your wallet), there are other options in Jersey City, albeit not as modern.
Raval Jersey City | 136 Newark Avenue (between Grove and Erie) | www.ravaljc.com