"When I moved down here to be with my girlfriend, we ate out literally seven nights a week," he says. "And I thought that in general, the restaurants here were not that great and very overpriced. I wanted to open a place serving good food with lots of flavor and keep the prices down so people would keep coming back."
The girlfriend is gone; when Cesar and local real-estate investor Lauren Weber split, the news made gossip columns. And since Cesar says he lives at the restaurant, working 16 hour days, presumably he's getting to eat exactly what he likes now. It's coming right from his own kitchen, cooked by his friend Robert Reilly, formerly executive chef at the popular Madison Bar & Grill in Hoboken, NJ. Based on a couple of visits, I'd say the quality of Reilly's fare -- which he pulls verbatim off Madison's menu, down to the bogus chicken Raphael ($17) and the warm herbed goat cheese salad ($9) -- ranges from excellent bar snacks to home-cooked comfort food to fancier dishes that sometimes fail rather spectacularly.
I suppose if I lived a couple of blocks away, I'd be a regular. Hoboken serves a nice martini, and the average price of a bottle of wine is $20 to $35. There's live music in the bar every night, either a lone pianist playing Sinatra tunes or appearances by local jazz singers. Pale brick floors, beamed ceilings, and that stately old bar make for a snazzy main room; the two smaller dining rooms are washed in cozy hues, exuding warmth; and the front-of-the-house staff is exceedingly attractive. You might even say that the nondescript food is a draw -- there's nothing on this menu that could remotely surprise, much less offend, anybody unless you have something against an open-faced, grilled-chicken sandwich.
What we liked: that cedar-plank salmon, cooked sweetly tender, set on a fluffy mattress of buttery mashed potatoes (with no discernible lobster flavor, but what the heck). We liked the whipped sweet potatoes and warm red pickled cabbage that came with this dish too. A portobello mushroom wrap ($8) with silky white mozzarella, tomato, and basil aioli was just fine, and I absolutely loved the mountain of crinkly waffle fries that came with it.
And we were happy with our crab cakes ($11), full of shredded crab meat and fried crunchy on the outside, served with a mighty hot chili lime aioli. Our pan-seared diver scallops ($8) with balsamic cream reduction made a delicate, satisfying appetizer.
But chicken Raphael ($17) would have baffled department store magnate Raphael Weill, who gave the dish his name. Goat cheese? Pancetta?? Panko breading??? Give me a break! Any campfire gourmet knows Raphael is made with artichokes, mushrooms, and sherry cream sauce. I have no quarrel with Hoboken's invention -- it's tasty, right down to the Madeira demi-glace -- but please, spare Weill the credit. Might as well call it chicken Magellan; that list of ingredients circumnavigates the globe.
I'm not sure what I thought about the colossal shrimp. You buy these by the piece ($3.50 each). Colossal they are: They're roughly the color, size, and shape -- and, it must be said, the texture -- of a penis. It seems evil to cut them with a knife, but biting into one whole is obscene. To eat these things, you must choose between channeling Lorena Bobbitt or Linda Lovelace. Maybe other diners aren't as squeamish -- once I got past the visuals, the shrimp tasted dandy, and the cocktail sauce had just the right amount of horseradish.
The only dish that really didn't work was a risotto special ($25), a ham-fisted concoction drenched in cheese and weirdly studded with red peppers and scallops that were dredged in the hottest spice mixture I've ever eaten. Either somebody's taste buds in the kitchen are entirely shot or somebody isn't testing this dish. Hot I like, in tacos and Thai food, say. But on delicate scallops? Too weird.
One thing we know: George Cesar can't keep up his pace of 16-hour working days. You don't retire to Florida at the age of 34, having already made your fortune in the stock market and ready to dabble in a little real estate, only to find yourself scrambling to manage a passel of employees that, by Cesar's own admission, have been known to black out from drug overdoses during staff meetings and to stumble into work stinking drunk. "I managed 30 insane employees on a Wall Street trading floor," Cesar sighs, "and it was nothing compared to this." Good help is so hard to find. But judging from the Beemers lining up outside his door, finding a ready and eager clientele for Hoboken is a piece of cake.