Shades of Hoboken

2006 saw Hoboken’s makeup resemble less the “gin mill” variety that Sinatra used to call neighborhood dives and more like Manhattan’s Tribeca. Teak on the Hudson is now Jersey’s version of Tao. Sky Club Fitness, complete with sun bathing decks and views of Manhattan, a huge indoor pool and a Turkish bath, has become our Equinox, and Mesh near the PATH can rival just about any Spa in the Big Apple.

With 2007 here, it’s time to add another venue to the growing exhibits of evidence of Hoboken’s transformation from a post-college frat house kind-of-town to upscale and civilized in the form of Shades of Hoboken at 720 Monroe Street.

Want proof? Well, how many places in Hoboken can you order a bottle of Cristal for $300.00 and enjoy a Kobe steak for a cool $75.00? But before these prices scare you away, please note that while Shades has select items on the menu that would even make Eli Manning and his $54 million salary do a double-take, there is plenty of food and liquor for the average, hard-working Hobokenite.

One aspect of Shades –whose name derives from the fact that its location used to be a Levelor Blind Factory—that is a constant is an atmosphere of opulence: From the three-man jazz band playing tunes from the aforementioned Sinatra to Dean Martin, to the restaurant being tastefully decorated with eclectic art pieces from the Monroe Center for the Arts, which shares the same address, Shades is THE place in Hoboken to impress a date with a quality meal in a pleasant, but not pretentious, atmosphere.

I was fortunate to be invited to Shades for its soft opening on December 28 (it has since opened to the general public on New Year’s Eve). After being seated at the large marble bar area by the restaurant’s considerably attractive hostess, I dug right into the wine list.

The sparkling wine list includes Dom Perignon ($240.00) and the previously mentioned Cristal France. The white wines range from Prum Blue Slate Reisling (Germany-$28.00) to the $68.00 bottle of Joseph Drowhin Chassagne Montrachet Blanc (France). The selection of reds is a bit more extensive, where you can enjoy anything from a Debortoli Vat 9 Cabernet (Australia- $30.00) to a Dominus 2003 (Napa-$185.00).

Appetizers are invariably my favorite part of any meal, and while the Clams Posillipo looked temping (steamed clams, garlic, fresh herbs, white wine- $10), the The Mediterranean (garden tomatoes, roasted red peppers, fresh mozzarella, basil, aceto balsamico-$8.00) from the salad selection was the choice. It didn’t disappoint, as the mozzarella was as fresh as if it came from any Hoboken deli, while the greens were light and extremely tasty. If you’re looking for other choices, the Crab Cakes or Beef Carpaccio ordered by the couple next to me looked and smelled very good. The salad selections are fairly basic: Grilled Portobello, Classic Caesar or Strawberry Fields (mixed greens, sliced strawberries and vanilla vinaigrette) are just a few.

As for the entrée, the choices are varied and vast. Steak is the most prevalent, with options ranging from Delmonico, Blackened Filet, T-Bone, and Buffalo Rib-Eye, with prices ranging from $22.00-$36.00.

As for seafood, you can choose from Stripped Bass, Cedar Salmon and Shrimp, Twin Tails, or Broiled Twin Lobster Tails with Citrus Butter ($24.00-$26.00).

The sides, also an important aspect of a complete meal, extend from Lobster Potato Croquettes, Creamed Spinach or Jumbo Baked Potato, among others ($5.00-$7.00).

All of that said, I went for the Shades Chicken, which was honestly the best chicken I’ve ever had in town, and that includes Café Michelina. According to Chef Larry Kemmet, the restaurant has a smoker on site, which made all the difference in turning the smoked half spring chicken from being just a good dish to being a great one.

Completely full, I passed on desert, but did sample the menu to find choices of Chocolate Truffle, Apple Tart, and Cinnamon Ice Cream.

There are a few heads-up to consider before coming to Shades. For starters, do not sit near the jazz band if you don’t feel like speaking loudly or missing half the things your dinner companion says. Otherwise, the music is a nice touch if sitting away from the area where the band is set up. Also, if you’re looking for a place to watch the game, consider Liberty or Green Rock, as Shades is one of the few restaurants in town to not have any TV’s above the bar.

In meeting with Chef Kemmet after dinner, I asked him what enticed him to bring his 30-plus years in the culinary business to Shades.

“What makes me like this project is that the owners have vision,” explains Kemmet. “We’re putting two other restaurants in here (at the 720 Monroe location). One is a brick oven homemade pasta restaurant, and we’re going to design it so that the cooking is done out in front of the people. The next one we’re going to do is a brew pub. I think it’s a nice three-punch combination.”

Kemmet went on to say that the pasta restaurant should be completed in eight months, with construction on the brew pub happening right after that.

“What’s your biggest challenge?” I ask.

“Make sure the staff is trained properly,” Kemmet says without hesitation. “You have to meet with them every day and break down what went wrong the night before. They’re like little kids…they’ll stray unless you keep on them. To that end, we’re really striving for excellent-to-great service, and I think that will bring people back, along with the food.”

“It’s Hoboken; you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a restaurant,” he continues. “You have plenty of choices. Our advantage? We have parking. So even if people say, ‘Oh Shades, it’s in the back of town,’ or, ‘It’s not on the main drag.’ But you know what? They’ve got parking, so let’s try it.’ So when they try it, I’ve got to keep them here. I’ve got to make sure the food is on target and the service is on target.”

“In one sentence, what do you want people to say about Shades of Hoboken after eating here for the first time?” I ask.

The Culinary Institute of America graduate pauses for a few seconds before fervently stating, “I want you to come here, and when you’re done, I want you to say, ‘Wow, I didn’t expect that.’”

If upscale Hoboken is here to stay, Shades of Hoboken is now the new standard for a complete dining experience.